By: Greg McKenna


September 13, 2023 — Throughout 2023, we have explored a multifaceted approach to the concept of influence in public sector risk management through the application of credibility, logic, and emotion.

Derived from the Aristotelian Triad, our first Industry Insights piece of this series demonstrated the ways public risk managers use data to build and expedite inter-agency credibility and strengthen communication. In our second installment, we focused on the logical application of self-insurance to remedy today's variable market conditions, optimize public funds, and increase stakeholder equity in public risk programs. Now, we turn to the final leg of the famed triad, Pathos, to feature the powerful role emotions play in the art of influence.

Have you ever heard someone in the middle of a debate or negotiation use the phrase, "change my mind?"

On the surface, the tools we use to influence another person appear to be external. They include cohesively written documents, well-crafted auditory rhetoric, compelling graphical depictions, or engaging experiences. But make no mistake, these external actions carry an underlying biochemical message. In truth, the words, images, and structures we use in our arguments must elicit an internal emotional response within our listeners if we aim to influence another's brain chemistry, beliefs, and, ultimately, behavior.

Stories are the original — and still most effective — means to convey lessons through emotions. Let's take a closer look at the essential elements of storytelling. First, every story must have a "conflict," which is an escalation of emotion that leads to a decision point during the story. Describing conflict not only advances the storyline but induces neurotransmitters within your listeners that increase their attention span and raise cognitive processing abilities. These uncomfortable hormones set the stage for changed behavior.

Next, iconic stories show characters who are vulnerable enough to change their ways. Stories that spark this emotion and feature characters who change their perspectives enable your listeners to change their mindset. They demonstrate that the courage to change is frequently rewarded in the end.

Lastly, effective stories must follow a specific pattern known as the "story arc." We know this from our earliest experiences. Stories describe sequential events over time and contain a setting, rising action, conflict, and resolution. Think about any classic story introduction:

"It was a dark and stormy night..."

"In a galaxy far, far away..."

Introductions like these signal to the listener that the show is about to begin. A storyteller essentially enters a pact with their listener every time they trigger one of these opening lines. The listener pays attention in exchange for the lesson being revealed.

Commentators have long chronicled the types of story-based lessons effective leaders should have in their arsenal. For example, the "origin story" is the kind of story that moves your audience to get started and carries an undertone of dread if no action is taken. It builds suspense and creates a compelling motivation to understand the "why" behind an initiative. Next, leaders who employ a "Hero's Journey" or case study will show the listener how the hero adapted their skillset and knowledge to rise against a common enemy. This is effective in the power of persuasion. As another example, leaders need to have a collection of stories that demonstrate a triumphant resolution that rewards the listener for paying attention through the end of the story arc.

How does this apply to public risk managers? Those who leverage these storytelling elements typically find it easier to effect change in their organizations.

Building an Origin Story. About six years ago, I was moderating a panel on workplace wellness and risk control at an industry conference in Orlando, Florida. One of my panelists was an esteemed claims manager for a large public school district. She opened her section of the presentation with one of the most compelling project origin story openers I have ever heard. "We saved a man's life last week," she said plainly. This industry leader went on to detail how the district offered wellness activities and check-ups for their bus drivers on-site between the hours of drop-off and pick-up. The goal of the initiative was to improve their health, outcomes, and employee engagement.

As part of a wellness event, a nurse case manager performed a venous scan that identified a blood clot in a school bus driver's leg, which was removed through surgery. The medical staff commented that if left untreated, the clot would have caused major systemic damage, potentially while driving their bus route with school children aboard. Since that time, the program has evolved and expanded to include healthy activities, nutritional counseling, and a greater appreciation for the little changes that can make a big difference — perhaps even save lives.

Follow the Hero's Journey. Public risk managers are often thrust unexpectedly into novel challenges. At these moments, seemingly in the middle of the maelstrom, the risk manager is called to summon a stabilizing force. There is no more appropriate example than the ways public risk managers across North America responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a rich, modern history of stories wherein risk managers found inner strength, mentorship, guidance, trusted partners, and newly acquired skills to help public entities of all sizes navigate uncharted waters.

In one case, I heard a municipal risk manager discuss pivoting one of the nation's largest coastal cities into a work-from-home environment. Before 2020, such a move would not have been possible. But like the hero's journey archetype, she found the resources, the partners, and the methods to change the city's "ordinary world" into a new reality.

A Triumphant Resolution. In exchange for the listener's attention, the storyteller should close the loop. The ending is the story's reward. Across the value chain of risk and insurance, there are few stories more rewarding than an injured worker who triumphs over adversity. Claims are essentially short stories. They are composed of settings, characters, conflict, and, most importantly, resolution.

At our organization's annual recognition day, our top Resolution Managers take the stage to share their most compelling stories of workers who've overcome tragedy and loss. These vignettes are shining reminders of the lives behind the claims. The best risk managers and claims professionals incorporate these storytelling skills in requests for authority, claim reviews, and the creation of action plans. By shifting the perspective from claim details to a composed story arc with emphasis on the ending, we can better help injured public employees back to service.

We become the stories we tell. We know this because stories transform us, literally influencing our emotional and biochemical makeup. When properly told, stories contain structural elements that elicit powerful neurotransmitters that can alter the mental state of the listener, thereby facilitating behavioral change. When combined with high levels of creditability and equally sound logic principles, the emotional impact that comes from effective storytelling will complete the triad and enable public risk managers to optimize their influence within their organizations.

We look forward to connecting with you on these topics and more. Thank you for your support, readership, and valuable feedback on our Industry Insights series. We love hearing from you. Find us on our social media channels, and please consult our Industry Insights Library for more information on this series and our other areas of expertise.


Greg McKenna

Greg McKenna

National Practice Leader Public Sector

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