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Richard Bistrong: Why every compliance program needs some storytelling

In preparing for three days of in-house workshops, Angélique Parisot-Potter, the general counsel of the Massy Group, said to me, “We like stories here in the Caribbean, so be sure to share some.”

“Stories provide context, they are a call to feel, think and act,” she said.

She also reminded me that "every day, more and more rules are being created, so storytelling provides personal and powerful insight into why we should move towards values-based action.”

Storytelling, as some readers of the FCPA Blog might know, is what I do

My stories are sometimes about being blackmailed in Jordan, about an agent in Tierra Del Feugo talking about "tolls," or how a headline about me on the front-page of the local Florida Times Union, where I was living at the time, impacted my family.

After my talks, people most often approach me to talk not about the technicalities of compliance, but about one of those stories. That’s no surprise. It's human nature to connect one’s own emotions to a story.

And in my case, my stories tend to "illuminate the dark side," as Bronwyn Fryer said some time ago in the Harvard Business Review.

Science supports the impact of stories. When a story moves us, our brains release oxytocin. That helps us trust the storyteller, especially where the storyteller has shared his or her own vulnerability.  (For more about the impact of stories on the brain, see the research of Paul Zak).

In our compliance world, we hope listeners will react in their own work in a way that safeguards the welfare and integrity of everyone -- people and companies alike. When I tell my stories, I talk about a crucible where “subjective expectations crash into an uncooperative objective reality,” Fryer said in the HBR.

But scary stories don’t inspire, according to the research, and fear is not how we want to drive behaviors. Worst-case scenarios might keep an audience tense and captive. But more important is how we can inspire people to forge different outcomes.  

From my experience, we can use “inciting incidents” that Fryer described to trigger “positive but realistic energy in the people who hear it.” At the same time, we can talk about and teach the inevitable business realities of corruption risk that can come to the front door of a globally disbursed workforce. The goal? To sensitize teams to the risks they face before they're in the middle of them, and to pre-emptively think through scenarios and desired outcomes in a safe-zone.

I’ve called that operationalizing ethics and integrity through "difficult discussions."

If a story can transport your audience to where it's re-creating the tension the storyteller went through, where listeners can share those emotions, then they're highly likely to embrace the positive outcomes and avoid the negative ones, realizing that the darkside isn’t something they ever want to see on a first-hand basis.  

Leaders and trainers have multiple options and methods of communicating, and no one path or platform is a compliance panacea. But real-world lessons from actual experiences stick in the mind and memory. From that moment on, that story becomes part of the listener’s experience, and is merged with their work.

As Paul Zak writes his HBR articleWhy Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts -- by first attracting their brains.”


Richard Bistrong, pictured above, is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLCIn 2010 he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate the FCPA and served fourteen and a half months at a U.S. federal prison camp. He was named to Compliance Week's list of Top Minds in 2017 and was one of Ethisphere's 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics in 2015. 

His popular real-life compliance training video, Behind the Bribe, produced in cooperation with Mastercard, was released in 2017.

To request a demo of the full eleven-minute video or a licensing fee schedule, please click here.

Reader Comments (2)

Thanks to technological advances, a relevant part of today’s Compliance tasks can and will get automated. This gives the Compliance Officer time to include ethical behavior of algorithms into its responsibilities. Furthermore thanks to automation, the Compliance function can evolve, becoming the Corporate Story-Teller. Several companies and organizations already have such a function, including NASA.
May 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Henz
Richard - I really like your idea of 'operationalizing ethics and integrity through "difficult discussions."' Makes a whole lot of sense and helps get us, practically, to values based actions and behaviours.
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