Storytelling is as old as humanity. It is also a powerful way to encourage employees to make decisions and act in support of corporate strategy, and stories about employee experiences are particularly influential. By cultivating and amplifying authentic employee voices, internal communications teams will get important messages and themes across a lot more effectively than by broadcasting them through the more traditional corporate channels.
Storytelling as a Business Skill
Long gone are the days when storytelling was considered the sole preserver of the literary and entertainment industries. As opposed to dry facts, stories stimulate certain parts of the brain that control behavior and engage people with content more deeply (see chart 1). The business world has wholeheartedly embraced this idea. One good example is the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, whose core concept is based on compelling storytelling — if you cannot tell a good story, you are unlikely to have your project funded.
Intelligent internal comms teams have caught on as well. They are increasingly making use of the effects that good stories have on audiences and are exploring ways of using storytelling techniques to rally employees around a shared purpose and business goals.
Chart 1: How storytelling affects the brain Source: Barakat, Christie. “The Science of Storytelling”, Social Times. Jun 6, 2014
Seeing Through the Eyes of Others
Take Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is a captivating character because he is part of a story; he manages to transform himself and the world around him through a journey of adventure and self-discovery. Like most commercially successful stories, the plot consistently builds up and releases anticipation to engage the hearts and minds of the audience (see chart 2). More importantly, however, Luke is a character whose unique voice comes through loud and clear. This makes him real and relatable so that we are not only likely to believe him, but that we empathize with him as well.
Comms teams can learn from this by using employees to tell stories of their own experience with a company. It is difficult to conceive of a more earnest way of bringing organizational priorities to life than having employees role-model them and explain in their own words how they fit into their work.
Chart 2: Keeping an audience engaged Source: The Hero’s Two Journeys, Michael Hauge and Christopher Volger
For instance the internal comms team at a big US retailer, searched for and “amplified” authentic employee stories as part of an extensive campaign to establish a new “company purpose.” The comms team gave employees the opportunity to freely share experiences about working at the company across a variety of platforms, focusing especially on how they helped customers. Sharing these stories with the rest of the organization helped the company frame its new purpose as “emergent” or bottom-up, so that it felt like something employees were already doing, and not like another communications-engineered initiative.
As movie director and “Toy Story” writer, Andrew Stanton, points out in a TED talk, “Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories.” According to Stanton, because of their unique ability to cross the barriers of time and space, authentic stories allow us to experience and bond with others regardless of where we are or what we do.
Organic Storytelling Cultivates Positive Behavior Changes
In its essence, storytelling is about sharing and opening up to others. By agreeing to share their own stories, employees commit to entrusting a bit more of themselves to their colleagues. So by fostering and guiding this effort, internal communications teams can help employees build a collaborative culture where speaking up and sharing across different bits of the company is welcome and encouraged because employees are confident that their voice will be heard and respected.
The comms team at a large industrial firm in CEB’s networks created a platform where employees can share their personal ties to the company’s narrative. Such stories not only provide organic contextualization of key cultural themes across the organization, but they also help build a coherent employee community, whose members can crosscheck and pinpoint to a shared “who we are” and “what we do.” Stanton says that the greatest story commandment is, “Make me care!”
Top Tips for Employee Storytelling
Here’s how to find and create more stories with more compelling content:
- Ask employee “ambassadors” to collect stories.
- Campaign for story submissions (with rewards/recognition).
- Nudge employees with desireable story ideas.
- Encourage friendly cross-function or cross-team competition.
- Equip employees with technology (e.g. video) for capturing live moments of truth.
- Emphasize social exposure and visability.
- Sponsor story jam sessions.
- Amplify stories already on their way to becoming virally successful.