The art of storytelling has been ever-present throughout history. From prehistoric cavemen, through ancient civilizations, to modern communities, people have passed on the wisdom of their ancestors to guide, instruct and warn – and often their very survival has depended on it.
Most of us have memories from our childhoods of a parent, grandparent or teacher reading us a story. We remember seeing what the characters were seeing, feeling what they felt. We were emotionally engaged with the tale, enthralled and totally believing.
Stories bring people together, bind societies, help them overcome dangers and share opportunities. Stories are at the heart of our cultural life – our books, films, plays and television shows are all just stories – entertaining us or enlightening us, but always engaging us.
What better way, then, of reaching out to our work colleagues, of making sure they read our communications, trust our messages and follow our guidance?
What is storytelling
Storytelling is a really powerful tool for connecting with people and ensuring what we are communicating is being understood and absorbed. Stories can change opinions, shape feelings and guide actions.
Business leaders and communications professionals can harness this power and use it to successfully get their messages across and help bridge the gap between the organisation and its workforce. Eloquent writing and clear messages are all very well, but people respond best when their emotions are engaged – and storytelling comes into its own when you need to inspire, motivate and unite your employees.
Rather than just informing the organisation about something or instructing staff to behave in a certain way, a story describes an event or situation in the past that illustrates, in tangible terms, the benefits of following a particular approach now.
Storytelling can also help bring dull facts and data to life, creating an emotional connection with a subject that a traditional news item, presentation or report would never succeed in doing.
When and why to use storytelling
Today’s communicators have a thankless task. Faced with an increasingly cynical or worldly-wise audience who’ve seen and heard it all before, and on the back of a lengthy period of economic hardship and corporate uncertainty, they are charged with crafting and delivering impactful messages and making sure people actually listen to them.
Added to which, we’re living in an age of excessive information, of too much content, too many distractions, shorter attention spans and not enough time.
Countless research studies and eye-opening statistics document this information overload. Global semiconductor manufacturer Intel recently reported that every minute of every day more than 200 million emails are sent, 20 million photos are viewed on Flickr, 6 million pages are viewed on Facebook and in excess of 1.3 million video clips are watched on YouTube. That’s a lot of distraction. And no wonder that, in the workplace, employees are reporting having to spend over half their day just managing information rather than being productive and acting on it.
In short, we as communicators have to work harder just to get across the simplest of messages.
And even at the best of times people rarely make decisions based purely on rational analysis of a situation – emotion always comes into it. So when it comes to communicating more complex issues or connecting with employees in times of organisational change, the task is greater still.
But this is where storytelling can be of particular help.
In his paper Using Storytelling to Maintain Employee Loyalty During Change published in the International Journal of Business and Social Science, Dr Rob Gill shows how stories are far more effective than traditional communication methods at engaging staff during periods of corporate upheaval. He notes that “Employees have a deeper affiliation with the message through organisational storytelling due to aligning stories with their own experiences and understanding.”
In this way, says Dr Gill, employees find it easier to relate to messages communicated via storytelling, to process and retain such information and, what’s more, feel more engaged with their organisation as a result.
Types and sources
Annette Simmons, founder of Group Process Consulting, is a leading advocate of storytelling in business and has written several books on the subject. She says there are just six types of stories, each for a different situation or scenario. Typically these are derived from within the organisation itself and range from “Who-I-Am” and “Why-I-Am-Here” stories that aim to build trust, to “Vision” stories that seek to encourage and inspire.
But your organisation isn’t the only source of storytelling material. Current global news stories, historical events and quotes from admired people throughout history can also form the basis of compelling stories. Metaphors and analogies can work well too.
So how do organisations go about using storytelling in their internal communications?
Communicators should always start with the message that needs communicating and find a story that best illustrates or addresses it. But that does not mean you shouldn’t begin building up a library now of useful-looking stories from inside your organisation to draw on in the future.
Encourage colleagues to share their work stories (you might use the intranet or social networks to help with this). Seek out examples of successful business wins, happy customers, triumph-over-adversity projects. It’s even more powerful when these stories come from the management.
Outside the workplace, follow the news, refer to history books and check out biographies and online quote websites for inspirational or illustrative stories.
It’s important, however, to remain relevant and portray genuine authenticity in your stories. Make sure what you are saying isn’t at odds with the culture of your organisation, that it fits with your audience and even that it is being said at the right time.
A Fairy Tale ending
A strong narrative and natural flow are vital too. In fact the tried and tested “once-upon-a-time” structure of the fairy tale – with a beginning (the scene-setting/context), a middle (the action) and a happy (or conclusive) ending – is most effective. Make sure there is a clear point to the story and include elements of drama if appropriate to maintain the audience’s attention and emotional engagement.
And don’t be afraid to re-tell the story, in different ways, over time in order to reinforce what you’re saying.
No matter what method you use – written articles, videos, animations, graphics, games or websites – storytelling is an incredibly powerful way for businesses and organisations to communicate important information to their employees – and to ensure their messages hit home.