The Art of Workplace Storytelling

May 14, 2018 | Culture and Engagement, Leadership

I’ve come to gain a deeper appreciation for the art of storytelling and in particular, the application of storytelling in the workplace.  I believe it’s an underrated skill that requires more attention as a core competency that can be leveraged to:

 

  • Garner and build trust
  • Instill corporate values and beliefs
  • Drive change
  • Promote innovation
  • Increase employee engagement and job satisfaction
  • Transfer and impart knowledge and skills
  • Communicate more effectively and with greater buy-in

 

It’s the art of taking a core message or idea and transforming it into something that resonates with the audience, resulting in them believing in, caring about and acting on the message or idea.  One of my favourite business books is by Chip and Dan Heath, called “Make to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die”.  The basic premise of the book is that if an idea is delivered well and is “sticky”, that message does not have to be repeated.

 

“Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images … because our brains are wired to remember concrete data” – Chip and Dan Heath

 

Another proponent of the power of storytelling is Jennifer Aaker, a behavioral psychologist, author, and a Professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, who has said that “when data and stories are used together, they resonate with audiences both intellectually and emotionally.  For a lasting effect, you need to persuade the rational brain, but also resonate with the emotional brain”.

To tap into emotion, it’s important to convey messages that use vivid and concrete images and details.  Chip and Dan Heath, using real-life examples, walk the reader through six core principles of making an idea stick and ultimately succeed and survive, including:

 

Simplicity Keeping the message compact helps people learn and remember the core message
Unexpectedness Incorporating a surprise element promotes curiosity and helps get and hold people’s attention
Concreteness Painting a concrete and mental picture helps people understand new concepts by increasing transparency and vividness of the core message
Credibility Building credibility around the message or idea through inside or outside channels helps people to trust and buy into the core message
Emotions Exuding an emotion in the story appeals to the ‘What’s in it for me?’ of the audience and helps people connect with the core message
Stories Delivering a story helps inspire and motivate people to jump into action and deliver on the core message

 

Why is storytelling important in the workplace?

 

Storytelling is a powerful and often times underused medium for internal communications between employer and employees.  It’s through storytelling that connections, engagement and trust are built, all of which are critical in not only day-to-day operations but also in times of large-scale organizational changes.

 

“Managers and staff can use meaningful narrative as a valuable communication strategy within organisations as it can be a means to separating constructive communication from the ‘mundane message overflow’ associated with more traditional corporate communication. The use of storytelling has high social presence that bring people physically and psychologically closer … Narration in stories can heighten shared meaning amongst those present who interpret the narration in line with their own experiences, allowing personalised cognition about problems, solutions and explanations. These characteristics enable stories to carry symbolic information and convey meaning, as well as greatly enhancing commitment and recollection.”

 Derived from Gill, R. (2011). Using storytelling to maintain employee loyalty during change. International Journal of Business and Social Science. Vol 2. No. 15. Pp. 26.

 

Take 3M as a perfect example.  3M understands the power of storytelling and stories have become embedded in the day to day culture.  It’s through stories that “we’re able to discover opportunities for strategic change.  Stories give us ways to form ideas about winning”.  https://hbr.org/1998/05/strategic-stories-how-3m-is-rewriting-business-planning

 

 

How can we apply storytelling in the workplace?

 

Reflecting back on my workplace experiences, I realize that the leaders who have had the biggest impact were those who created a strong and clear vision and inspired and motivated their people to follow and execute on the vision.  These leaders had a strong following of employees who trusted, admired and respected them, thus driving alignment and action.  Often times, these leaders would share stories about past experiences and life events to influence values, communicate the vision, define corporate culture, transfer knowledge and ultimately resonate and connect at a deeper level with their team.

 

Applying storytelling in the workplace can be leveraged in many situations including:

  • Meetings
  • Presentations
  • Hallway/casual discussions
  • Onboarding
  • Training

 

To ensure your message is “sticky”, craft a story that will resonate on an emotional and rational level with the audience.  To find the right story, I often ask myself these two questions:

  • What’s the purpose or goal of telling my story?
  • What is the key take-away for my audience?

 

Understanding the reasoning behind my story, allows me to then build the story tailored to my audience.  Just like any story, I have to:

  • Capture the audience right from the start
  • Introduce characters and bring them to life
  • Lead up to suspense to maintain interest
  • End by incorporating an a-ha moment or key take-away

 

What’s my personal example of successful storytelling?

 

When delivering training sessions on change management, I use a personal story to illustrate the impacts of change – the good, the bad and the ugly. Telling this story allows me to connect with the audience. Even more importantly, storytelling fulfilled multiple key principles in adult learning because the story:

 

  • Encouraged learners to connect to the topic due to their current knowledge and experiences
  • Increased the relevancy of the course content due to bringing in real-life situations/examples
  • Engaged the learners because the topic directly related to their experience

 

Before building the story, I asked myself:

What’s the purpose or goal of telling my story? To show the audience that:

  • Change management is not easy.
  • Roadblocks should be expected.
  • Change does not happen overnight – it is a process.
What is the key take-away for my audience? To understand that:

  • Successful change management requires systematic planning and coordination

 

Understanding the reasoning behind my story, then allowed me to build the story tailored to my audience.  Just like any story, I included details to:

 

  • Capture the audience right from the start
  • Introduce characters and bring them to life
  • Lead up to suspense to maintain interest
  • End by incorporating an a-ha moment or key take-away

 

So what’s your next story going to be?

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