In this blog, the author addresses the need for storytelling in transforming organizations from within. He discusses approaches internal communicators can take to create a culture of storytelling that inside organizations.
Consider these stories.
- A CEO on a companywide webcast shares a recent action where he has asked a senior leader to leave the business for faking medical receipts. He used the story to explain the need for staff to be ethical and live the corporate values.
- An employee co-creating a product for the organization’s business resulting in significant benefits. The story got widespread publicity and results in many staff contributing ideas in a companywide contest.
- When an organization introduced personal stories of staff gaining from the company’s benefits, it significantly increased awareness and usage.
- To avert the implications of a strike by staff in one geography, other employees pull their weight to ensure customers receive products they ordered online, thereby reinforcing a culture of teamwork.
Storytelling has been a topic of discussion in management practice for many decades – from connecting staff to the organization’s strategy to driving change, from influencing stakeholders to building pride. It is a vehicle to convey messages and pass on knowledge. How stories play a role in the organizational narrative has also been widely studied. As employees’ expectations of organizations evolve to include societal change1,shared purpose, fulfilling careers and personal empowerment, there are continual challenges to gain trust and commitment.
Although storytelling helps connect staff to the organization’s purpose and build pride, an IABC study among communicators2 indicates that it isn’t as widely practiced. Just 43% believed storytelling could play an important role in the organization’s communication strategies and only 18% were using them within their respective firms. The reasons are manifold. Communicators probably do not understand the full potential of storytelling. Nor are they equipped to tell effective stories or empower leaders and staff to do so. According to public relations practitioners, digital storytelling is among the top five trends3 that will shape communication in the next few years – ahead of social listening, social purpose and big data. Although students who study public relations feel storytelling is important, they aren’t prepared for this trend.
On the other hand, business leaders view storytelling as fuzzy and any presentation bereft of data is viewed with skepticism. One of the biggest challenges4 is that employees are time-poor and attention deficit is a huge concern inside organizations. Surprisingly, organizations communicate their purpose less to their own employees5 and more for external stakeholders. We do know that engaged employees are more inclined to drive performance for their organization if they are aligned with the purpose.
Here is where internal communications can make a difference.
Shifting the mindset
With public relations practitioners and communicators often coming from backgrounds that do not focus on using narratives, there is a need to go back to the basics. Building an internal ‘culture’ that celebrates storytelling rests with the communicator. Getting leaders to role model storytelling can improve how the rest of the organization accepts the new approach to communication. Taking time to understand the pulse of the organization and shaping the narrative involves shifting the mindset among leaders and staff. For example, at Miller Brewing Company, after conducting an in-depth study among employees6, the team ran a campaign that recognized the way people value the company’s product building pride. Communicating stories from within are better understood and valued.
Spotting credible stories
Internal communicators are the curators of corporate character7 helping organizations bring their strategy to life. Stories can be found at all levels – at an organization, team or at a personal level. Start by sharing stories through your channels so that staff understand the benefits and expectations of story sharing. Encourage managers to use the first few minutes of meetings to invite learning and updates. These are important moments to gain story leads. Using a forum called Every Interaction Counts, Auckland Libraries created avenues to appreciate change8 and drive engagement. When employees get opportunities to engage directly with customers and the communities they will have more experiences to share. Helping staff spot believable stories takes time and effort. Build a story bank that is accessible across the organization.
Investing in story coaching
Stories told by credible spokespersons are received better. Employees are among your best storytellers. Internal communicators have a role to identify, coach and empower storytellers. Although everyone in your organization can tell stories, it helps to spot storytellers – those who are resourceful, flexible and open-minded. Look for those who listen intently and are empathetic. While coaching your storytellers, remember to overcome perceptions and resistance to using stories. Demonstrate how stories can motivate, inspire employees to go the extra mile. Make the time for story learning. For example, in India, a corporate house sent senior executives to learn the nuances of storytelling9 at a national literary festival. Furthermore, understanding the various dimensions of storytelling such as timing, place, pitch, context and audience can make a story resonate.
Storytelling also means viewing staff as customers and tapping their potential. As technological progress makes it easier for stories to be told and amplified, storytelling will lean heavily on big data and artificial intelligence as employees become central to any engagement. Co-creation will be the way forward10 since keeping pace with storytelling as they evolve will be tough for communicators or business leaders on their own. The role of the internal communicator is evolving. They are not expected to be gathering or relaying stories but instead involving staff and stakeholders in the process of story development – from story digging, story curating, story deployment and story feedback.
Storytelling is essential for the success of organizations and internal communications plays a pivotal role. Helping leaders and staff share experiences and knowledge can stir positive action, drive change and improve engagement. By shifting mindsets, curating stories, coaching staff and co-creating the narrative can build a transformational culture.
Aniisu K. Verghese is an award winning corporate communications and social responsibility practitioner with over 18 years of experience in leading multinational organizations. He is the author of Internal Communications – Insights, Practices and Models and is passionate about engaging communicators and students through workshops, speaking engagements, teaching assignments and blogging.
- Edelman’s Trust Barometer (2019)
- Who’s telling stories? IABC Communication World (2008)
- Global Communications Report, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (2017)
- From “Storytelling” to “Storydoing”, D&I (2017)
- Purpose-led brands, EY (2017)
- Selling the brand inside, HBR (2002)
- CCI Corporate Communication Practices & Trends Study Final Report, Corporate Communication International, Baruch College/CUNY (2017)
- Getting the word out – internal communications and culture change at Auckland Libraries, LIANZA Conference (2012)
- Wipro senior executives at Jaipur Literary Fest to polish narration skills. The Economic Times (2012)
- Employees as customers. Reimagining the employee experience in government. Deloitte (2016)