Storytelling is a powerful tool we can use to communicate with one another and with our employees. To illustrate this, let me tell you a story:
I could feel the room closing in on me. I’d delivered this same presentation at least a dozen other times and was typically met with cheers.
But today I faced rage and a growing sense of doom, much of it coming from an angry-looking back row on their feet holding chairs above their heads...
I don’t know how I got through it, but I did. As the room cleared, the manager of the site came up to me and said, “I’m so sorry, I should have warned you that anyone from corporate is met with this reaction. Even if it’s good news, they still won’t trust you.”
Armed with this new information, I prepared for the next presentation. Instead of standing at the podium while everyone entered the room, I sat in the back row and chatted with people taking their seats. I talked about my kids and asked them about theirs.
And when my name was called to come to the podium, the crowd clapped and the people in the back row smiled and greeted me warmly as I began my presentation.
Hopefully, this story (which is 100% true - even the chairs over heads!) provides a clear and vivid picture of what happens when you gain your employees’ trust – they’re more attentive and responsive to your message. I could have skipped the story and merely told you that you need to build trust when communicating with your employees, but would you have remembered it? Maybe, maybe not.
Storytelling can bring dull facts to life and create stronger engagement between a speaker and the people they’re trying to reach. You can use stories to change employees’ opinions, shape their feelings and ultimately guide their actions.
To help you become a more effective storyteller and start improving internal communications, follow these four tips:
Put a human face on the story.
If you want your employees to relate to your story, you need to make it about a real person. In my example, I used myself because I’m writing to HR professionals. But what I’ve found to work when communicating with my workforce is to use a story about a fellow employee, for example how they’ve used a new benefit or employee recognition programme, or taken part in a learning course. This helps them see the human side, engage with the message and begin improving internal communications from the get-go.
Tell a hero’s journey.
We all love a hero and hearing about how they overcame obstacles and succeeded in their mission. By using real or fictional characters to tell a hero’s journey, you can help your employees connect emotionally with the message and visualise the possible outcomes. In my example, I was the hero, but for your stories, you may want to use your own employees as heroes, which conveys the message that if their peers can do it, so can they. Don’t forget that a hero’s journey involves a beginning, middle and end, so be sure to include all three parts of the journey.
Create empathy and understanding.
If the aim of storytelling is to have your employees engage with your message, it’s critical that your story triggers empathy and understanding. I did this by including the emotions I felt in my story. Had I not done this, you probably wouldn’t have empathised with what I was going through or understood my challenge.
I point to a study done by a Princeton neuroscientist, which measured a woman’s brain activity when she told a personal story. The story was then played to five people, measuring their brain activity as well. The study found a strong similarity between brain activities, leading to deeper understanding and empathy between the storyteller and the audience.
It’s all well and good to have your employees empathise with your story, but ultimately you want to create a “call to action.” You need to motivate them to want to take these actions. For example, in my story, the call to action was to do whatever it takes to build trust with a group of employees before you deliver a presentation. Another example may be that you want employees to use your discount benefit benefit or send an eCard through your recognition platform. Find ways to build the call to action into your story, and never end the story until you’ve done so.
I hope this has helped you understand the power of storytelling and some ways to tell an effective story. The next time you need to communicate a message to your employees, first ask yourself if a story would do a better job of achieving your communications campaign objectives. Will it bring the message to life in a way that facts and figures cannot? Will it create better empathy and understanding, higher engagement and a clearer call to action? If the answer to these questions is yes, then get out there and tell your story! I’ll end this with something to keep in mind as you create your own “stories”:
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.
Debra is the co-author of "Build It: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement," which she wrote with Reward Gateway Founder, Glenn Elliott. She's a Rewards guru, having over 20 years experience as a rewards leader, speaker, teacher and a frequent contributor to the Reward Gateway blog.
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