Glittering carriage or rotten pumpkin? The power of storytelling

Once upon a time…

… there was a company

Alas, it was forever relying on facts, data and dry information to communicate to its people, hiding behind an armour of anodyne corporateness. Afraid if it strayed too far from sales graphs, charts and PowerPoint bullets, the big bad wolf would leap out and eat them, smart art ‘n all.

He didn’t. But something worse, much worse, happened. The company ended up trapped in the middle of a scary, evil, horrible, and very real statistic – a statistic that said a business of just 100 employees wastes on average 17 hours a week clarifying internal comms, that equates to a cost of £400,000 every year*.

If you want your people to engage with your internal communication, then data and dry information isn’t going to cut it. Think about the way brands engage emotionally with customers; John Lewis, Nike, just three. Inside businesses we need to be using more of that magic to engage our own people. People don’t change the moment they step over the workplace threshold, they’ll be processing your internal comms the same way they do marketeers’ ads.

Storytelling in business is proven to increase engagement, with a stack of research out there to back it up. Recent global research** filmed audiences not speakers. Almost without exception, every time a speaker began with a story the audience looked up and engaged. When presented with charts, figures and bullet points they actively disengaged (look around at your people at the next town hall and see how they are engaging, or not).

Our emotions are heightened when we listen to stories. Stories provide context. Stories even win debates, as I learnt from Neuroscientist Tali Sharot. She talks about the power of stories and how as humans we’re strangely resistant to being convinced by data or facts. She told of a debate in the run up to the US election between Trump and a renowned Pediatric scientist, centring on the (debunked) link between vaccines and autism. The scientist, in possession of every single fact and piece of data, was using his data to dispel the myth that vaccines cause autism. Trump countered with a story. A story about an employee’s baby who had been given a ‘horse sized syringe of vaccine’ and later developed autism. The scientist lost the debate. All the audience could remember was the emotional story of the horse sized syringe and the tiny, defenseless baby.

Such is the power of a story and the power of creating emotion.

The good news is we’re all natural storytellers, we’ve been telling them ever since we learnt to talk. Storytelling makes us human. At the end of an average day we will have told dozens of stories without even realising it. Personal stories and gossip typically make up around 65% of our daily conversations.

Nike has long understood the power of a story both inside and outside their organisation. A number of senior executives hold the additional title of ‘Corporate Storyteller’. They deliberately avoid stories of financial successes and concentrate on parables of ‘just doing it’, reflecting and reinforcing the company’s ad campaigns.

So, yes, it’s about telling the big, exciting stories that help shape your organisation’s culture. It’s also about thinking how to convey your day to day messages in a more creative way. Asking your people for their stories too. And when you tell or re tell these stories, paying attention to the language, adding imagery, injecting warmth and colour.

Then they’ll remember what you said, they’ll remember how you made them feel, they’ll engage.

Glittering carriage or rotten pumpkin? The wand is firmly in your hand.

These insights form part of my talk ‘What internal communications can learn from advertising’. I’m delivering it next at the BQF’s leadership conference on March 28. Click here for more info and to book your tickets.

*Willis Towers Watson
** Thaler Pekar ‘Listen better, hear more’ 2018

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