Her name was Carla, and she was our new Chief Communications Officer – a rare external hire for a company that usually promoted from within. She was sophisticated, smart, educated and experienced. And a little intimidating, given her impressive credentials and background.
The 50+ employees on Carla’s new team were feeling a mixture of curiosity, angst and skepticism as they filed into the conference room to meet her. What is she about? Is she going to change the way we do things? What if she cuts budgets, or people?
Carla strode confidently to the front of the room, her freshly minted employee badge dangling by her side. She introduced herself, told us she had long admired the company and this team’s work, then launched into a story about her senior prom.
She was 17, dressed up and bursting with hope that this fairytale night would play out just as all teenage girls hope and imagine. For the most part it did, right up until the point she and her escort ascended the stairs as prom royalty. That’s when Carla’s date trampled the train of her strapless gown, pulling the dress downward and exposing her “top line” to a crepe-papered gymnasium full of onlookers. We gasped and giggled as Carla explained how she simply laughed, pulled up her dress and took her place on the stage.
It was an unforgettable introduction. She could have chosen to outline her departmental vision or cite the details of her impressive LinkedIn profile. Instead, she told a simple tale that cut right to the heart of who she was and how she handled adversity. We knew in an instant she was humble, savvy, funny and cool under pressure. Above all, she knew the power of a good story.
Storytelling is both a millennia-old art form, and a growing trend in today’s business arena. A recent article on Entrepreneur.com explains how stories are the most effective way to connect with people on an emotional level. And the Harvard Business Review backs it up with science, detailing how storytelling evokes a strong neurological response and makes your audiences feel and connect.
Keep in mind, sharing an anecdote doesn’t work in every business situation (emergencies, for instance) or communication vehicle (such as text alerts). Nonetheless, a storytelling strategy belongs in every strong communications program. Here are four areas where we’ve seen this approach rock the house:
Putting the “human” back in Human Resources.
Due to the volume and legalities of HR-related communication, the content can get stripped of life, boiled down to ho-hum training memos and policy announcements. And that’s a shame, because people stories build employee understanding, camaraderie and culture. Take, for example, one company’s annual Diversity Month promotion that set aside the usual industry stats and, instead, featured a series of personal stories about employees who had triumphed over adversity. That story-based communication campaign increased employee readership on the topic tenfold, and doubled enrollment for the diversity training program.
Building unforgettable, effective executive messages.
Long after bullet points and charts fade from memory, people can still recount that riveting story about why the company was founded or how a popular product was invented. Stories are the bedrock of a company’s history and a powerful tool upon which its leaders need to capitalize. Almost nothing captivates an audience of customers, peers, shareholders or employees more than a relevant story told by a company executive. Sharing a personal revelation about discovery, pride, weakness or failure builds trust and fosters learning. Consider a different twist on the personal story; we once helped a CEO draw corollary lessons from his favorite baseball team’s pennant chase (a personal passion that fed a powerful message for his leadership team).
Creating buy-in for operations and IT program rollouts.
Let’s be brutally honest. Installing a new POS system, introducing a billing portal or instituting an updated shipping process may be the most important project your company rolls out this year – yet, for most people, it’s the most gosh-awful boring thing they can imagine. A great approach is to tell the story through your average customer or employee – a day in the life – and how this new system will improve his/her experience. Follow test-group users with a camera while they show how easy the new process is. Find a skeptical employee, have her try the new system, and then let her explain what she discovered. Use a story to paint a vivid picture in which users can see themselves.
Making the mandatory less frightening and more educational.
There are times when a heavy-handed “cease and desist” communication is necessary. But in many instances, policy compliance is rooted in employee education – and stories are an effective tool. Here’s a great example: We once worked with a Chief Ethics Officer who educated employees by publishing vignettes of common ethics incidents, inviting employees to share what they would do if they were the story’s main character. In another situation, we led the creation of a company’s social media policy for employees. Rather than publishing the policy and asking employees to read it, we told the stories of employee missteps and asked for comments and questions. The result was an amazing companywide conversation about SEC rules, First Amendment rights and employment law – not to mention a dramatic drop in social media-related employee issues. #storytellingworks
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