Turn Employees Into Storytellers

November 05, 2019

Contributor: Jackie Wiles

How internal communications can use employee stories to drive organizational performance and model behaviors.

In a galaxy far, far away… That’s all it takes, and images from Star Wars movies begin to swirl in your head. Why? It’s the great storytelling. That’s what makes it easy for viewers to empathize with the hero, Luke Skywalker. Imagine the messaging power for internal communications if employees could tell stories about their own experiences in such a relatable way.

“By cultivating and amplifying authentic employee voices, internal communications teams get important messages and themes across much more effectively than by broadcasting them through traditional corporate channels,” says Gartner research leader Elizabeth Barrett.

Done right, organizations can use such stories to create employee communications that are meaningful, relevant and actionable. But for employee stories to be effective tools, it’s necessary to coach employees to share their experiences in way that is authentic yet tied to stated objectives.

Four types of employee stories

Internal communications can leverage four distinct types of stories, each with a specific objective:

  1. Goal alignment. Increases employees’ line of sight to company goals with a clear, well-integrated strategy message that supports the organization’s strategy and values. Must continually reinforce the message throughout the story.
  2. Capability building. Explains how a peer successfully adopts a new approach or navigates change. Enables readers to live vicariously through the storyteller and boosts employee self-confidence and know-how. These stories should include action steps and lessons learned that can be easily replicated.
  3. Team building. Celebrates what makes a team distinctive and successfully boosts employees’ sense of pride and belonging to the team. Stories should bring to life how the team worked together to achieve success.
  4. Emotional connection. Expresses strong emotions or reveals something deeply personal about the storyteller. Such stories help employees feel more connected to the company as a whole.

Different organizations source their employee stories in different ways. It’s productive to ask employees to share stories about others; people often want to highlight others’ successes above their own. You can also use performance recognition programs as a source for profile-worthy content. Make sure to detail what you’re looking for, but let people tell their own stories in their own words and, when possible, in their own language. This helps to ensure authenticity and diversity of thoughts and experiences.

Storytelling as a business skill

The overall objective for internal communications is to guide employees through the storytelling process to create and tell stories that effectively drive performance and model behaviors. With each story, the goal is to strike a balance between the need to grab the audience’s attention and support the given objective.

If getting employees to understand and adopt corporate values is the goal, stories that rely too heavily on business outcomes can sound impersonal and generic. Stories with the same goal that focus too much on engaging the audience miss opportunities to teach or reinforce corporate values.

If employees deliver their stories live, internal communications should provide them with public-speaking coaching beforehand. It will build their confidence, and give them the techniques and poise they need to present in a public setting. Make sure speakers get a dress rehearsal with in-the-moment feedback and support. It’s a good idea to have former or more experienced speakers mentor first-timers so they can share lessons learned and build a community of storytellers.

To help employees actually write their stories, internal communications can provide a template of questions to guide the storyline. This ensures that employees craft stories that are relevant to the target audience, memorable and easy to understand. For example, you might guide them to address:

  • Who is the audience that I am trying to reach with my message?
  • Which of my key initiatives (e.g., projects, activities, new skills learned) would the target audience find relevant? Why?
  • What steps did I take to do those initiatives?
  • What were my successes? What challenges did I face?
  • What stood out as interesting, cool or surprising during the process?
  • Can I share any facts, resources, frameworks, graphics or collateral that represent the story?

Urge storytellers to use simple and clear language with a conversational tone and avoid business jargon or technical terms. Remind them to provide references to additional resources and links to related materials when possible.

By fostering and guiding storytelling, internal communications helps employees build a collaborative culture in which speaking up and sharing across the organization is welcome and encouraged — and helps to drive business outcomes.

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