It’s National Storytelling Week but are we numb to corporate storytelling?

This week is National Storytelling Week but with so many talking about the “corporate narrative” or the “organisational storyboard”, many HR Directors are either numb to the prospect already or it just seems too daunting a task.

This week is National Storytelling Week but with so many talking about the “corporate narrative” or the “organisational storyboard”, many HR Directors are either numb to the prospect already or it just seems too daunting a task.

There's much 'talk' about storytelling these days but in many ways, corporate storytelling is being both mis-sold and misinterpreted and businesses are being led down the wrong path.

The true value of storytelling has always been in helping people to understand and believe in something which then moves them in their behaviour in ways that dry, rational messages can’t. But this engagement very rarely comes from elaborate fictional masterpieces (however impressive and creative) that bring the organisational mission to life. It nearly always comes from real life – personal experience and the experiences of others.

The best storytelling is an interpretation of fact rather than something that is fictional. The power lies in simple stories around everyday experiences – our own snippets, soundbites and recollections to move people, rather than this big, elaborate masterpiece which is putting people off and turning them away from starting to use this effective engagement style.

When Zhi Jin, CEO of the Chinese brewery, Tsing-Tao, revealed his strategy for the newly-privatised company, he told a story based on the recipe and method for making dumplings and pancakes: classic, local food that was served at lunchtime from the fast-food stalls located outside the company and enjoyed by hundreds of employees.

Zhi Jin wanted his employees to understand why spreading the company across too many different sectors could no longer be sustained and, instead, the company needed to specialise and develop its industry expertise in a few key markets. You can probably work out for yourselves which product – pancake v dumpling – he was analogising in his strategy. Like the best stories in business, it was simple, relevant and immediately accessible. And it worked: people knew what he meant and what had to be done.

HR Directors play a key role in bringing to life the ‘story’ of an organisation – its vision, mission, values and goals and to engage employees in the journey. What’s interesting is that in our work with many organisations through our Engagement Intelligence profiling tool, we often find that HR leaders and managers have a low preference for the Storyteller role, and instead tend to have more of a natural preference to the Strategist role, focused on logical, process-driven action planning and delivery. This highlights a real opportunity for senior HR professionals to ignite their inner Storyteller in order to create the magic that is required to inspire employees about the ‘why’ of an activity, project or business before focusing on the what and the process.  

The ‘why’ part of the puzzle is often lost in the eagerness of the HR professional to explain what is happening and what will happen next. The Storyteller uses an emotional and logical mix to bring to life the story about ‘why’ we are doing what we are doing, by also talking about what it will look and feel like when we get there and crucially what does it mean for me as an individual.

This is exactly what one call centre manager did when he wanted to remind his team just how important their customers were. He asked everyone to bring in a photo of a loved one on Valentine’s Day and gave them frames to display them on their desks. This, he said, was to remind them that their customers were just like those photos on their desks: they were someone’s much-loved father, daughter, grandparent, or friend. The manager didn’t talk about corporate values: he brought them alive through the photos on the desks.

National Storytelling Week is a great time to quash perceptions of grandiose corporate storytelling and seize the potential of every-day stories in your business to help employees take action.

So what’s the first thing HR Directors can do to dial up their storytelling and develop this critical leadership engagement style?

Think about one thing you are trying to achieve today that requires you to move someone or align a group of colleagues. What personal story or metaphor could you use to bring it to life and help the message land and move people to action? As yourself the same question each day to work-out and build your storytelling muscle.  You’ll soon start to see and feel the difference.

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6 December 2023


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