Communications is entering a new era. With an audience re-emerging from the high anxiety environment of lockdown, how can storytelling make your comms move, inspire, help, and serve your workforce?
Threats of World War III, Australian bush fires, the global pandemic, entire countries in lockdown, the death of George Floyd, and subsequent protests… 2020 will go down in the history books.
Experiencing all this firsthand, we’ve all seen the effects of a powerful story: the highs and lows, the drama, and fear. At times, it has felt like being in a real-life action movie. The narratives of the past few months have, at the very least, had us gripped.
Why is storytelling in comms so important?
When it comes to making an impact on our communications, storytelling is essential. And right now, with a workforce that is re-emerging a little battered and bruised from months of lockdown, it’s crucial that we make our comms have an impact, direction, and solidarity. It’s clear that by weaving narratives and anecdotes into our communications, we achieve impact, engagement, and a meaningful message.
What makes a good story?
Storytelling involves some craft, and there are rules to making it an effective comms strategy. Made up, inaccurate, far-fetched, or complicated stories rarely ever strike a chord with the audience. Author and entrepreneur, Seth Godin, has studied the mechanics behind great storytelling and has come up with the most important building blocks.
- Appeal to our senses
- Appeal to a specific group of people
- Agree to our world view
Authenticity – Truth is vital to your story. Your audience can be bristling with skepticism and will detect any inaccuracies from the outset. It’s easy to make up a tale to suit your purpose. But it means a great deal if your story actually happened and is 100% authentic.
Promise – Every story that makes a difference comes with a promise. That promise is to cause shock or surprise, have a resolution, and provoke reflection. If you want to use storytelling in your comms, it needs to make an impact.
Trust – Does your audience trust you? If you’ve not earned the best reputation as a communicator (a quick pulse survey could test this), your story will lose its effect. But if your employees see you as credible, this is the perfect qualification for a good storyteller.
Subtlety – A good story doesn’t spell out what the audience should think or feel. The best ones allow you to draw your own conclusions and do a little of the working out yourself.
Senses – First impressions count, but this is not necessarily all about appearance. A lot of it is that impression appealing to our senses and subconscious or not. People will tune in to – or out of – a story immediately.
A specific audience – If you’re telling a good story, you should have a particular audience in mind, don’t worry about appealing to everyone. Your account will lose its power otherwise.
Agree with our world view – A great storytelling shouldn’t turn what we already think on its head. Instead, it should re-affirm what we already think and believe.
How can internal communicators tell stories?
Internal communicators are active agents in what the people around us believe and what they do. Don’t think storytelling can influence your people? It’s stories that are responsible for the most significant changes, decisions, and movements. On a global scale, it’s the killing of George Floyd, a story that wasn’t possible to ignore or forget – and an event that made people take to the streets and declare their thoughts on the matter. On a micro-scale, it’s the reason why you may decide to follow a particular sports team. Their background story, their failures, and achievements contribute to the emotional tie you may have for them.
The bottom line is, good communications are based on building connections with your employees. In order to create an emotional connection with your audience, you need to make your comms step out of the usual formats. While your people need to know about fire exits and the bake sale planned the following month, it’s not going to make a long-lasting impact. So much of internal communications involves delivering hard, cold information. Most of the time, the human brain makes fast, emotional decisions. That’s why your communications need to shake off colorless ‘business talk’ and appeal to your employees’ emotions.
The emotional element of storytelling
In order to build a connection with your employees and make them care, you need to be willing to step outside of the established rules of your established internal communications protocol. Your department needs to have the courage to move beyond facts and reach for their emotions.
Have a think about all the stories out there spun by marketing experts and ad companies. The $250 sneakers that your graphic designer wears, or the Tesla the CEO drives. These purchases were made through emotional-driven decisions, based on stories that brands have paid a lot of money to tell. Your graphic designer could have bought a pair of shoes for $20. The CEO could drive an average car to get them from A to B. So often, emotion trumps logic, and decisions are made based on feeling. So many times, the story behind the brand and the exclusivity that it promotes is more alluring than sober, financially-astute choices.
While our communications don’t necessarily carry the same level of allure as these commodities, they can tap into the same areas of the brain that respond to these messages. Just as we might double-take an advert for a video game or seek out more information on the next Apple product, we can use the same techniques to get our employees excited about their work, interested in discovering more information and feel inspired about the things they need to do day-to-day.
How can an intranet support great storytelling?
As an internal communicator’s essential tool, an intranet needs to be able to support great storytelling. And several features within the software allow comms experts to push stories, not just through the comms mouthpiece, but by getting employees involved and sharing their experiences.
Rewards and recognitions
A recognition program is an obvious starting place for appealing to emotions: this is success story comms. A peer-to-peer based rewards platform that shines the spotlight on great work, good attitudes and behaviors is the perfect engagement tool for your employees.
This is where users tell their stories – real-life accounts that focus on appreciation and joy. Not only do your employees want to say thanks, but they also want to highlight it to the rest of the organization. When these everyday deeds are shared with staff, they carry enormous influence. Showing gratitude to others can have a profound effect on the emotional contagion of your workplace. In fact, one study found that in organizations where recognition occurs, employee engagement, productivity, and customer service are about 14 percent better than in those where recognition does not occur.
This is content that is authentic, trustworthy, immediate, and appeals to the senses – all those aspects that Godin presents as a good story. We want our good deeds to be recognized, and when we see it happen for other people, it’s a promise that our great work won’t be ignored either. This can be built further with an Employee of the Month, or MVP of the Year or similar. Your employees will follow, even contribute, to the successes of their peers and be engaged throughout the process.
Internal blogs can be an Aladdin’s cave of stories, chiefly because they are produced by so many different people from all areas of the business. There’s no need for the blog to increase sales or get backlinks. The author more or less knows their audience, so the tone is relaxed and fluid.
These are the pieces of content that can do so much. The author is allowed the opportunity to share their story, and the reader learns about the experiences, skills, interests, history, and ambitions of the author. And when this one feature creates so much interest and engagement, great things happen.
This is not least demonstrated in the Travelex story and the 2017 launch of their intranet, The Lounge. The internal blog was a feature that was initially used for corporate communication. However, employees from all over the world started to adopt the tool to share ideas, experiences, random facts, and more, as Global Intranet Manager Tricia Scott explains:
“Everyone, from senior executives through to bureau workers, has a chance to get support and share their stories with a wider audience.
“We have staff blogging about things that go way beyond their day jobs. People are supporting each other through illnesses, divorces, and other challenges – and these are people from all over the world who may never have met each other face to face. They’re also sharing positive stories and experiences, which is helping us to embed a common culture.”
The year after The Lounge was launched, Travelex awarded Blog of the Year to a sales consultant who got over 400 likes after posting a personal blog titled, ‘How Travelex put me back together again’ on the site. The intranet continues to average 11 blogs a day: real-life proof that the power of storytelling is innate and within us all.
Right now, it carries so many benefits to share the anecdotes and experiences of lockdown with colleagues. Empathy, compassion, and a deeper understanding should all stake prime real estate within your organization’s culture.
Video is a powerful, but still underused, medium in comms – and particularly effective in storytelling. There are numerous ways videos can be utilized in your communications strategy.
- New initiatives: Video can help to explain complex concepts easily, especially if defined in a way that employees can relay and recount.
- A word from leadership: Particularly if delivering a sensitive message, video has a great way of humanizing leaders. Even if it’s a light-hearted Q&A, a leadership video will get hits.
- Presentations: Using video in presentations can turn dry material into engaging and rich communications.
- Performance: Graphs and bar charts on company performance can be difficult to interpret. Video is perfect for explaining the meaning behind the numbers.
- Mandatory information: We all know what to do, but why? Videos can tell the story behind why we need to stick to protocol for safety and security.
Of course, there are so many other occasions where video can improve comms: onboarding, training, case studies, demos, conferences. This medium is key to creating memorable, engaging communications that can be re-watch and shared across the organization.
And according to Rachel Miller from All Things IC, a recent survey from the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC) showed that 92% of Comms practitioners using video or conference call to communicate the impact of COVID-19, and rated it “very effective” (64%) or “effective” (28%). These stats showed that video was the most effective of the comms channels the IoIC profiled.
As your organization gathers itself back into the workplace, comms takes a defining position in leading the way. The workforce is looking for direction, reassurance, and stability. This requires your internal communications to respond to people’s emotions to get them engaged and re-involved in organizational life once more.
Whether it’s communicating the new post-lockdown hygiene protocols of the office, or broadcasting the business’s blueprint for the year ahead – your comms can implement storytelling to enhance how your company shares news, instructs and plans with your people for the future.