It’s National Storytelling Week! But has corporate storytelling lost the plot?

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Deborah Goodall
Communications and Leadership Coach
Fruitful Conversations
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This week is National Storytelling Week but with so much emphasis on ‘corporate narrative and the ’customer story’, HR professionals could be forgiven for thinking these terms define the natural limits for storytelling in the corporate world. 

In corporate life, the business story and storytelling capabilities are often lumped together as one idea and the deeper, broader applications of storytelling and its power to transform and illuminate are being overlooked.

The big corporate story may indeed help us remember and make sense of things, but it is more personalised and ‘local’ storytelling that drives change and builds trust.

In many ways corporate storytelling is missing the mark and businesses are neglecting this powerful tool in their communication and leadership styles.

Develop storytelling capability not just an overall business story

Effective storytelling makes you, your ideas and content more believable and compelling.

It's not just ‘strategy as story’ but a super-charged way of communicating that generates new understanding and results. Much of its value is in the connections it forges between teller, topic and audience and in moving people to action in ways that other messages can’t.

But this engagement rarely comes from fictional accounts or stories that are ‘separate’ from the teller. It has to come from interpretations of real life moments and experiences. In other words, storytelling is personal.

When Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico, wanted people to understand Pepsico’s ‘no cost to society’ ethics and way of doing business, she shared her own experience of growing up in Madras, where the presence of large corporations provided jobs but at the cost of water rationing for the local population.

Hearing the challenges and struggles of living through this, helped people see that this was not just a mere company policy but a set of deep-seated beliefs about corporate purpose. It helped to drive home their belief in her words and their faith in her as a leader.

Personality and point of view must show up

The best storytelling requires the personality and the point of view of the teller to show up. It involves leaders and managers connecting their drives to the organisation’s or team’s purpose and articulating these as stories.

It is how they can demonstrate that they care about the matters in hand and show what the culture of the organisation looks and feels like in practice.

HR professionals, of course, play a key role in both supporting change and in bringing culture to life – but many in HR have been channelled into focussing on plans and processes and need to ignite their own leadership abilities and inner storyteller to do this well.

One HR director we worked with learned that the culture of her organisation was not going to change until the new values and behaviours she sought were repeatedly supported and exemplified: she found that sharing a series of her own stories about failing to manage stress at work made her a more credible proponent of a new leadership and resilience programme.

Earlier attempts to introduce the initiative had met with low levels of engagement despite there being a clear need.

However, once employees sensed from the stories that her attention was fully on this project, and that it held real meaning for her and them, they bought into it in greater numbers.

Her stories gave them the ‘why’ of the programme – not just the ‘what’.

Another reason for developing storytelling capabilities rather than just the big company story is that employees need to feel ‘safe’ and, in management theorist Simon Sineks’s words, “part of a circle of trust.”

The further you move away from head office or the centre of an organisation, the more remote the company story can feel. People are less concerned with global themes and more focussed on local execution and relating to their immediate bosses and managers.

Without people who can analogise and reframe, new thinking and change rarely happen.

To effectively change the way these people think and feel, requires local, ongoing conversations where leaders ground the bigger themes in the experiences, hopes and concerns of those they know.

They draw upon real instances of the changes they want to see and give it local and personal meaning.

For HR professionals, National Storytelling Week is a great time to check out the balance of your own organisation’s storytelling health and to develop this critical leadership style across the organisation.

And one place to start is by listening out for the everyday stories and storytellers in your business that already help employees take action.

Notice, re-tell and work with these role-models and stories to develop your own understanding and skills. Only when senior HR people build and flex their own storytelling muscles will they be able to command attention and open managers and leaders’ eyes to the full power of great storytelling.

Fruitful Conversations works closely with change managers, leaders and their teams to help them run events or master the skills of communication and change.

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