How to Beat Boring: 3 Storytelling Secrets for Your Type of Organization
— April 16th, 2018
If you’re Google or Pfizer, it’s not hard to come up with stories for internal communications.
After all, your employees are literally launching moonshot technologies and developing drugs that save millions of lives.
But what if you sell machine parts, insurance, or industrial chemicals?
These are the types of companies that make the world go round, but for internal communications professionals, their lack of instant sex appeal can be a serious hurdle. Aren’t these businesses kind of boring?
Only at first glance. “There are no boring stories, just unengaged narrators,” insists public relations professor and storytelling expert Lisa Du Bois Low.
No matter how niche your market, low-profile your product, or down-to-earth your team, it is possible to locate and craft engaging stories that will grab employees’ attention and inspire action. Master storytellers offer several pieces of advice:
1. Get out and ask the right questions
Discovering interesting stories to tell is your first challenge as an internal comms pro.
You won’t find them sitting behind your computer all day. Instead, “get out and about in your organization, speaking and listening to people, and really getting to know what’s going on beneath the surface,” advises Helen Deverell, director of a London-based internal communications consultancy.
“A lot of the time people won’t even realize they have a story to tell” she continues, so you need to ask the right questions to draw them out.
Avoid sticking rigidly to prepared questions. Instead, follow your instincts and ask open-ended questions that demand more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply, ask how whatever you’re discussing made the person feel, and always, always close by asking, ‘Is there anything else I should know?’
”Sometimes the answer to that question will be where the true story lies,” Deverell has found.
2. Emotions matter more than events
While it’s true your employees might not be spending their free time summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro or training for triathlons, dramatic events are not required to tell a compelling story.
“It’s really not what transpired that makes a good story,” Margot Leitman, a storytelling teacher and author of Long Story Short, has explained.
“It’s about how you felt about what transpired. It’s not a matter of, ‘We won the game.’ It’s, ‘How did you feel when you won? What did you believe was impossible that now suddenly you can do?’”
So while an employee taking advantage of your new flexible work program might not sound like promising material for a story.
If you dig into how that new program allowed a team member to do something she never thought possible -- like perhaps running 10k to raise money for her favorite charity or coaching his child’s sports team to junior league victory -- you’re well on your way to turning ordinary material into a truly great story.
Just be sure to convey not just what happened but what the events made people feel.
3. Dig into the details
Focusing on emotion is essential for turning nothing-out-of-the-ordinary events into compelling narratives. So is sensory detail. Andy Raskin, a consultant who helps leaders tell strategic stories, has a memorable name for this truth: the Stinky Cow Principle.
Raskin came up with the term when a student in a storytelling workshop he was leading told a bland story about deciding to leave the film industry for a new career in marketing.
In its initial telling, the story was dry and boring, but then Raskin asked the man to describe in detail the exact moment he made the decision to make a change (in storytelling lingo this is known as “the inciting incident”).
“I was working on a shoot for the Discovery Channel, and part of the set was this carcass of a dead cow. It smelled to high heaven. I was a lowly production assistant, so after the filming was over, it was my job to ride in a van with this stinky, rotting mass of flesh.
Wasps filled the air, and I could barely breathe. That’s when I said to myself, ‘Maybe this is not going to work out,’” the man related, to laughs.
It doesn’t take a storytelling genius to spot the difference. Turning ordinary experiences into storytelling gold is often simply a matter of substituting a bland summary for a fully rendered scene.
“The Stinky Cow Principle makes any business or personal story more effective at connecting with people,” insists Raskin.
“For example, the next time you tell a customer success story, instead of just saying, ‘they had X problem,’ paint a full picture — in all its Stinky Cow glory — of how your customers were suffering before you helped them make a change.”