The Insiders’ Guide to Employee Communications

By Poppulo

Table of Contents

Chapter 5 – Storytelling, surveys & presentation skills

Storytelling is powerful, and it’s not rocket science

Why is storytelling one of the most powerful and effective means of communication? Writer and storytelling expert Rob Biesenbach says the answer lies in two words: nature and nurture. Here are 12 steps to help you create and tell stories to give your comms greater impact.

1. But first, what’s not a story?

Rob Biesenbach says he sees a lot of things passed off as stories, especially in the business world, that are not stories. “An inspirational quote from Mahatma Ghandi or Steve Jobs isn’t a story – even if it’s superimposed over a photograph of a beautiful sunset on a beach. A customer testimonial is not necessarily a story, nor is a case study.” Most case studies he’s read don’t cut it as stories.

2. Nature: the science behind the power of the story

The better you know how stories work, the better you will be able to make stories work, especially when dealing with leaders or executives who are not convinced about the power of storytelling. There is scientific evidence that proves stories have a unique effect on the brain. They stimulate the part that is triggered when we experience something. As far as the brain is concerned there is little difference between experiencing something and having a story told about that experience.

“This is really what powers stories, they are experiential. We hear a story and it involves us on multiple levels.” Neuroscientists have shown the link between emotion and decision making, specifically where damage to the area of the brain that governs emotion can impair decision-making capability.

3. Nurture: stories are all around us, always

We’re raised on stories from our earliest days: lullabies, fairy tales, cartoons. And as we grow older it doesn’t let up: we spend almost $100 billion consuming movies every year, the average American watches 35 hours of television every week, the video game industry is also worth around $100 billion and then there’s theatre and other storytelling formats too.

4. So what is a story?

Even though we all know what a story is, it’s hard to define, even for professional communicators. It’s a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of a challenge or obstacle. And how the character or characters overcome that challenge and reach a resolution provides the dramatic interest. This structure is in every story, Rob says, citing as an example Romeo and Juliet. Their goal or wish was to be together, their feuding families presented a seemingly insurmountable challenge and the resolution transpired to be their unity in death.

5. Six key things about a great story

  • They tap into emotion: Research shows an emotionally charged event carries more weight and persistence in our memory than any ordinary neutral event.
  • They put a face on an issue: People don’t care about programs or processes, they care about people. So if you can embody your idea, your initiative, your policy in the form of a great character that people can relate to, then you’re going to have greater impact.
  • Stories connect us: Even if you haven’t personally experienced what you’re hearing you can relate to it.
  • They humanize us: This is critical, especially for leaders. People want to follow people, not robots. The stories they tell, that we all tell, reveal a glimpse of who we are and what we stand for, and that can be highly appealing.
  • Stories raise the stakes: They raise us up out of the everyday mundane issues of our existence to universal values we aspire to.
  • Show, don’t tell: Don’t simply say you or your company is the best, the most efficient, delivers the best service, etc. Everybody says things like that. If you can find a story that shows how you’re doing these things you’re going to have a lot more success.

6. Tap into emotion

Know. Feel. Do. It’s a great structure to any communication before it’s formulated or communicated. What do I want my audience to know, what do I want them to feel and what do I want them to do?

The key to getting an audience – it could be employees – what you want them to do is to get them to feel that they want to do it. We like to think that we are rational, logical creatures but the bottom line is that we make our decisions based on emotion, frequently in defiance of logic.

7. When emotion trumps facts

Facts are called hard and cold for a reason – because they don’t have the capacity to warm hearts, which is the key to changing minds. As the author and entrepreneur Seth Godin says:

The market is not seduced by logic. People are moved by stories, by drama, by hints and clues and discovery. Logic is a battering ram.

8. How to tap into emotion – either your own, your leader’s, executive’s or client’s

Ask questions to try to get them to open up about themselves, their interests, their passions. These can open up potential stories that might not ordinarily emerge. Questions about their family can work particularly well, especially if they have young children. For example, what do your kids think you do for a living?

9. Stories can be simple. They don’t have to resemble a TED Talk

Anybody can tell an effective story; it’s not about having people rolling on the floor laughing or shedding tears. Sometimes a simple story that gets people nodding their heads in affirmation is enough to break down walls and get a point across.

10. When simple storytelling can be memorably effective

You’d expect to see warning signs around the Grand Canyon, given its obvious dangers. What you might least expect of the National Park authorities is to tell a story instead of posting run-of-the-mill warnings.

But that's exactly what they did with a flyer on a bulletin board at Grandview Point on the Canyon's South Rim. For visitors, the headline was as eye catching as it was unexpected at this iconic location: Could you run the Boston Marathon? And the story that followed was more effective than any warning about the canyon could ever have been.

It told the story of Margaret Bradley. The 24 year-old medical student had run the Boston Marathon it in just over 3 hours in 80°F (27°C) heat. But a couple of months later in the Grand Canyon, as temperatures soared to 104°F (41°C) she misjudged the length of her hike and the amount of water she would need. She died of dehydration and her body was found two days later. No further warnings necessary. A simple story, powerful, compelling and effective.

11. Focus your stories

It’s not only what goes into a story, it’s what you leave out – especially in an age of ever diminishing attention spans. So for that reason our stories have to be focused. Less is more.

  • Have a goal: Have a story that underscores your message, whether it’s in relation to teamwork or productivity, for example.
  • Stick to the goal: Stay with the main point. Like climbing a tree, go straight from the bottom to the top. If you divert onto the branches, you run the risk of losing focus and impact. Diversion can lead to a dead end.
  • Eliminate as much as possible: Personal and job titles, dates and company names.
  • Numbers: Things like percentages jar a story: for example, instead of saying 75% say 3 out of 4. Stories should not read like a legal brief.

12. Stand up, stand out!

  • Show passion: It can be highly effective in engaging others and convincing them of what you want to say and do.
  • Be original: Don’t tell a story that you found somewhere else and never pass off another person’s story as your own. Mine your own personal life experiences, things that shaped or affected you, write them down and store them for future use.
  • Get personal: If you talk about yourself it’s almost certainly going to be an original story and because you’re more connected to a story about yourself, your audience will have an easier time connecting with it.

This section is based on a Poppulo webinar with communications consultant Rob Biesenbach: Unleash the power of corporate storytelling.

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