Ever heard a good story, so much so, that you kept thinking about it all day? Everyone loves a good story, don’t we? Stories come naturally to us, and help us form the basis for how we understand much of the world. After all, we’d much rather prefer a good ol’ story over listening to reams of hard facts on a news channel. Storytelling is also an indispensable part of human communication. And that’s perhaps why it’s an effective way of communicating in the business world.
All businesses have a story to tell, whether they’re a young startup or an mature multinational. As a founder, co-founder, Head of People & Culture, you have a personal story to tell. But when the time comes for your company’s story to change, it’s not always easy to get your people on board. unless you know how to best communicate it.
In this resource, you’ll find why storytelling is so powerful and how it can be a critical tool to communicate vision, change, attract talent and of course strengthen your culture.
The Power of Storytelling
Stories resonate with people on a deeper level. There’s a reason book sales continue to grow, even as new websites and technologies divide people’s attention. And why the highest-grossing movie of last year topped $200 million at the box office.
At The Culture Equations, our storytelling philosophy is about using stories to an experience that transformed you as a leader, changed your mind on a topic or belief, and most importantly, helped you to grow.
Another way to view Storytelling is that it’s about bridging the gap between complex and abstract ideas into more digestible and relatable notions that everyone can understand. Whether it’s a new product, critical change in the business or even hiring a new CEO, storytelling can be what you just need. Generally speaking, a good story follows a narrative that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In a business context, a story help people visualise how things are right now and understand the challenges that must be addressed to reach the desired ending.
A powerful story is one that takes your audience on a journey, hooks them in, inspires them and highlights what needs to be changed.
Here’s what one of the world’s best storytellers said.
“If you’re not sure about the level of stakes in your story, simply ask yourself: Would the audience want to hear my next sentence? If I stopped speaking right now, would anyone care? Am I more compelling than video games and pizza and sex at this moment? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you need to raise the stakes.” Matthew Dicks.
The Psychology of Storytelling
On a scientific level, there are myriad psychological reasons why we seek out stories in all areas of our everyday lives. Our brains are wired to make sense of different experiences through stories. And what an amazing thing that is, isn’t it? You could even say it’s an evolutionary thing. Stories help us find order, which is naturally comforting.
According to research published by the PNAS, storytelling increases oxytocin and positive emotions and decreases cortisol and pain in hospitalised children.
Here’s a perspective on how storytelling works, it’s called “narrative transportation”. Narrative transportation is essentially a dynamic and complex interaction between language, text, and imagination which creates a state of cognitive and emotional immersion that engages listeners in the world of the narrative.
That’s why storytelling can be quite effective in the workplace especially when it comes to hard conversations. It can help business leaders communicate challenges and changes to people on all levels of the business. As Brené Brown has astutely observed, “stories are just data with a soul”.
Storytelling and Creating Change
Change management is key to businesses of all types, particularly in the modern-day. Everything from global health crises to the ever-changing digital landscape has forced companies to be more adaptable than ever. However, your people have to buy into the change you wish to create for it to be successful.
According to McKinsey, 70% of change programs fall through. That’s just heartbreaking but we can understand why. Pushing a company in a new direction can be a hard sell. But, when you get your employees on board and truly invested, the chances of change sticking improve by 30%.
That’s where storytelling comes in. By creating a narrative around the changes you want to make, you can more effectively communicate the reasons why a new direction is needed. You also involve people at all levels and across departments in the change initiative. Amongst other things, this helps build their commitment and overcome resistance to change.
How to Use Storytelling to communicate Change
Storytelling in the context of change management isn’t about writing a script or telling a joke. There’s a lot more to it than what you might think. Here are five key components to create a compelling story and use it to fuel change within your business.
1. Confront the Problem
Every good story hinges on a problem. Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed lovers, while Harry Potter had a bad guy to defeat. So, start by laying the challenge facing your business out on the table. It can be a difficult thing to do but crucial to do. And remember that acknowledging a weakness isn’t the same as admitting defeat.
Ultimately, you have to be realistic about what’s going wrong if you want to fix things. If you’re not, people have no incentive to act. Simon Sinek put it best when he said: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” So, give your people a reason to buy into the change strategy by communicating the why first and the blockers that stand between us and that common goal.
2. Make The Outcome of Change The Centrepiece
This might sound like an obvious point but it’s worth stating: your story needs to be focused on the desired outcomes and the vision that the change facilitates. Change is a means to an end. Once you’ve set the scene by highlighting the challenge, the rest of the narrative should focus on how to overcome it. It’s the only logical way of guiding your audience from the start of the story to the end.
The ending needs to be all about the vision for the future you see and how it will positively impact people. A good way to share your proposed solutions is to create a direct link between the solution and the vision and values of the business.
Here’s a great example.
Airbnb CEO Bryan Chesky launched a service a few years ago called Trips, to enable Airbnb customers to book tours and experiences. In the launch speech, he delivered a powerful lesson in storytelling. He told a story about him as a child, vacationing with his mother and how the magical part was not the place they went to (in fact that part was a disappointment) but a beautiful moment of closeness with his mum on a beach. From then on, everyone was hooked. And there was clearly a purpose behind that story.
Chesky realised that shared accommodations and places — Airbnb’s bread and butter — is only part of an amazing journey – “people remember the magic of an experience”. And he used his personal story of his mum on the beach to be the inspiration and strong connection to the new service Airbnb was about to launch.
3. Create a Communication Strategy
When it comes to change, passive communication won’t cut it. Email, notice boards and, worse, word of mouth, generally won’t get people’s attention. Instead, you have to tell your story in a way that grabs your employees and sticks with them. So, work with your communication team to create a communication strategy.
Your business might not be all that big, but that’s all the more reason for people to hear your story from the horse’s mouth. This could include, for example, a presentation, a video, or even one-on-one conversations. People are often far happier to make a change if they’re involved in the discussion.
4. Allow Your People Contribute to the Story
Your story will have far more power if your team contributes. By inviting employees into the storytelling process, the change proposal at its core should become far more meaningful to them. So, ask them where they think the challenges lie within their own teams and ask them for suggestions on possible solutions. And, as the company progresses through its change initiatives, give your people the opportunity to shape the story as it evolves.
Powerful stories are ones that help people but tell their perspectives – not just incorporate their perspectives. You’ll often find that new leaders in your business will be excited to step up and become an integral part of the story and ultimately, be an advocate for the change you’d like to see.
5. Use Storytelling Within a Wider Strategy
Finally, it’s important to remember that storytelling alone cannot guarantee long-term change. Rather, storytelling is a tool that helps to make change happen. For it to be effective, though, you need to have a solid plan and commit to it religiously.
At the end of the day, a story ignites something inside that makes you want to move in a new direction. In the Brian Chesky AirBnb Experiences example you want to be a part of creating magical moments for people. However, without a fully-formed plan and overarching goals, it is far harder to “change” successfully. You will, therefore, need to build a strategy based on things like hard metrics and analysis which underpin the vision and let us know how we are tracking. Then, use storytelling as a way of maximising its success.
Storytelling often isn’t the first thing most business leaders think of when they want to make a positive change in their business. Yet, it is one of the most effective tools at your disposal. Without it, getting people to accept and adapt to new ways of doing things is much more difficult.
Incorporating storytelling into your change management process doesn’t have to be difficult. All you have to do is follow a basic narrative structure. Start with a problem at the beginning, work through solutions in the middle, and end with your long-term vision. As long as you communicate effectively and take employee insights on board, you should be onto a winner.