Storytelling is not just reserved for content marketing; all aspects of the communications field are harnessing the techniques of storytelling to reap engagement rewards. Nowhere is this more important than in internal communications strategy, where you might have a captive audience, but there’s no guarantee they’re listening.
We know that storytelling is the best way to engage and keep an audience, and an engaged employee audience hits the bottom line: 94 percent of the world’s most admired companies believe that their efforts to engage their employees have created a competitive advantage.
“Storytelling is an important tool to leverage within internal communications. It can provide a deeper connection between employees and leaders, and with the organization’s culture, more than most communication techniques available,” says Christopher Swan.
Christopher spent almost two decades working in communications and marketing for brands including Disney, LinkedIn, and Avery Dennison, and he has some stories to tell about that experience. For example, at The Walt Disney Company he used storytelling to share important but dry information through a scripted internal web series that followed a character’s adventures through the company’s monthly technology and process changes.
The lessons offered by good storytellers go back centuries and have definite use for modern corporates. In order to discover how storytelling can be used to engage employees, I got out the little black book and asked some of the most talented storytellers in European internal communications to share their experiences so that we, as marketers, can better understand this essential competitive advantage.
Image attribution: Priscilla du Preez
“Great stories inspire people and improve organizational performance, so storytelling will just keep growing in value in internal communications,” says Suzanne Peck, president of the Institute of Internal Communications.
She says much of internal communicators’ time is spent sharing information, helping employees to make sense of fast-changing businesses, and reminding people of business goals and values.
“It’s the difference between just imparting information and connecting with the audience. Stories motivate employees, helping them to understand purpose and commit to bigger concepts such as organizational change and values. They make a connection between the employee, the company, and the leadership at a far more personal level.”
But, Peck says, be careful of the language you use. It’s easy to fall into the trap of your company’s own specific jargon and acronyms.
“It works best when stories are authentic and talk the language of the audience, not the business language of the organization. Too much corporate-speak, scripting, and jargon just fuel mistrust, so IC professionals need to use their skills to filter and make content meaningful.
“I think the best examples I see are where leadership creates and shares a story about their own personal experience. One bakery CEO talked about what he’d learned from working for a week on the bread production line, and how the new business transformation program would directly benefit production and future proof the business. Another client leader talked movingly about how one of his own company’s drug products had improved his daughter’s health.
“Our natural human tendency is to relate stories to our own experiences, so we naturally connect with others in this way. To quote Robert McKee, ‘Stories are how we remember; we tend to forget bullet points.'”
Can stories make an impact internally?
“Absolutely!” says Helen Deverell, internal communications strategy consultant, a former IoIC 30 under 30 recipient, and founder of Helen Deverell Communications. “Storytelling is an innately human thing, we’ve been doing it for thousands and thousands of years, and since internal communication is all about people, it makes sense to use it as a technique in the workplace.”
Deverell believes stories work so well inside organizations because stories bring information to life and help people make an emotional connection with what’s being shared.
“I worked with a client to help them target employees who historically hadn’t put themselves forward for development programs due to reasons such as working part-time, having child care commitments, or because they were studying, and so on. So we shared stories of colleagues who had progressed through the ranks and how they had managed it alongside personal situations to show that not only can it be done, but that the organization would support them every step of the way.
“It could have been a standard campaign about what the training would involve, how long it would take to be promoted, the skills you need to have. However, the client understood that people needed to see others like them having succeeded, and for there to be a real human element behind it.”
And her top tip for fellow IC-ers? Don’t stick to just the wins. “Be prepared to share failure. All good stories have obstacles that need to be overcome so share what didn’t go so well, and what you learned from the experience. That’s far more relatable and useful for others.”
“One of the key drivers of employee engagement as identified in the [UK government-sponsored] Mcleod and Clarke report Engaging for Success is having a strong corporate narrative or story that explains where the organization is heading. Research by my colleague at PR Academy, Dr. Kevin Ruck, has shown that employees want to hear about strategies and plans from the leaders of the organization,” she says.
Pilkington does, though, issue a warning—that the internal communicator needs to be careful not to get carried away by using stories for every part of their job. “Sometimes we just need to tell people stuff! However, stories are a good way to explain strategy.”
She gives Paul Smith’s CAR framework as a good technique that fits well with internal communications strategy. It sets out a three-element structure for storytelling—context, action and result—which in itself takes inspiration from the Hero’s Journey. The context stage includes the introduction of a villain or challenge. The second stage talks about what is done and includes a setback or failure along the way. The final stage, the result, includes a lesson for the reader or audience.
Image attribution: Csaba Balazs
“The changing face of office environments, where employees are more mobile and have access to an endless range of content sources, means we have even more competition for the attention spans of our audiences. So, in my view, compelling storytelling that connects with audiences on an emotional level is by far the most effective way of encouraging people to read, engage with, and act upon the content we produce,” says Billy Hamilton, senior internal communications manager at Grant Thornton UK LLP.
And Grant Thornton is taking it seriously: “We made the conscious decision to build an internal newsroom environment that tells the story of our strategy through the collectives stories of our people who are delivering it. So, whether it’s leadership profiles, pitch successes, marketing campaigns, or new product launches, we consistently apply a strong personal filter that helps our content resonate with people across all levels of the organization.”
The approach has been “hugely successful,” says Hamilton—readership has increased by nearly 25 percent, and they’re hearing more and more from stakeholders about how the content has helped them deliver on commercial goals.
Fa Mafi, internal communications manager at Cisco UK&I, agrees: “It’s commonplace for internal comms, as a practice, to be practical. When we need colleagues to do something, we often just clearly ask them to do it.”
Cisco put storytelling at the heart of its award-winning Cisco Pavelka well-being initiative, which featured employee stories on monthly webinars as well as TV-episode style “inspire stories” about individual and team journeys.
Authenticity is what Anna Lane believes we mean when we say “storytelling in internal communications.” The internal communications manager at the University of Brighton, Lane believes internal comms has moved from “big budgets, big conferences, a show of force from senior management, and top-down ‘tell, tell, tell'” because people just don’t buy into that anymore. Instead, internal communication is about the same senior management teams or individuals building relationships on a more authentic level with their people.
“Storytelling is often about a senior member of staff talking more openly and honestly about the challenges they have faced and how they continue to focus on their own personal development as they lead others. Anything else is just a stage-show and a sideshow from what’s really happening,” she says.
“Where possible, I now encourage senior staff to get off the conference stage and literally talk to people on the same level. For example a ‘staff roadshow’ becomes more informal sessions. Leaders can still do this with poise and gravitas because their role is to lead their people, but they must constantly be listening and reflecting on what their teams are really telling them.”
Lane believes the role of an internal communicator is now to facilitate this, but also “to get out of the way and allow the conversations to happen”.
How does this work, though, when you’re talking in multiple languages? Just the same, really. In fact, given the emotional resonance of storytelling, it can be a key tool in the arsenal of the global internal communicator.
Gordon Dowall-Potter is a communicator with pan-European experience for both B2B and B2C internal audiences. He believes if not enough time is spent on thinking creatively and giving context to colleagues, then much of IC can come across as “stale or simply dry messaging.”
“Pause for a moment, and think about how much information the average person has to assimilate in the course of a day—news, emails, funny GIFS, social media posts. If you don’t tell a story, how will your message cut through all of the noise and be memorable?”
Dowall-Potter gives all corporate messages a clear purpose and filters IC into one of three categories: to inform, to cascade, and to take direct action. He also finds it helpful to give things a theme or a “catchy title” to grab readers’ attention.
“When I was recently at a FTSE250 company, the company was going through significant change. As that can be daunting for many, we branded everything we communicated about the change as ‘Fit for Growth.’ In those three little words, it made it clear that everything we were doing as a business was to make things better and ready for the opportunity to expand.”
Here’s some important advice: Before you do anything, whether you’re an internal communicator or a content creator or a digital marketer, check in with your colleagues. Not only will they have experiences and stories that you can harness, they’ll also be telling stories of their own. You want to ensure you’re not competing; that you’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.
Sharing content across various levels and sectors of your company can not only help avoid confusion in your workflow, but it can bring economies of scale, making each department’s lives and budgets a little happier. Utilizing a content marketing platform such as Skyword360 can help you streamline how you distribute your content strategy and help your organization establish a clearer vision by allowing you to share this information across multiple departments.
You should also bring the company’s culture into sharp focus, says Christopher Swan: “When incorporating storytelling into internal communications, it’s critical to match the types of stories to the organization’s culture. For stories to be effective, they should be seen as a natural extension of the culture and brand. Otherwise, they won’t resonate with employees. Use stories to be more of who you are, not something new.”
So how can you incorporate business storytelling into your internal communications strategy easily and simply? Here are five things to start with:
1. Talk the language of your audience. Strategic goals and corporate values are essential to internal communications, but jargon will immediately turn off those you need to reach.
2. Don’t be afraid to share failures. It shows your company is practical and will foster a culture of openness and a willingness to learn from past mistakes.
3. Consider themed campaigns centered around stories rather than assets. While messaging documents and guidelines are useful, bullet points aren’t as memorable as stories.
4. Center on the personal. One of the adages of any communication is “people love reading about people.” So find the personal stories of experience and triumph that can help motivate the rest of the company.
5. Talk to your marketing and communications colleagues to ensure you’re working effectively together—remember at the end of the day you’re all creating content for an audience, and there’s plenty to learn from each other
For more information on how tools like Skyword360 can help you create a unified content strategy and communicate your goals and vision across an entire team, check out our resource page.
Featured image attribution: Ellyot