This story originally appeared on Forbes.com on December 10, 2020.
In my last article, we looked at how companies have a tendency toward deafness when it comes to getting to know their people. Let's now imagine that, as leaders, we actually took the time to listen. With what we learned, we then built a rich picture of their needs and behaviors. What then? What do we actually do with this gold mine of human insight?
In every area of life, from science to relationships, there's a gap between the cultural insight we reveal and the change necessary to unlock its value. Inside many enterprise organizations, the gap is more of a canyon. The bridge we need to build to cross it comes in a very familiar form: a story.
This may sound like nothing more than a romantic notion to rational business leaders. But consider this: Stories are hardwired into every human being. They help us form emotional connections. They help us remember things. As leaders working to engage large groups of employees, that's pretty important.
'Story Is A Metaphor For Life.' — Robert McKee
Research shows that memories are strong when they are tied to an emotion: joy, grief, pride, fear. We remember the first day of school due to the intense anticipation and anxiety we felt. We remember where we were and what we were doing on 9/11 due to the intense fear and chaos. We remember when our children are born due to the intense love and wonder. These memories come back to us sharp and in focus when we recount them as stories.
If you want someone to remember something, follow a story form. Think about how we live today. Stories are everywhere: movies, music, fashion, advertising and even the news.
Stories are also essential in the fast-moving world of work. Think of them as a universal translator across disciplines, geographies and generations. They are a bridge across the complex lines drawn on every organizational chart.
Marketers have harnessed stories to reach customers for decades. The best, like Apple and Nike, use them intrinsically to build a brand narrative around an emotive story filled with memorable characters. Leaders recognize the value this brings to their business and continue to invest heavily in it. So why do the same leaders still struggle to apply these proven principles to reach employees? Here's what we often see happening:
The Three Biggest Mistakes In Internal Storytelling
1. The wrong audience. In organizations with strong leaders, investment in story-driven communication tends to be saved just for the "generals," leaving the "troops" with just the factual information. The reality is that leaders rarely need a deep story to see the value in an idea or investment. With clear facts, they can create their own. Frontline employees, on the other hand, are often fed a diet of starchy information. They are starved of inspiration, the magic nutrient inside every story.
2. The wrong hero. Often, when constructing a new company or change narrative, the natural tendency is to make the company the protagonist. Any smart advertising practitioner will tell you that the brand is never the hero of the ad. It's always the customer you are trying to reach. The same goes for internal storytelling. The employees must play the lead role. The company is never the hero. No one wants to watch that movie.
3. The wrong script. There are good stories and there are bad stories. What usually differentiates the two is the courage to make us really care. What stops most companies from being able to tell their people a compelling story is the lack of courage to be authentic and honest. Many companies we work with fear telling a human story because it forces them to look in the mirror and take account of what is true and what isn't, and what is going well and what isn't. This lack of honesty or depth is why there are such few good stories. There's a famous idiom among storytellers: "Rocky can't win the first fight."
We use a proven process (something we call "change marketing") to steer safely around these mistakes and create memorable stories that cross the canyon between company leaders and their employees. Put simply, we make the employees the heroes, build emotion into every step of any change journey and ensure that the destination is something that both employees and leaders care about.
How To Tell A Good Internal Story
If I've done a good enough job of unpacking why stories matter, it's time to get practical. Here are three things to focus on as you craft your next employee communication or change narrative:
1. Make it everyone's problem. Whatever change or challenge you are trying to communicate, make sure you frame it from your people's perspective. Is this something that matters to them? Do they care? If the honest answer is no, put yourself in their world and reimagine what's happening from that point of view.
2. Find a tension we all want to resolve. Change is a journey with "villains" to overcome along the way. Identifying these tensions clearly will unite people around the work ahead. It will make them care.
3. Point to a destination we all dream of reaching. From your employees' point of view, what does success look like at the end of the journey? If people know what's in it for them, not just for the company, they will be more willing to stay engaged.
The One Thing I Want You To Take Away
If you want your people to remember what you are telling them, craft a story. The need for stories is universal — it cuts through every industry and every discipline. Because while your people are employees, they also are human beings looking to live memorable lives.