We remember stories more than anything else, so it makes sense to engage employees through storytelling. But it’s not easy to find the right stories and storytellers, and it’s even more challenging to make the stories themselves engaging! Here are 6 steps we follow to capture stories for an employee engagement campaign:
1. Listening: how do employees engage with mission, values, and role
To begin your engagement campaign research, listen for the stories that need to be told. This is part of what is known in storytelling as the excavation process. In order to find relevant stories to tell, you must ascertain whether employees understand the values of the organization, and how they engage with them. This includes their understanding of their own role and of their team. Are there any blockers getting in the way? The trick to successful excavation is to keep it open, approach the process without pre-concepts, and let people speak freely.
Undertake a listening tour of your organization. Identify the people you need to interview and ask these essential questions: “What is your understanding of the mission and how do you observe it in action?” “What is your level of identification with the company’s values? What are examples where you see those values being embodied?” “How do you see your role in the organization?” You will quickly see where your employees are on the spectrum of understanding: no understanding at all, some understanding, very good understanding, and finally, full-embodiment of mission, values, and role. How that spectrum is weighted will tell you what employees need to learn most about, and therefore what stories they need to hear. (Note: In lieu of in-person interviews, which is challenging for larger companies even when we are not facing a pandemic, polls, questionnaires, or Zoom interviews work just as well.)
2. Analysis: identify dominant narratives or “themes”
Out of your listening tour, you will hear anecdotes full of rich information that indicate what is working or not working within the organization in terms of employee understanding and engagement. These will coalesce into certain “themes,” which means specific cultural issues or stumbling blocks to efficiency in a department, and so forth to name a few. Make sure to identify the ones that you hear the most. With those “dominant narratives” in hand, you’re ready to start crafting stories. But don’t make the mistake of telling those stories yourself. See point 3.
3. Storytellers: choose a spectrum of representative storytellers
Too often, the leaders of companies tell stories that are not about themselves, but about people in their organizations. If you are telling a story about someone in your organization, why not ask them to tell it? It’s far more engaging to hear a first-hand account. Plus it will increase the sense of ownership on the part of the person you ask to tell that story. It will make them proud to be selected, while you will get a chance to show that it’s not just leadership in the spotlight. The message you are sending is: everyone in your company has a voice, and you’re interested in hearing from all of them. Choose representatives of the organization in terms of role, seniority, demographics, etc. and then prompt them to tell a story using the themes you identified earlier.
4. Train storytellers in a storytelling methodology
At this point, you have identified relevant themes and storytellers and the stories they will tell that you will capture on audio, video, or other means. But you will soon see that the people you’re asking to tell a story have varying degrees of storytelling ability. Some are naturals; others are extremely shy or not confident when it comes to presenting themselves; while most are somewhere in the middle. You don’t want to only have people who are confident presenters because you’ll end up with a selection that’s not representative. You need to coach people to craft a story that’s going to be compelling and engaging. Don’t just rely on their innate sense of what a story is. You will get mixed results. Use a consistent methodology and help them craft their story. They will need a listener, and that person will be you. For a consistent method, check this article about sense-based storytelling.
5. Organize learning modules based upon stories
We learn from stories. Use that principle to create learning content in a modular way, where the stories are at the core of each learning module. For instance, if one of your themes is “Overcoming challenges in the field” then you will have a story from someone about a time that they managed to get out of a tricky situation. Imagine a video of that story as the first thing people see in the module, and then a summary of lessons learned after the story, and a quiz to reinforce the points in the user’s mind.
6. Deliver and engage
Employee engagement is not a “one and done” deal. It must be a living system that evolves as the organization expands, contracts, and changes. New people need to feel like their stories matter. There’s no better way for them to express what they do than by having someone listen to their stories. Set up periodic storytelling sessions as a component of your internal content-delivery strategy. Ask for response and input in story form. Then, let employees know that they may be part of the next generation of employee engagement stories. Again, you’re communicating that you are interested in everyone’s voice. Keep listening for new themes, and new stories will emerge, as well as new storytellers.
Secret step: build a storytelling culture
Stories are how we make sense of the world. They transcend cultural, language, and socio-economic barriers and differences. Our brains are hard-wired for stories. We all respond to them and engage with them. It’s what connects us as human beings. By taking control of the narrative you want to convey in your organization and engaging everyone to tell stories, you are building a culture that is responsive and made to evolve. You are creating a library of stories that will make up the larger institutional narrative of your organization. And you are giving everyone an opportunity to experience “the bliss of storytelling.” Murray Nossel, Ph.D., coined this term to express the sense of freedom, engagement, and social belonging created by listening and storytelling.
Your library gives you new communication options. For example, if society is talking about diversity and inclusion in a brand new way, you will have the ability to draw from that library to demonstrate your approach—authentically, from the inside out. And if you don’t have those stories, you now have a way to find and craft them, and a place to make sure they are heard.
Stories are alive, part of the never-ending movement of your organization’s culture. Don’t mistake static narratives for brand identity. Listen, and grow.
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