Although the power of storytelling to persuade customers to buy a product or service has been well covered by History Factory and elsewhere, insights on the use of stories for internal communications are comparatively scant. However, Jerome Bruner’s assertion 33 years ago in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds—that stories are 22 times more memorable than facts alone—has equal application internally within organizations as it does externally with customers or other stakeholders. The challenge is finding examples of particularly effective storytelling in internal communications. Unlike more public examples of customer-facing storytelling, such as Johnnie Walker whiskey, a CFO’s presentation to his colleagues on the use of organizational resources just isn’t as sexy.
As noted a few years ago in Forbes, great leaders are usually great storytellers. It stands to reason that if you need to persuade groups of people to believe in you and your leadership, you need a good story to capture their imagination—not a PowerPoint presentation full of stats.
On the May 4, 2019, episode of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, guest Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, relayed how persuasive Bill Gates was when they met at Stanford. Gates persuaded him to drop out of the MBA program and work for a tiny startup called Microsoft. According to Ballmer, Gates painted a picture of a computer on every desk at a time when most people asked why anyone would want or need a computer. Ballmer’s tale of telling his parents he was dropping out of Stanford to follow this bespectacled visionary is entertaining. His story is also an example of effective leadership in action—persuading someone to act by both painting a vision and crafting a narrative around how that vision will come to fruition. Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, are some of the best business storytellers around, a trait shared by many great leaders, including Richard Branson of Virgin and Howard Schultz of Starbucks.
Storytelling skills are important throughout an organization, not just at the top. People at all levels are constantly competing for time and other resources. Gaining more people for a department, getting more time on a project, securing a bigger budget for a program, obtaining a commitment for a particular task, or garnering attention for a new process—all of these are examples of situations where strong persuasive skills are vital to emerge ahead in the competition for resources.
Quite a few people have written about how storytelling can be used internally by marketers. Storytelling has a key role in marketing a brand’s content strategy and message internally, to build enthusiasm behind the messages and communications that the marketing and communications teams are pushing externally. Storytelling also needs to form part of a brand’s vision, again for internal audiences. But marketers don’t often consider the day-to-day use of storytelling. Sometimes, these stories include anecdotes or personal experiences that form a compelling narrative and help persuade others.
For example, a client once needed to explain to management why marketing needed to invest more heavily in communications aligned with their recently completed customer journey mapping. Rather than focus on facts and figures, she deftly told the stories of various customer personas and the journeys they took to get to the ultimate purchase decision. By putting her audience into the shoes of the customer, and demonstrating how diverse the customer journey can be, she successfully made the case for an additional investment.
Human resources departments can deploy storytelling in a number of ways to increase their functional effectiveness, on everything from recruitment to onboarding to retention to inclusion. An example of this is the work by Accenture and its “Inclusion Starts with I” program. The story of inclusion from the perspective of the employee sends a powerful message. The program proved to be highly effective for both employees and prospective employees: After the video was made public, it garnered over 100,000 views in the first two months and secured Accenture a high position on employer review sites like Glassdoor among employers based on inclusivity.
According to Erik Luhrs, author of the book on selling Be Do Sale, “Stories allow the subconscious mind of the prospect to truly ‘get’ and see the valuable application of the solution.” If you ask most salespeople to name their most effective colleagues, they’re likely to name the better storytellers. This infographic shows that stories stimulate seven different parts of the brain compared to just two parts activated by facts and figures. More stimulation, more emotion—and effective selling is as much an emotional as a rational undertaking.
According to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, seven plots constitute the vast majority of stories. Each can be adapted, depending on the circumstances, to most situations that employees face.
- Overcoming the Monster: Just as Jaws and Jurassic Park tell the tale of man overcoming an antagonistic force, so too can employees share tales of how they tackled a “monster” in the past (e.g., a fierce competitor, a new market entrant, an inflexible operating system, a business-as-usual mentality) or how they intend to tackle said monster in the future.
- Rags to Riches: Fans of Cinderella may believe dreams can come true, and so do fans of entrepreneurial heroes like Branson or Schultz, and their come-from-nothing-to-achieve-much stories. This tale applies equally to functional managers illustrating how much their department has accomplished, where they started and how they succeeded against the odds. Or to managers seeking to rally the troops after a setback, with tales of how they’ve faced challenges before and secured victory in the end.
- The Quest: Just like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Lord of the Rings tell the tale of a journey to find something, employees can tell their organization’s journey. For a recruit, hearing about the organization’s journey can help them understand their role in the company’s future. “War stories” from a sales battle with a nemesis can help sales managers guide junior executives as they approach new quests.
- Voyage and Return: This story focuses on leaving and returning, and how much better the main character is for having undertaken the experience. A Shrek journey may seem unusual for an organization, but it’s not uncommon for employees to share their tales of “life outside our firm” with other colleagues, reinforcing the benefits of their existing company.
- Comedy: While many company meetings may be Much Ado About Nothing, sharing comic moments is a powerful and memorable tool internally. Few leaders can resist inserting a comedic anecdote or clever quip into their keynote speeches at annual meetings or events.
- Tragedy: No organization wants a tragedy, but tragic stories—whether it’s a disaster that nearly ended the firm or minor hiccups that seemed major at the time—offer learning opportunities. Telling those stories helps foster a spirit of togetherness while reinforcing a sense of transparency.
- Rebirth: Many individuals experience a rebirth in their lives at some point, a time when they change their direction or alter their course. In Rocky, for example, this rebirth occurred when the hero started his grueling training regimen in preparation for the big fight. For companies, the rebirth might be the story of an “a-ha” moment of an innovation that changed the direction of the enterprise.
Finding occasions when a story can create impact and persuade others to take a particular course of action requires a new and different frame of mind. Approach each situation you face daily as an opportunity to paint a compelling narrative, and eschew the more conventional route of presenting facts and figures in favor of a well-thought-out narrative that engages your internal audience, no matter how large or small. The result will be far more memorable and enjoyable.
For more information on how storytelling can help your organization, check out our comprehensive guide to corporate storytelling.