Why you need to tell a story in order to engage your employees

To engage your employees, you must be able to tell a story. Storytelling is one of the most ancient forms of communication for a key reason; it creates powerful emotional connections that link the storyteller and the listener.

In today’s frenetic world where everything and everyone is competing for our limited attention spans, the art of great storytelling becomes more important as a means to capture this attention and ‘mindshare’ as it is sometimes known.

A skill as old as time

Stories have always been used to share cultures and shape identities. We hear stories from when we are young children, teaching us lessons and giving us vital reference points that help our brains to process and store information. Scientists have even found that we have evolved to learn and process new information through stories, with the creative right-hand side of the brain and the fact-driven left side needing to connect to forge new memories.

Great storytellers know that the right words, told in the right way, can create ideas, action and a sense of possibility; engaging emotions, imagination, motives, aspirations and memories. The best in the business know how to do this whilst positioning their own messages and agenda; whether that is an ambition for cultural change or a new set of business objectives.

Storytelling is a learned art

The good news is that the art of storytelling can be learned. Most business leaders will not simply freestyle a yarn but rather plan their structure, messages and delivery, develop the narrative and trial run their story before presenting it more broadly. They will profile their listeners in order to gain insight into their needs and context, and then use words that marry up the user’s own emotional framework with the purpose of the message. This creates vital ‘mindshare’ which will help to create and then grow commitment from employees.

How do you do it?

Before you decide to launch a story onto you employees, think about what your focus is and how the story will develop. You need to ensure that your voice is authentic and have confidence in your message. To make sure the story is relevant to your employees, link it clearly to your business focus – whether that is a new change programme or a defined set of business values.

Once you have defined your focus, consider the right content and type of story that will engage with your employees and encourage them to perform certain outcomes. There are four main story styles that are used in business, and the right one will help you to achieve this goal.

The four main types of business story

1. Evidence-based stories

These are ideal when you are speaking to sceptical employees or those who are nervous about a change. Speak vividly and clearly about the results achieved to walk the listeners through the problem, the solution and the eventual result – taking them on an emotional journey that ends with a positive, repeatable outcome. When you encourage your employees to challenge their thinking and reframe their expectations about certain situations or problems, you encourage them to open their eyes to fresh possibilities and grow confidence in the solution being proposed.

2. Bridging the gap stories

These are ideal for instances where you need to show problem-solving in action. Begin by painting a verbal picture of the current state or problem, and then walk your listeners through to the desired stage – creating an emotional connection that will start to change mindsets by introducing new ideas and the payoffs of taking action.

3. Heroes

The journey of a hero is a tale as old as time! It demonstrates how obstacles can be overcome when action is taken. This is a powerful story type when talking about the history of your organisation and its cultures – and it is also excellent when recognising high performance and seeking greater motivation from the wider team.

4. Analogies

These are used commonly to encourage your employees to change their viewpoint or to share a new or complex idea. By taking two subjects and examining their similarities, the listener experiences positive memories and emotions.

Remember, there is no ‘correct’ story type, but each will have a role to play in your culture development programme. The stories will take on a life of their own as they are re-told and eventually become woven into the fabric of the company’s history. If you are nervous about beginning your story-telling journey, then remember that you already tell them every day without realising! There is also specialist coaching available for leaders who are formally beginning their corporate storytelling journey for their first time, which can be valuable in building confidence, skills and ease with this most ancient and powerful of arts.

Using visual aids to illustrate your story provides an additional stimulus to help bring the story alive.  It also provides a means to continually remind employees about what you are trying to achieve if the images are used after the event.  Visuals can be printed and posted around an office or put on-line on a company intranet.  The visuals do not need to be complicated, but they do need to reinforce the story.  The Integrated Strategy Map is a great example of an illustration that can be used.