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The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

guide to storytelling for internal communicators: part 2

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In part 2 of our guide we’re going to focus on finding and collecting stories.

Any tips for sourcing stories externally and from senior leaders experiences?

Collecting stories can be the most fun part of storytelling practice, and also the most challenging. For example, we have found that in organizations that are very fact-based and rational (financial services, pharmaceuticals, utilities), inviting people to share a story about a specific issue typically leads to them describing a set of facts. They are not used to seeing themselves in the picture. It’s often after the story-collecting interviews or research that the personal angle rather than the spokesperson angle comes out. 

Here are a few tips for sourcing stories externally:

  • Engaging external stakeholders in sharing their experiences of interacting with your organization needs a clear payback for them – will their story lead to a new product, an improved experience? Or is it just an endorsement?
  • The best external stories are often emerge from stakeholders talking to each other rather than being sourced by the interested party. Social media are an excellent way to capture these conversations.
  • People are more willing to share stories if they can include venting and negativity.

Leadership stories have an important to role to play in humanizing a leader, showing what matters to them, presenting the individual rather than just the role. There is another angle, namely that stories can show something at play in the organization that may be small and subtle but signal a bigger message.

Sourcing stories from leaders involves prompting them to notice what they see and turn those noticings into anecdotes that will travel and help communicate strategy. With the right trigger questions, journals are a great way to help leaders jot down a few things, and bring home nuggets from their travels. They will appeal to some and not to others.

You can find more on the topic in bringing strategies to life through stories.

How can you spot a story in more formal messages?

Let’s begin by defining what we mean by story: a story can be recognized as having certain features, which include a clear place and character, turning points and vivid emotions.

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A Sparknow reference we can point to is the Story Guide from a project with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. 

There is another aspect of story in communications, which we have worked on a lot, and that is the factional story. This also addresses some of the earlier question around story as spin, as this type of story is a way of using narrative methods to bring drier, less connected content to life. A factional story is one that’s made up but based on real-life events and experiences. So it contains an important truth even though things didn’t literally happen exactly as told in the story.

There’s often a real challenge in the gap between formal messaging and the informal stories that might help a message to be heard. One of the techniques we’ve developed over the years, which had its origins in a complex technology transformation where project managers had lost sight of the emotional impact of the change on the people they wanted to change, is walking in their shoes.

The best stories are told by our employees – how do we inspire them to share their stories (comfortably) via social media?

There is a big body of research that tells us that sharing stories is part of our humanity: that this is what we are drawn to do, the way we are drawn to make human connections to survive emotionally. We also like the thought that we are who we are because of the stories we hear, which we covered in a recent blog posting.

We find that people in organizations, whatever their role, share stories naturally because that is what people do. The challenge is to create an environment of trust where stories shared are treated with respect – not pillaged for spin by the organization or by factions within it for their own purposes. If you want to put someone else’s story to work, you should get their permission first.

If stories are seen as a way of sharing what someone knows with others to tackle issues or co-create new things as a group, social media becomes a means of making this easier and more immediate. You won’t go far wrong if you take that approach. You could also encourage leaders to share their stories to get the ball rolling, to host online discussions or jams to bring people together, and to always be positive and encouraging. Snippy comments on a heart-felt story posted for the first time will not help make social media the chosen channel and there is a real ‘flaming’ danger in these anonymous environments, which need careful stewardship.

It’s worth taking a look at what Oxfam have done around the stories of objects as a way of opening up conversations, and capturing them online or via an app. It’s the conversation triggered by the story that matters, not so much the platform. And here are some reflections on digital storytelling.

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