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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 1

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In the run-up to a workshop for internal commicators that we will be running on at the 2014 Melcrum Summit on 14 October, the organizers invited potential attendees to submit their questions about storytelling in organizations.

The request elicited such a great range of thought-provoking questions that we decided to post them, together with our responses, as a series of articles. This is the first and focuses on the strategic role of storytelling.

How important is it to have storytelling in your internal communications strategy?

Storytelling can be invaluable when an organization is at a stage where it is looking to embed complex changes or engage people in many different ways. If you are looking to open up your communications to different voices, to surface internal experience of values, change, strategic decisions, and customer experiences of what you do and how you do it, then story is essential. It can be seen as a research tool as well as a method of creating meaning and connection, as long as stories are not sitting on a shelf and are not perceived as manipulative.

Despite being achingly on trend, avoid using storytelling as an end in itself or indeed simply as another channel or method in the mix. It’s quite a task to collect and put stories to work and there is often a lot of discomfort along the way. So there needs to be a clear payoff and legitimacy to the process. And managers and leaders need to be willing to be vulnerable and open to stories they didn’t choose (and can’t control) becoming the currency of change.

You can find some additional thoughts on this in our posting about the marvellous corporate storytelling course 1997.

Can storytelling change behaviour within an organization?

In situations when an organization or group needs to shift the way it does things, storytelling can get people to start to see things differently. When you need to deal with complex emotions, reflect on the way things were or bring to life the way things need to be, stories have the edge over facts and figures. Having said that, facts and figures also have an important role to play so it’s not a case of either or but of both and.

Stories allow a lot of emotional baggage to be worked through, knowledge exchanged, issues surfaced – without which no lasting change can happen. Most of all, storytelling is a person-to-person, a human activity that creates connections and glue at unsettled or disrupted times. In our view this does not imply happy campfire stuff – stories are often difficult, challenging, address things that are more comfortable unsaid, and can bring many perspectives into play.

If you’d like to explore the topic further, here are some suggestions:

Storytelling in an organization is never ending. When is the right time to review your story and evolve it?

Carol Russell, who has played an important role in shaping our thinking on story, describes storytelling as a string of pearls – this to counter another view of stories as the hero’s journey, a more Hollywood model.

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photomaia hopes

How long is a piece of string? A model we often use involves both a big story and a series of little stories. Imagine the big story of an organization, its trajectory and purpose as the string, and all the stories of how that purpose is experienced as the pearls. You can keep adding pearls, and some will fall off. Sometimes the string breaks and needs to be re-woven either because of an external crisis that hits at the core or through the loss of purpose and direction. These are times when organizations review their story – new leadership, M&A, market crash, regulatory challenges, new products, disruptive innovations, etc.

There is also a strong argument to keep an organization’s story fresh by making sure the pearls are collected and communicated systematically rather than waiting for a crisis. A healthy use of stories is as an early warning system, helping to spot weak signals before things get out of hand.

Two resources that might be useful here are our thoughts on preserving the essence of an organization and the work we do around cultural alignment.

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