What great storytelling can teach us about engagement

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When Zhi Jin, CEO of the Chinese brewery, Tsing-Tao, revealed his strategy for the newly-privatised company, he told a story based on the recipe and method for making dumplings and pancakes: classic, local food that was served at lunchtime from the fast-food stalls located outside the company and enjoyed by hundreds of employees.

Zhi Jin wanted his employees to understand why spreading the company across too many different sectors could no longer be sustained and, instead, the company needed to specialise and develop its industry expertise in a few key markets. You can probably work out for yourselves which product – pancake v dumpling – he was analogising in his strategy. Like the best stories in business, it was simple, relevant and immediately accessible. And it worked: people knew what he meant and what had to be done.

The point is, stories can touch people in ways that dry, rational messages can’t. Facts, data and figures all have their place but a relevant, meaningful story is able to cut through to the essence of what we are asking people to do and why.

It’s why I describe story-telling as doing the ‘heavy lifting’ for leaders and managers who need people quickly to engage with what they’re being asked to do. The right stories, told in the right way, provide the colour, detail and emotion that make it real for people and make it stick.

The role of Storyteller when it comes to engaging others is one we tend to associate with CEOs and senior leaders who we tend to hold to account for the corporate narrative. Yet whilst huge amount of investment is put into corporate storytelling (that annual, glossy kick-off presentation, for example), it’s the development of line managers to be better, everyday storytellers that is needed.

For example, I facilitate so many culture sessions that are just dry conversations about how companies need people to change - 95% of time is put in to defining what needs to happen and only 5% about why. Even less, usually nothing at all, is spent on defining the story that brings meaning to the change. 

Five percent just isn’t enough for most managers; they need help to see the need and to become natural storytellers. It’s their stories that help people identify with the beliefs of the organisation and embrace new ways of working that bring the desired behaviours to life.

This is exactly what one call centre manager did when he wanted to remind his team just how important their customers were. He asked everyone to bring in a photo of a loved one on Valentine’s Day and gave them frames to display them on their desks. This, he said, was to remind them that their customers were just like those photos on their desks: they were someone’s much-loved father, daughter, grandparent, or friend. The manager didn’t talk about corporate values: he brought them alive through the photos on the desks.

This week, World Book Day is the chance to celebrate the power of storytelling across the globe but it’s also worth reminding ourselves that stories have a powerful place in the corporate workplace. The trick is making sure we don’t get lost in the corporate narrative and instead give managers the counsel and confidence to use storytelling as an engagement lever and become the best possible influencers of great performance.

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# Martine Young 2014-03-07 14:28
Great article Jane - made me realise how in my last job we used to rely (by default) on our comms around things like engagement coming from right at the top. It was just a natural assumption that it had to be that way, we never really challenged it.

What would be your advice on how to best "give managers the counsel and confidence to use storytelling as an engagement lever"?

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