Storytelling as a culture builder – how feather dusters & snow globes can help

‘Tell me a story’ are words to make most people’s blood pressure increase.  Just as North American corporate audiences don’t tend to sing or draw in public, we don’t tend to tell stories either.

Or do we?

The background story

We all tell stories and we tell them all the time.  We just may not call it storytelling.  Fact is storytelling is powerful.  Storytelling is an agent for: increasing employee engagement, managing change, training and development, interviewing, evaluation, operations, marketing, building corporate culture and more.

Social media rests on our powerful urge to tell and be told stories.  The recent popularity of infographics (depicting information, knowledge or data visually) is all about making information more interesting by making it tell a story.

Our brains are wired for storytelling.  Stories live in long-term memory, while facts tend to live in short-term memory. Author Daniel Pink, in Whole New Mind, says facts are widely available, it’s putting them into context that makes a connection. Stories increase retention.

Putting stories in the forefront

Curious but unsure how to go about telling or gathering stories?  Here’s a nine point storytelling checklist.

1.    What’s your muse?

Examples of inspiration for storytelling are all around you.  Just take a look. I noticed a client’s receptionist desk was full of snow globes.  Curious, I asked about them. Turns out the receptionist was a fan of said snowy pieces and staff would bring her back one from their various travels.  What a great jumping off point for a story.  Globes could be pictured in the company newsletter with a story of the staff’s travels.  Easy?  Yes.  A tool for employee engagement?  Yes.

2.     Check your story to make sure it has a beginning, middle and end.

Daniel Pink calls this ‘departure, initiation and return’.  Collect or create stories that have this rhythm.

3.     Make sure you know the purpose of your story.

Be clear about what are you trying to achieve before you start collecting or creating stories.  Are you dealing with a large-scale change?  Trying to increase employee engagement?  Beef up your corporate culture?  Once you know what you’re trying to achieve the stories will flow more easily.

I once worked with a multi-national client where some employees had been active on Facebook telling negative stories about the company.  I was called in to help.  Essentially I gathered stories that focused on building the corporate culture.  The effect was dramatic.  Staff felt heard and changes were made.

4.     Make sure your story has people + problem (or characters + conflict).

Good stories have a problem or conflict plus a cast of people or characters.  The resolution of the conflict is what makes those who are listening curious and engaged.  What conflict or problem are you dealing with that could benefit from storytelling?

5.     Map your story for ways to leverage curiousity.

‘Ah ha is most powerful when preceded by huh?!’ say the Heath brothers in Made to Stick.  Curiousity is gold.  Our brains not only love curiosity but more importantly, love to resolve curiosity.  Find a story that makes listeners curious and you’ve got gold.

6.     Use a feather duster to brush off uninvited guests – a.k.a. check the organizational conditions for storytelling conduciveness.

Stories bypass negativity and judgments.  Stories have the power to suspend disbelief BUT organizational conditions have to be conducive for the magic to unfold.  Have someone who repeatedly rolls his or her eyes?  Does someone else tend towards snippy comments like ‘this will never work’? Or perhaps folks are nervous and you’re hearing things like ‘this is too hard, I can’t do this.’

The solution to these storytelling squashers?  Imagine a feather duster brushing off your and/or their shoulder while saying ‘uninvited guest’.  Setting the ground rules with an imaginary (or real) feather duster makes a huge difference to people’s receptivity.  If the organization isn’t receptive or isn’t prepped properly stories tend to fall flat.

7.     Add texture & details.

Good stories transport you and this happens in good part because of adding texture and details. What’s happening to the character’s body while they’re experiencing conflict – for example ‘her throat felt like someone had reached inside and squeezed’ is more transporting than ‘she was nervous.’

8.     What’s your message?

What message are you trying to convey?  A helpful way to think about your message is to base it on an archetype – for example Nike portrays itself as the brave hero while Virgin is the adventurer.  Lego is the creator while M&M’s is the joker.[1] What’s yours?

9.     What values does your story portray?

Make sure the values of your story match what values you want to be portraying.  I was told a story about a VP who has to approve all company tweets before they get posted.  If the company is trying to convey transparency and openness this is not a good story to be making the rounds!

The moral of the story

Storytelling is a powerful medium that can be used in a wide variety of ways to effect positive organizational change.  Grab your feather duster and your version of a snow globe and get story gathering and telling.

Want to know more?  Check out the storytelling resources listed in Rock.Paper.Scissors Inc.’s latest e-newsletter.


[1] Source: Sam Reynolds, Echo Memoirs


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One Response to “Storytelling as a culture builder – how feather dusters & snow globes can help”

  1. Storytelling - 3 resources for corporate storytelling | Rock.Paper.Scissors.Blog Says:
    May 20th, 2011 at 9:05 am

    […] Storytelling is a strategic tool for building organizational culture, managing change, teambuilding and more.  In my last post I covered 9 tips to help you get storytelling. […]

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