How Can Storytelling Be Used to Drive Change?
Some say that storytelling is central to human existence, and I agree. Almost everything that happens in our lives is documented through stories. The narratives we tell, and the ones we listen to, shape our personality, thoughts, and actions. This concept dates back centuries, from the first tale ever carved into stone to today’s on-demand streaming, narratives and their purpose have evolved rapidly. Every time we open our phones, watch TV, or browse on the internet, we’re encouraged to be part of a story or at the minimum, react or comment on it to keep the conversation going. When we take a step back, we can see just how big storytelling has become as a part of culture and everyday life, so much so that participating in them isn’t really a choice anymore, its inherent and automatic. So if we can’t escape stories, shouldn’t we be using them to the best of our advantage?
Well as we’re going through the current pandemic, the world’s most impactful individuals are. News channels, reporters, political leaders, and other influential figures have directly impacted the way we think about the crisis, by leveraging storytelling. They’ve told us what’s right or wrong, how to keep safe, and have also shaped our opinions on themselves and those around us, based on the stories they tell. COVID-19 has had a huge impact on a global level and the principles they’ve been using to drive change during COVID-19 can also be applied to organizational change. So let’s take a deeper look at the methods these narratives are using to influence our behaviour, and how we can apply them to the organizational context.
The Principles of Effective Storytelling
Our power to influence change largely depends on our ability to communicate information (or misinformation) in effective ways, COVID-19 has shown us that the right information delivered in the right way can prompt people to change their individual and collective behaviours. If we use the example of the “Flatten the Curve” movement, we can further understand how narratives can transform information or instructions, into engaging and compelling messages.
The “Flatten the Curve” campaign has been widely used across so many different platforms and one of the main methods used in developing this campaign, is using personal experience to encourage empathy and emotional response. Using real-life examples when telling a story makes information more engaging and influential. The stories we hear about our frontline workers, health care professionals and other important people in our own communities, puts information into context and gives us something human to relate to. A message that emotionally resonates with an audience will help spread information further, as people become their own advocates for the campaign.
This same idea applies to organizational change. When communicating about a new initiative to your employees, using practical examples that feature trusted employees, helps similarly bridge the gap between the change and the people. Employees will better understand how the change affects them individually or the “WIIFM” (What’s in it for me) by seeing their colleagues as a role model for the change and reducing its overall uncertainty. This role model also sets an example for the desired behaviour during and after the change, encouraging other employees to follow the same path. Collaborative or co-created stories in the organizational context are useful tools, it can make the change seem significantly less daunting by connecting people to something they’re familiar with, or something that resonates with them on a personal level. Stories that empower your employees will create a sense of accountability for the change, helping them feel like a true part of your organization’s change plan and journey, not just the result.
When you’re in the process of crafting your story, be sure to also consider the different audiences your message is intended to reach. This is something that news channels, reporters, and leaders have perfected in today’s media and COVID communications. Take the WHO (World Health Organization) for example, to ensure that their key safety messaging gets across to the right audiences, they’ve presented the same information and data in different ways. Here are a few examples of how they’ve tailored their “general advice” for different target audiences and platforms:
We can see that the key messages they’re sharing are similar between these examples, however, they’ve leveraged a wide variety of platforms and mediums to ensure information is being heard across different groups. Modifying your organizations’ communications and delivery methods when thinking about storytelling are important to consider. In an organization, different roles will likely have varying understandings of the change, or some part of the initiative might be more important to one specific group than another. There are a few questions you can ask yourself when thinking about how you can tweak your messaging to target different groups in your organization:
How does the change impact this group’s specific roles and expectations?
Is this group familiar with the terms used in this messaging? Does the verbiage need to be altered?
Is this an effective method of communication, or am I using the best delivery medium for this group (i.e. email, intranet, social media, posters)?
How many times should this messaging be repeated in order to be retained by this group?
Just as you would customize training materials for different departments and roles in your organization, putting yourself in your employee’s shoes to understand how they would interpret your stories is particularly valuable for ensuring perceptions are consistent and clear.
The crisis has significantly changed the way we communicate. Less transparency and a higher risk of misinterpretation means that we still have a lot to learn when it comes to storytelling in the virtual landscape. While mass media pumps out thousands of narratives by the minute, we can learn a lot from the world’s biggest storytellers on how to craft powerful messages to champion change in our own organizations. Mary Catherine Bateson, an American writer and anthropologist says, “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.”. Because storytelling focusses on the people, it has the power to drive change. After all, organizations don’t change, people do.
Check out my video on our Harbinger YouTube channel for a summary of my key thoughts on why storytelling should be an integral part of your change toolkit below.
If you’re looking for resources on how to create effective communications for your change initiative, our Resource Hub features free templates and infographics designed to help you manage your business transformation with success. Learn more.
Marketing & Business Analyst / Associate Consultant