“A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.”
While we are in no way near to the end of the world, but this is the closest that humankind is witnessing one in several decades.
Organisations big and small are facing a tricky choice of what is to be done during this COVID19 crisis. In my opinion, the most important of them all is, to communicate or to stay silent?
Since saying nothing also says something, the next big question is, what to share? I talked about how storytelling can be used for crisis communication earlier.
People are experiencing a collective crisis; in this situation, sharing their stories becomes more critical than ever. But it also means the story narration needs to be powerful, which connects people as well as creates a positive impact on the people the organisations care for.
Austin Kleon, the author of Show Your Work, a book on creative process writes: “The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work.”
For a health care organisation or a telecom service provider, this is a time when their services are most needed, and people are looking for their best efforts to treat them and help them connected to work respectively.
But what about those people who are behind these organisations? They are in the midst of a life-threatening situation. Their health, personal lives, work conditions are no more the same.
Organisations have to adjust the way they have told their stories about how their work has been making an impact on the lives of people. It also calls for a change in the ways to find and share stories.
Here are three ways to find and share stories. An organisation can use it to communicate and create an impact on its employees and clients.
1. Invite Stories From Your Employees and Clients on Their Experiences
If your organisation doesn’t have a story culture, this is a perfect time to start one. Let the founder or the CEO launch this initiative with an invite to employees and clients to share their experiences. In parallel, it is best to have a team that consists of leaders from the HR, marketing and client teams. Check and filter these stories for sensitivity and relevance.
If done well, this initiative will help organisations to demonstrate their culture, which clients make a note of and directly helps in employer branding too. I have found several employees and organisations already sharing their experiences via different social media platforms and more prominently on Linkedin.
2. Show How Your Organisation’s Values Are Lived Through
I found this quote of Maya Angelou apt for a story that my friend shared, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
My friend got a call from his client, a Senior VP of IT for a large healthcare provider. “Adam, the way you guys responded to the situation by being proactive in your communication and being transparent with us during these times makes you and your organisation stand out. I didn’t expect anything less from you after having worked with you for the past couple of years. Do not lose this quality.”
Trust and customer commitment are two of the core values of the organisation to which Adam belongs too. Is there a better way to live by?
Some organisations’ values are nothing but that adorns a wall, while for some like Adam’s, you can see their values in action. This makes for a great story of how people are demonstrating and living the company’s core values.
Find and share stories of how your culture shines in times of adversity, people can connect with them, and it is a great way to engage even your detractors.
3. Collaborate with Clients and Competition to Share Stories that Make an Impact
This situation also provides an excellent opportunity to work with your clients beyond the usual business teams and engage with extended stakeholders such as their Marcom and HR.
In times of crisis, there is more to say, but there are fewer resources to do that. A better option is to join forces and create shared content between organisations that have common values. When going down this path, make sure stories are simple, credible and delivered with an emotional appeal.
Collaboration with clients and competition can happen in different forms. With clients, it could be about the joint impact your frontline staffs are making to keep the services normal in this unusual times (for ex. Telecom service providers and their partners) or how both the organisations are rising to the occasion by risking lives (for ex. Hospitals and their service providers).
With competition, it could be as an industry you are facing a life and death situation (ex. Airline industry) and this opportunity calls for collaboration to share stories of what you are going through.
Here is an example of how India’s Airline players had a coordinated humour exchange while going through the pain of staying grounded!
We are social animals, but when social distancing is the name of the game, there is only animal spirit left in us. To keep that spirit alive and kicking, we must connect and share the commonalities in our hopes and dreams.
Stories bind us together across cultures and centuries. It helps us to make sense of our world when our world doesn’t make sense.
How is your organisation communicating through this crisis? Have you explored storytelling yet? If not, it is time to start out!
I will remember the last few weeks as one of the longest, hardest and most turbulent of my career. Even though I had experienced the 2008 financial crisis when I was in my mid-20s, what as a world we are undergoing now is beyond comparison. But this situation also offers an unparalleled opportunity to showcase leadership capabilities, to put all their professional experience and training gained over the years to test. Every day, we have a choice – either hide and not be heard or be at the forefront and battle it out to live another day. Leaders belong to the second category.
Leadership Communication to Focus on the WHY
Viktor Frankl’s, “Man’s search for meaning” is a brilliant classic that talks about his struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Throughout the book, he emphasizes on the most crucial attribute that offered him hope. It was about looking forward to the greater meaning and purpose of his life.
There is a reason why some organizations have survived 100 years and are leaders in their field. And the reason is simple. They were able to stay true to their purpose and communicate it over the years to their employees, customers and partners.
Leaders who can march their troops towards the greater meaning the organization stands for will emerge less scathed after this pandemic. One great way is to pick stories either from the organization’s past or the one that the leader has undergone herself. The founding story or the challenge plot could be best suited for this situation.
Choosing the Right Narrative
Remember the David and Goliath story, it is a challenge plot where the protagonist overcomes a formidable challenge and succeeds. This plot addresses the triumph of sheer willpower by overcoming adversity. The current context also provides an opportunity to redefine the purpose for a greater deed.
When the Iraq war started, Floyd Lee was a retired marine corps and army cook after a twenty-five-year career. He came out of retirement to serve the army one more time. He was in charge of the Pegasus Chow hall outside the Baghdad airport. The usual army food is just about what one would expect, bland, overcooked with less focus on quality and taste but massive on quantity.
But Lee wanted to make a difference to the soldiers’ world when they enter into the Pegasus hall. He made his mission and that of Pegasus team’s mission as, “I am not just in charge of food service; I am in charge of morale”. This vision manifested in hundreds of small actions taken by the staff of Pegasus hall on a daily basis.
Inspite of the same raw material that every army mess received, at Pegasus, the food was prepared with so much care. The prime rib was perfectly prepared; the fruit platter had a beautiful assortment of watermelon, kiwi and grapes, the desert serving included a strawberry cake. “The time you are in here, you forget you’re in Iraq”, said a soldier after a Sunday dinner.
By redefining the mission of the Pegasus mess hall, Floyd Lee inspired his team to create an oasis in the desert. This is a more opportune time to redefine the narrative within the organisation to look at the bigger picture, to share with the team how their work is making impact-it could mean sharing your client feedback or how competition is failing but your organisation is continuing to support and that is all making a huge difference.
As a leader or manager, pick up the right story, the one that includes a challenge plot, overcoming the monster/adversity type, wrap that in the current context and be sure to deliver it with emotion. Challenge plots are inspiring; they appeal to our perseverance and courage. They make us want to work harder, take on new challenges and overcome obstacles. Challenge plots inspire us to act.
Three Steps to Power Your Communication with Storytelling
Start collecting stories – Personal anecdotes, reading books, story listening
Stories need to be simple & credible
Practice and seek feedback
To be good at stories, one needs to start collecting them. Stories can be from your personal experience; books are another source where one can find a wealth of stories; the other way is by listening to business leaders talks and interviews or from peer groups. From all these sources, one can find a good collection of stories that would apply to different contexts. The next step is to organize by categorizing them for different situations and topics. It helps in picking the right story for a specific context and topic.
Keeping it Simple and Credible
In a business context, telling a fictional story may not work as it lacks credibility and for lack of context. And stories are to be kept simple as you don’t want ambiguity or people taking different connotations. For example, Southwest airlines core principle is “We are the low fare airline”. This simple message guides their staffs in making everyday decisions. By latching on to authorities in the subject or by using compelling details/statistics (without losing the simplicity aspect), one can establish credibility.
Practice and Feedback
Before communicating to a broader audience, it is always good to share the story with a test audience to observe their reactions and asking them what they remembered, what questions they have for you. If they ask the right questions and share the takeaways that you had intended, that’s a good sign that the message is working.
Leadership in hard times means focusing on the most critical problems we face; it is also about making sense of the big picture. By aligning purpose, performance and organizational principles, business leaders can lead their organizations through this crisis with less damage. This could be achieved by reminding us about the shared purpose, which is why inspiring leaders have always used to storytelling to inspire, influence and engage.
When we look back, throughout civilisation, stories and storytelling have existed as a form of communication. It was used as a primary channel to pass one’s experiences. Stories still play a vital role, but as we grow up, we start to believe that stories can only be in the form of fiction work. At the workplace, we call someone a story master for their use of stories to get creative excuses. But we often forget the fact that stories can be a powerful medium to set the context or to get people connected to a value or belief. Influential leaders have used storytelling to drive their message and inspire action. Business leaders are now looking up to storytelling to communicate their vision and to influence change.
The Science Behind Stories
When reading or listening to a great story, haven’t we all got transported to the specific scene in the story? The scene could be from a novel, a movie, or it could be your colleague talking about the sales pitch made for a client.
What if I said, there is science behind this experience? Based on research Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson says, “a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.” As a team member, a manager or as a sales lead, when you want to influence or inspire someone to act – use storytelling. Storytelling has science behind it.
Lani Peterson, in her Harvard Business Review article The science behind the art of storytelling says, “Scientists are discovering that chemicals like Cortisol, Dopamine and Oxytocin are released in the brain when we’re told a story. Why does that matter? If we are trying to make a point stick, cortisol assists with our formulating memories. Dopamine, which helps regulate our emotional responses, keeps us engaged. When it comes to creating deeper connections with others, oxytocin is associated with empathy, an important element in building, deepening or maintaining good relationships.” When you use storytelling principles, Oxytocin, Dopamine and Endorphin could be your friend. And, by controlling the trigger of Cortisol, you can use it to your advantage!
Stories Create Purpose and Drive Action
People get onto crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, Milaap to share their purpose – the “WHY”. By sharing it, they believe the general public will be able to get connected with their mission which can influence them to become donors for their cause. The fundraisers usually use one or the other form of stories to communicate the purpose. Amanda Palmer, an independent musician from New Zealand used Kickstarter to generate funds for her music album. Watch out how she conveys “the WHY” in this video,
Stories Transfer Values and Beliefs on the Audience
The critical aspect of making people act is when your values and beliefs become theirs and a shared one. Stories have a long history of having played a vital role to create shared values & beliefs. The easiest way to do this is by showing them why you started believing in those values & beliefs. This element can be particularly powerful when a CEO wants to communicate the organisation’s values. A salesperson can use stories to convey what his product stands for – the values behind the product idea. That could be a differentiator, as there is a higher purpose for the buyer to relate.
In his HBR article, Peter Guber, a renowned American filmmaker & entrepreneur, shares how he managed to get the late Cuban President Fidel Castro’s permission to film in Havana’s harbour. It’s a known fact that Fidel Castro considered the US as his enemy. Peter achieved this by invoking the values and beliefs Castro had for Cuba’s heritage and history and how, as a filmmaker, Peter is trying to highlight some of those aspects without invading Cuba’s privacy. This approach got the Cuban President to allow the crew to film anywhere in Havana’s harbour more than what Peter had wanted for his shoot.
Stories Engage the Audience Beyond Facts
The general belief is that facts engage and drive decisions, but the truth is facts help us base our arguments, but when it comes to making decisions, it’s based on the story. As per a 3M note, humans can process images 60,000 times faster than texts. Influential leaders wrap their facts with an influencing narrative and deliver with emotion. While data appeals to only one part of the brain, when we read or listen to a story, along with the language parts getting fired up, other parts of the brain also fire up.
Smart brands use storytelling techniques in the way they present, advertise their products or services to their target audience for quite some time now. Nielsen, the leading market research firm notes, “Ninety-two per cent of consumers around the world say they trust earned media, such as word-of-mouth or recommendations from friends and family, above all other forms of advertising.”
People like to do business with people they know, trust and like. So how to get customers to know a brand and love it? With the proliferation of social media, user-generated content is one key element which brands are using it to connect with their audience through their existing customers and influencers. We look for validation of their decisions and look forward to getting identified with fellow cohorts. Airbnb uses customer-centric storytelling as one of the ways to connect with people and improve brand loyalty.
This advertisement from Coco-Cola creates an emotional connect and to drive their message. Who wouldn’t want to part of that story?
Stories Provide Relevance & Set the Context
Great business leaders and marketers create personas of their audience to help them to decide. Personas help businesses to stay relevant to the audience they are catering to. As we can see from the Kickstarter campaign of Amanda, she sets the context early in her video. Which makes sure that whoever watching it can relate to her struggle and the values she stands for. She then moves on to provide the context of her current campaign, which is about independent music and the art she believes in.
By using stories to set the context, inductions programs in organisations can be made more impactful. New joiners are eager to understand what their organisation aspires for and how they could contribute towards that. What better way to achieve that than take them through a story of why the organisation came into existence and the current stage of the journey?
Stories Increase Employee Efficiency and Engagement
The difference between a great company and a mediocre
company is about people. To be a successful organisation, it needs to have an
engaged workforce that is contributing to its fullest potential at work. But
surveys highlight that disengaged employees is on the rise. With the growth of
the millennial workforce, organisations are struggling to keep them engaged and
David MacLeod and Nita Clarke through their
research have found four enablers for successful employee engagement. The first
among that is Strategic Narrative. It is about
leaders using storytelling to connect, engage and inspire the workforce. In
essence, these stories could be founder stories, customer impact stories,
employee impact stories, leader specific stories to name a few.
Compelling narratives have an emotional context, and it helps in humanising dry employee communication. As a next step, employees should be encouraged to share their stories to get this into an organisation-wide initiative. Innovative organisations stand out for using these enablers to improve employee engagement.
Data is Not Memorable, but Stories Make Data Impactful
How often do we see presentations where some statistics
are referred, and we ask, “So what?”. Statistics are
often forgettable when they are presented as plain-vanilla numbers, but when
speakers used stories to present a data point, the retention rate increased to
a whopping 65-70%, says research by Stanford University.
Stanford Professor Jennifer Aaker says“When data and stories are used together they resonate with audiences both intellectually and emotionally, for a lasting effect you need to persuade the rational brain but also resonate with the emotional brain.” Data-rich presentations can be made impactful with the help of narratives and visuals.
Stories Support Decision Making & Business Decisions are Not Purely Logical
As they say, analytics inform while emotions compel.
That’s how humans, in general, and business leaders make decisions. A study by Fortune Knowledge group and Gyro conducted with
700+ business executives concludes that 65% (almost two-third) of the
executives consider subjective factors making an influence in deciding on
competing proposals. So what gives them that comfort to rely on the
unquantifiable factors? It is the stories that they have heard about the culture
and values of the organisations or individuals.
Stories connect, when data is delivered in an emotional context, we are better in making decisions.
Stories are Memorable and Sticky
Are you at ease to recollect Newton’s 2nd law vs the hare and the tortoise story? We would have read the hare and tortoise story during our primary school days, while Newton’s 2nd law is more recent, read in 8th to 10th grade. Majority of us would have remembered the tortoise story much faster than Newton’s 2nd law, even though we studied Newton’s 2nd law more recently. Need further proof for stories being sticky and memorable?
Professors Chip and Dan Heath in their insightful book, Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and other die, argue, “Business speakers seem to believe that once they have clicked through a PowerPoint presentation showcasing their conclusions, they have successfully communicated their ideas. What they have done is shared data. They are often surprised to find that nothing they said had an impact. They haven’t created ideas that are useful or lasting. Nothing stuck.”
before paper and computers came along, we were communicating, and our grandma
stories have travelled through generations. So when you decide to make your
next presentation, do remember to share a couple of anecdotes – science &
history proves that anecdotes might last longer than the data points you share.
Storytelling is a Competitive Advantage
Apple stood out even among the users of competition products for one big reason. That’s Steve Jobs -the master storyteller the tech world has ever seen. Apple product launches are as much about the stories as it is about the products itself. Jobs was a gifted storyteller; the accounts of struggle users were having with tech products connected with his customers so well. His narratives crafted Apple’s product benefits with how it makes life easier for the users. Steve Jobs is no more, but his stories and the influence he created with product launches will remain. That’s a competitive advantage any business leader wants for his/her product or service.
today realise the importance of storytelling, and it is difficult to find a
brand that is successful but doesn’t have a good story behind it. Stories come
naturally to humans as it provides meaning, creates context and evokes a sense
of purpose. As humans, we yearn for empathy, which is what stories offer, and
it helps us to relate, empathise and remember.
Do you practice storytelling in your organisation? If not, its time you start.