How to use storytelling to build a DEI workplace?

I was fortunate to have lived in South Africa for a couple of years as part of work. During those years, I met people of different colours and races. The blacks, the whites, the coloured, the Indian Indians, the South African Indians etc… A nation that’s as diverse as it could get. There is a reason South Africa is called the Rainbow Nation. Once the apartheid regime came to an end in the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela and the new rulers of South Africa had an important charter – to make South Africa an equal place for all. It was one of the biggest experiments on building a diverse, equitable and inclusive nation.

Trevor Noah writes in his autobiographical, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African childhood, “Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being”

To build a DEI safe workplace, the first step is to appreciate and recognize the person or the group of people as a human being(s). This is where the power of storytelling helps to build a DEI safe workplace.

So how to go about it? The following are the 3 ways an organization can start and build its DEI initiatives.

Employee story groups – a safe place to share
Capture and share employees’ stories beyond the leadership team Authentic and transparent stories from leaders

Employee story groups – a safe place to share

To create a diverse and inclusive workplace, there must be a safe place for people to share and be heard without judgement. This is a place to hear out different perspectives in an engaged and empathetic manner. Personal stories of others can be an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, recognize the conscious biases and be aware of the unconscious biases. This creates a cascading effect that results in behaviour change.

An HBR article shares the following methods to use the power of storytelling to build an inclusive workplace.

  • Do a round-robin question in a meeting
  • Hold listening sessions
  • Host discussion-heavy book clubs
  • Schedule storytelling town halls
  • Include stories in blogs, videos, celebrations, promotions, and onboarding
  • Share survey results that show negative perceptions and harmful treatment
  • Have social forums and meetups
  • Develop dynamic social media campaigns that share stories

Most of the time, people underestimate what they have gone through or think that their experience is not worthy enough to share. They need to be reassured that the expectation is to share a real story but not something that is dramatic or perfect.

Capture and share employees’ stories beyond the leadership team

Employees get fired up on stories that come from their peers rather than leaders. But most of the time, organizations share leadership talks on DEI instead of employee stories.

Programs like this should also take into consideration of the various aspects like current geographical presence, ethnic and racial aspects, persons with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, women in general and any specific groups like single mothers, mental health & wellness etc.

Another important aspect is to set a goal and track progress on critical metrics. It could be on demographics, diversity hiring at every level of the organization, retention and promotion rates of the focus groups, usage of the DEI resources etc. Periodic reporting at employee townhalls will show the commitment of the leadership and be helpful in raising the bar on accountability.

Leadership storytelling to build a DEI workplace

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook came out in open to disclose his sexual identity in 2014. This was the first time a leading CEO was open about being gay. His decision to come out in public was after receiving several letters from children struggling with their sexual orientation. He went on to say, “I’m not saying that I understand the trials and tribulations of every minority group because I don’t. But I do understand for one of the groups. And to the degree that it helps give you a lens on how other people may feel, I think that’s a gift in and of itself.”

Leadership commitment to DEI programs should go beyond approving such initiatives or giving a budget for that. They have a critical role in making sure DEI programs are given the same importance as any other business initiative. They can do that by playing an active role in the events organized by employee groups.

Being part of the employee groups, can help leaders with awareness, create meaningful connections with different interest groups, develop empathy and mutual respect.

Over time, most leaders take on professional identity and somewhere along the way drop their personal identities. Employees look for authenticity, transparency, and the layered character of their leaders to make them relatable. Personal stories of the leaders expose their personal self.

Some of the ways to dig into personal DEI stories could be,

  1. Think about the time when you had to fit in or feel pressured to conform
  2. An instance where you discovered your bias and how you overcame it?
  3. Were there situations that your background/privilege got you a different treatment than someone else?
  4. Occasions where you saw a bias play out
  5. Did someone in power help you at the workplace?

In summary,

When we share stories that show why we believe certain things and why we behave the way we do, we open up and show our value systems. We may not agree on all matters but acknowledging the other human being with compassion and empathy is all we need to drive change.

An organization that is serious in their DEI approach would start to see the following changes in their workforce,

  1. There will be a sense of warmth and empathy in the way we relate to people and their journey
  2. People start to be open up to diverse thoughts and become intent listeners
  3. Be thankful for being open in sharing their personal stories – this shows that one is heard
  4. Finding ways to improve the safe space for different employee groups

I learnt some valuable lessons on building an equitable and inclusive workplace from my experience in South Africa. I went around 2018, a good 15 yrs since the abolition of the apartheid era. While a lot could have been better, there are changes for good to the section of people who were in disadvantaged position during the apartheid era. If a nation with all the complexities in political, economical and cultural aspects can bring about this change, organisations that are serious can transform with the power of storytelling to build a DEI safe workplace.

10 Employer Brand Storytelling Strategies in 2022

In the US alone, there are a record 10.1 million open jobs as per US govt job data. While the UK faced the worst staff shortage since 1997 per a Guardian news report. A LinkedIn and Microsoft survey found 41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer. These statistics point to the spike in demand for qualified people, while employers are in a spot to retain and recruit talent, making employer brand storytelling critical in 2022. In 2020, when COVID hit upon us, several companies took a knee jerk reaction by laying off a record number of people. 81 million people lost their jobs in Asia in 2020 while over 10 million Americans filed for unemployment in March 2020 alone.

The need for employer branding

In 2 years, there is a role reversal happening as a record number of employees are leaving their jobs. The industry is calling this the “Great resignation” movement.

2021 was when the role reversal started. Internal employee surveys, exit interviews and industry surveys revealed some hard-hitting insights.

They were,

  1. Employees wanted to enjoy their job over working for a well-known company
  2. When a company led with purpose, their employees were more likely to work for them
  3. 41% of employees in America said, they would not work for an organization that failed to speak about racism

Besides, the traditional motivators like pay, ping-pong tables & free snacks lost their appeal. Employers are forced to transform their employee value proposition in a way like repairing the plane when it’s flying.

How to go about employer brand storytelling?

In the new normal, employers need to talk about the “here and now” vs how their company was cool earlier.

Hence employer brand storytelling needs to cover areas like,

  1. How an employer cared for their employees during the pandemic?
  2. What is it like to work for your organization, right now?
  3. What employees are saying about their employer?

Several pieces must come together for a cohesive and compelling employer branding strategy. It includes an organization’s purpose, values, employee value proposition, their take on inclusivity and diversity etc… It also needs to include channels to reach prospective candidates, content, formats, interview experience to name a few.

Here are 10 employer brand storytelling strategies for a solid employer branding approach.

Show how your company responded during uncertain times

The last couple of years has shown the importance of adopting a humane approach in times of uncertainty. It could be how the company managed through tough times, how a team faced a challenging situation and overcame it, or what the company did for an employee-specific life-or-death situation.

When candidates know about how a company cared for their people during the worst times, they come to realize the company values are real and not just words on their website.

Role-based storytelling

Instead of adopting the standard job description, asking real employees in a specific role to articulate what his/her day looks like, connecting how his/her job impacts their customer/organizations goal by talking in a language specific to the role can make an employer stand out.

This format of storytelling creates a deeper impact and connection with candidates as it will be far more engaging. Candidates will also know from the experience of their prospective colleagues how it is to perform in that role.

Authentic stories from leadership

When leaders come forward and share stories of their journey or their vulnerable moments, candidates relate with them and in fact will want to work with them. Today’s employees want to work for an empathetic organization, there is no better way to showcase the humaneness of an organization than stories from leaders.

Leadership stories go a long way in building a credible employer brand.

Stories of remote or hybrid workplace to build employer brand

A significant number of candidates want a flexible workplace and the option to decide where and how they will work.

Employers need to adapt content across the careers page to the job descriptions to show how remote/hybrid workplace is being practised.

Until the pandemic, offices that had cool features like open spaces, fully stocked kitchens, nap rooms and creative office perks were the rage. But now, it’s time to show how your employees are utilizing flexibility at work, what their home office looks like, how you are enabling them to work from anywhere and their life both within and outside the office.

What does it mean to be a working parent and working for you?

A lot of women left their jobs or were laid off during the pandemic for many reasons. Primary among them is taking care of family or difficulty in managing both work and family. Due to the spike in demand for jobs, they are an important constituent now.

For the working parent group, stories of how an employer is supporting them with flexible time options, adapted career paths or even how the meetings are scheduled in consideration of a working parent will speak volumes about the flexibility in practice.

Show stories on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in practice

A solid employer branding approach has an always-on DEI component. It’s not about flipping that logo to pink in February in support of women’s month or having a rainbow background in June to support PRIDE month.

With careful preparation and thoughtful execution, a company need to tap into their various interest groups to capture their stories. This will position the employer as inclusive.

Amplifying stories of employee rewards & recognition

Employee recognition and retention go hand in hand. Organizations that have solid employee rewards & recognition programs are better off in managing the current talent tsunami.

By capturing the stories of employees who succeeded at the workplace and were rewarded, companies can turn employees into their brand ambassadors. This helps organisations to attract talent from their employee networks, as they share it among their networks.

3rd party review-site based content

Prospective employees generally believe when employees share their stories on their networks or on independent review sites such as Glassdoor, Comparably etc.

These sites are considered to be collecting employee opinions without bias. Reviews on these sites carry more credibility than those on the career portals of the companies.

Companies need to take a very concerted effort in nudging employees to rate them on these review sites. By bringing in gamification elements to these programs, companies can influence their employees to review more often.

Capturing alumni stories for employer brand storytelling

We have seen statements like, “Once a Googler always a Googler”. But how often do organizations pay attention to their alumni or involve them as part of their employer branding?

When a company promotes the success of its alumni, their credibility as a trusted employer and a company to work for increases multifold. This shows their intent of caring about their employee growth even after they left them. Beyond that, there is also a goodwill and network effect that is bound to happen which adds a lot of value to employer branding efforts.

Articulate company values through employee stories

Almost every other company talks about their mission, purpose values etc on their website and careers blog. They are in general less humanized and are jargon. Companies can capture stories of values in action from their employees to clarify brand messaging. The same could be used in employee onboarding, career sections on the website and social media channels.

This should be an ongoing program across the year to create a value stories repository. To be holistic, stories also should be across the spectrum from sales to engineering and from entry-level to leadership.

In summary, while employer branding is a critical element in attracting talent, not every candidate or employer is the same. Candidates are becoming much more aware of what they want. In a market where candidates have the upper edge, employer brand storytelling can help in attracting the right candidates.

How Storytelling Helps Leaders During a Crisis?

How storytelling helps leaders during a crisis?
Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash

Wells Fargo is still in business, but their reputation remains stigmatized! Why?

In 2016 Wells Fargo, a financial service company based in the US, faced a crisis. Their employees were forced to open fake accounts without the consent of customers to meet sales targets.

When the scandal came to the notice of authorities, the bank paid $185 million in fine.

They could have tried to reduce the damage had their leadership taken the responsibility and established open communication with all their stakeholders.

But, Wells Fargo’s leadership response potentially damaged the bank’s image as much as the scandal.

In times of crisis, employees, customers and partners get panicked. Sharing information alone doesn’t help. They are well within their rights to know what happened. And when you don’t tell them what happened, they start looking for information from other sources. Great leaders know how to use storytelling during a crisis. They use it to deliver key messages and demonstrate their leadership chops.

Storytelling helps to connect with stakeholders during a crisis in a manner they empathize with you. By being authentic in your communication, you make them realize they are important part of your business and you are taking necessary steps.

Storytelling during a crisis at play

In 2008, Maple Leaf Foods a food processing company based in Canada that supplies processed meat faced a crisis where their products were contaminated by listeria. Twelve people died, and many more fell ill.

When most people would try to suppress things, CEO Michael McCain took accountability. He didn’t try to blame employees, food safety standards, or equipment manufacturers.

Michael McCain, president of Maple Leaf Foods, holds media briefing on new food safety protocols at its new packaging meat plant in Laval, Que., Friday, Dec. 12, 2008

Instead, he took responsibility & stayed transparent by telling people about the breach of safety standards. He led from front, if he had not told what Maple Leaf is doing, then someone would have driven the narrative putting him in a defensive position.

A company-specific crisis can give ammunition to competition & the media to paint a villain out of you. They are looking for an opportunity and are least bothered about the real issue.

In this case, Maple Leaf could have easily become a villain, but since McCain took charge of the narrative, he could tell the company’s side of the story. It helped them to fix the issue and move on.

Post the debacle, Maple Leaf deployed the best staff for their food processing units and ran several marketing campaigns to regain the market share. By the end of 2009, they returned to profit.

Usually, companies recruit an army of lawyers and accountants to reduce the damage and pin the blame on someone. But McCain understood the emotions of his customers and treated them like humans. He conveyed the truth & people understood.

Crisis communication is an integral part of crisis management. You may have already identified the problem and started working on it, but as long as you don’t communicate it with your customers, they won’t know.

You can’t work in silence, especially during a crisis. If Maple Leaf had stayed silent and not communicated, they would have lost their credibility for life and faced severe legal consequences.

Great companies demonstrate their values during crisis

With the COVID crisis, companies are struggling to adapt to the radical changes happening in the business environment. One of the major problems faced is employee productivity.

CodeScience, a Saas company based in Chattanooga, US, took this moment to comfort their employees, who were feeling overwhelmed.

Their team always worked remote, so adapting to the new norm of work from home was not a problem for them. But what was different this time was they had to do it alongside their kids & spouses at home.

In March, Brian Walsh, the CEO of the company, tweeted a list of things they are doing to make their employees feel relevant. One of the interesting ideas was to normalize the noise of kids in the background during a professional call.

He also invited the kids of their employees to join their company call, making it an event to share their self-isolation stories.

It made them feel that they are not the only ones losing track of work. It also acted as a team-building session for their employees who barely saw each other.

An employee posted a message on LinkedIn, in response to CodeScience’s note. “This is another reason why CodeScience is the BEST place to work. Beyond grateful for our leadership team, and I am so proud to be a part of this amazing company and family.”

What the company did through this was they expressed their value of transparency. They told their employees that we know it’s difficult for you & you don’t have to hide it from us. To know more on how to find and share stories read.

People are more likely to do what you say when you give them a reason for that action. CodeScience stayed true to their value of transparency, which encouraged their employees to remain transparent and show what their current work from home situation was like.

Lesson from crisis communication gone wrong

Stories help you give the right context to your message delivery. Lack of context may cause misleading message delivery, which can hurt your reputation. Recently, brands like McDonald’s, Audi, etc. supported social distancing by giving spaces between elements in their logo.

But was that message thoughtful? Certainly not, as people in Brazil felt that it was insensitive for McDonald’s to do that. They felt like the restaurants are still open and are being opportunistic.

The redesign lacked context, leading McDonald’s to issue a public apology. Even though the logo redesign was a creative move, it didn’t resonate with their patrons.

People criticized this move on all social channels as they expected the brand to be responsible & sympathetic towards people. They wanted to see McDonald’s care for their employees & distribute free meals to the marginalized.

Alternately, if McDonald’s had backed the redesign with stories of how they are helping people amidst social distancing norms, then the message might have been conceived in a positive light.

Crafting your narrative

To use storytelling during a crisis, create an engaging narrative for your story, discuss the tension, and tell people what you are doing to repair the damage. Taking ownership & telling the story gives you the power to direct the dialogue. It is not about what happened as things can go wrong. It is more important to communicate what you are doing to improve the situation.

Need help in crafting narrative? Happy to help.


Storytelling can be a tremendous value-adding element to your communication. Not only it helps to create enticing marketing and promotional messages but can prove to be beneficial in crisis. Storytelling in crisis enables consumers to understand your situation better. Your stakeholders want you to be open & transparent about what you are doing to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Understanding the emotions of your customers, employees, and community by supporting your messaging with the right stories can help you make a way out of the crisis.


The Basics of Business Storytelling – 1 Storytelling Principles from Made to Stick

Sasint by Pixabay

I have been getting requests from the readers of my blog and from my network on how they can practice storytelling at work. The basics of business storytelling series will cover this aspect. This series will cover ideas from what I read, observed and learned from practice. This post is about a book that I read which is helping me in my practice.

Prof. Chip Heath and Dan Heath are the authors of the book, “Made to Stick”. In it, they explain why some ideas stick and others die. For an idea to stick, it must have certain elements which help in connecting people and to carry the message forward. The authors have studied several ideas from the field of advertising, leadership communication, social cause messaging, people & company stories before arriving at this framework.

From their studies, they propose six principles that make an idea stick.

Principle 1: Simplicity

There is a simple reason why proverbs have lasted generations across cultures. The Heaths state that, any idea needs to be stripped to its core to make it memorable and easy to pass it on. The Golden Rule is to have a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.

Google’s mission statement, “Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” is powerful but also simple.

And a company that is built on that mission is generating revenues upwards of $ 120 billion.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, “I have a dream” galvanized an entire community and nation towards freedom from slavery. Imagine a speech filled with jargons, complex information, and superfluous language. It wouldn’t have got this reach.

When you have many message or ideas, use the principle of exclusion to reduce all that into one.

Principle 2: Unexpectedness

“For an idea to endure, it must generate interest and curiosity,” says the Heath brothers. But it has to be done in a balanced manner. Master communicators will expose the gaps in the audience mind and then fill those gaps with their idea.

This approach allows you to hold the audience even though they have got gaps in knowledge. It is done by tapping into their existing knowledge, then exposing the gaps by curiosity and raising interest levels, and by filling that gap with your ideas.

George Loewenstein proposed this gap theory. He says that, as we gain information, we are more and more likely to focus on what we do not know. Someone who knows capitals of 50 countries would be proud of their knowledge, but someone who knows the capitals of 170 countries will more likely want to know the capitals of the rest 20+ countries.

Principle 3: Concreteness

Life is not abstract, but more often, the language we speak is abstract, and it gets worse as we move up the ladder. Terms such as liquidity, metacognitive skills, thematic learning are a put-off when it comes to spreading a message and when you want people to act.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is a concrete message. Ideas need to be expressed in human action and sensory information, staying clear of business-speak.

John F Kennedy’s famous moon-shot speech of 1961 can also be expressed as, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centred innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives”. Or it can be, “Put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.”

JFK being a visionary leader, chose the latter. The message is simple and concrete. By speaking in concrete terms, one doesn’t allow a chance for anyone to interpret it differently, the above message means the same thing to everyone, be it the NASA scientists or the US Congress representatives or to the people of the US.

Principle 4: Credibility

Why should people believe in your ideas? Should be the question one needs to answer first. Not everyone has the same level of authority in all the subjects. We associate authority to individuals based on their past actions, their experience.

Some people build credibility by showing numbers, but even numbers do not have credibility when shared by a person who does not have authority in that field. For example, while we believe a physician’s take on health disorders, we do not give the same credibility, when he talks about the fiscal deficit of the economy.

Dan and Chip say, “Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials. We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves – a “try before you buy” philosophy for the world of ideas.”

One way of doing this is by adding vivid details that are truthful and meaningful to humans, which symbolize and support the core idea. Including statistics that are in the context of the idea also can help build credibility.

The other famous method is the Sinatra test. If an example passes the Sinatra test, then that one example alone is enough to establish credibility. It traces its origins to Frank Sinatra’s classic “New York New York”, about the life in New York and the chorus sings, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” For it to be successful, one needs to find the Sinatra test relative to the idea.

Principle 5: Emotions

Why should people care about your ideas? By making them feel something. Humans are wired to feel for people, and abstractions do not help in this regard.

Research shows that people are more likely to donate to a single needy individual than to an impoverished region. That is the reason why when funding agencies reach out; they say a specific story of an orphaned kid or someone with health problems in need of money for treatment.

Same emotions do not elicit similar responses across a different set of people. Teenagers may react to one set of emotions differently than adults, so the hard part is figuring out the right feeling to harness for a specific campaign and audience.

Principle 6: Stories

And finally, stories get people to act on ideas. Hearing stories preps us to respond more quickly and effectivity to a situation that is the reason, stories are powerful.

Companies are moving from being case study centric to client story-centric; it is not just a change of title. A story walks through the situation that persisted earlier, the pain points prompting the client to look for solutions, and when the solution provider sensing the business challenges, provides a solution that promises a new normal.

Often master storytellers like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk have used this technique to position their products that promise a new normal and relieves the consumers from unpleasant experiences.

To make an idea stick, it should be a Simple, Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story!
Now one can observe that it can also be remembered as SUCCESs.

For an idea to last, it should make the audience,

1. Pay attention

2. Understand and remember

3. Believe

4. Care

5. Be able to act

Are you preparing your next leadership communication or brand message? Read more about the strategic narrative. Read the next post in the Basics of Business Storytelling here.  

Need assistance? Happy to help.

How Leaders Can Craft a Strategic Narrative?

Photo by Luan Cabral on Unsplash

I am listening to, “Originals: How non-conformists move the world” by Wharton School professor Adam Grant in Audible. In that book, he analyses some of the leaders who made a significant contribution to the world that we live in today. He had picked up anecdotes from different periods which makes it even more exciting.

He analyses Martin Luther King Jr’s famous, “I have a dream” speech. It is one of the path-breaking moments in American history. It is referenced in several leadership communication sessions for how to communicate a vision that has a clear call to action and galvanizes people.

But, Dr.King didn’t utter the “dream” word for the better part of his speech, and it was his friend Mahalia Jackson who shouted from behind, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”. And the rest, as we know, is history.

This speech is an example of how compelling a strategic narrative can be when it is specific it motivates, engages and connects people to a higher purpose. Great leaders use narratives during crisis communication to deliver key message. In business, it is about communicating a company’s strategy or vision in a way that employees can connect their jobs to the overall vision of their company.

Often, companies spend millions in coming up with a strategy once in a few years, and they spend an insane amount of effort to craft customer communications. But how often, the same importance is given to communicate the strategy to their employees?

A typical organization might do an offsite for senior management, few workshops for their top managers across regions. But beyond that?

And, then some bland internal communications emails would be sent to all employees about what is the new vision, which goes something like this.

To be the most efficient service provider on the earth or World-class customer service or To be the preferred partner to world’s leading blah blah blah

To a frontline employee or a mid-level manager, what does To be the most efficient service provider on the earth mean?

How Good is Your Strategy?

According to management thinkers Chip Heath and Dan Heath, “A strategy is, at its core, a guide to behaviour. It comes to life through its ability to influence thousands of decisions, both big and small, made by employees throughout an organization.”

For employees of SouthWest airlines, it could mean deciding on what to be served to passengers on board – peanuts or a chicken salad. Their next question will be, will serving a chicken salad help us become the low-fare airline in this route? If not, then they are not serving that salad.

A good strategy delivers financial success and drives action that differentiates a company in that specific industry. But a bad strategy can result in less differentiation and drag the company down.

When sitting down to formulate a strategy, every leadership team aspires to come up with a great strategy that could deliver them differentiation in the market and inspire their employees to act. It doesn’t happen always.

Strategies may be powerful in a PowerPoint document or on the walls of the organization or in the leadership speeches. Still, if they do not manifest in action, they are inert and irrelevant.

What differentiates a vision statement from being just on the wall to something that inspires people to act is a compelling narrative. A narrative essentially inspires and moves people to act. It is more than off-the-cuff spontaneous storytelling, but a clear and consistent story in every discussion about vision and strategy be it with the leadership team or an employee town hall.

One of the main reason that strategies don’t stick with a broader audience is the way it is communicated, and the prime culprit for the same is leadership’s curse of knowledge.

Curse of Knowledge

Most of us might have experienced this at some point in time in our career. As people move up the ladder, the curse of knowledge afflicts leaders when they try to communicate a strategy to the rest of the organization. It leads executives to talk about strategy as though they were the audience.

When someone uses high-level and abstract matter, you can say that the curse of knowledge afflicts them. The bigger problem is that they are not even aware that they are speaking abstractly.

One can overcome the curse of knowledge by using stories, as it helps to demystify concrete language.

FedEx has an award called Purple Promise which honours employees for making sure FedEx’s delivery promise that packages will “absolutely and positively” arrive overnight.

When a delivery truck broke down in New York, and the replacement van was running late, the FedEx driver after having delivered few packages on foot realized that he might not deliver the other packages on time. But he managed to convince a driver from a competitor to take him on the last few deliveries.

Now this story can be used by a top sales executive to convey, “this is how FedEx employees take the delivery promise seriously”. A new delivery driver can use this story to guide her behaviour that it is not about working from 9 to 5, but it is about getting the packages delivered come what may. The same story could be used by a procurement person to negotiate better maintenance contracts such as the fastest possible maintenance/replacement vehicles for delivery trucks.

Communicating the Strategic Narrative

A strategic narrative is best represented by contrasting the current situation with the promised land. It is a structure that inspiring leaders have used in their speech to inspire, influence and act. This is what Martin Luther King Jr did in his speech as well as Steve Jobs used that in his iPhone launch in 2007.

It consists of four parts,

  1. In the past…..
  2. Then something happened….
  3. So now….. and
  4. In the future….

It addresses the, “Why.”

So, when a sales leader wants to pitch to VP-customer care on their solution, it could go like this.

With one of our clients, their prepaid telecom customers had to wait for 12 minutes before they could speak to the call centre executives, this resulted in bad customer experience, and customers started dropping off their network. Then the client implemented a customer agent intelligence solution that predicts the call volumes of a day and assigns call centre agents by which the customer’s waiting time is reduced to under 1 minute. Now customers are happy, which is resulting in more referral business.

Stories that speak to an organization’s strategy have two parts. The story itself and the moral of the story. It is nice to have both, but if one must choose between the two, choose the story. Because the moral is implicit in the story, but the story is not implied in the moral. And the story with its concrete language, specific protagonists and the real-world setting is more likely to guide behavior.

By using a clever mix of stories and concrete language, leaders can overcome the curse of knowledge and everyone in the organization stands to benefit from a shared understanding of the strategy.   

3 Ways Organisations Can Find and Share Stories During This Crisis

3 ways organisations can find and share stories
Image by Mylene2401 from Pixabay

In The Dark Knight Arises movie, Batman says,

“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.

Employee Stories during Crisis

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!

Crisis Communication Powered by Storytelling

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

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

Leaders are known to use narratives to inspire, influence and engage. By following these three steps, one can improve their storytelling powered communication

  1. Start collecting stories – Personal anecdotes, reading books, story listening
  2. Stories need to be simple & credible
  3. Practice and seek feedback

Collecting Stories

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.


10 Reasons Why Storytelling is Important for Any Business?

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.

As per Jonathan Gottschall, the author of Storytelling animal, “While the brain watches a story, you’ll find something interesting–the brain doesn’t look like a spectator, it looks more like a participant in the action.” Now you know why stories connect with an audience faster than cold, hard facts.

Stories Connect People and Create Brand Loyalty

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.

In Summary

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.

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