Want to take your communication vehicles from boring to brilliant?

Try these fundamental corporate storytelling methods

Alison Davis
Feb 26 · 7 min read

You may think storytelling is only for books, movies and the latest binge-worthy Netflix series and that it has no place in writing for internal communication. But if you stick to that outdated thinking, you’re doing yourself — and your employees — a disservice.

Human brains are wired to enjoy stories. We love the tension a good yarn creates and we crave finding out what happens next. That’s why we get hooked on fairy tales like The Little Mermaid and whodunits like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.[CR1]

So why not take a page from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and use storytelling devices to liven up your next communication deliverable? It’s easier than you think to turn your next email or town hall into a riveting, can’t-stop-reading (or listening) story.

Here are five ways to introduce corporate storytelling elements to internal communication:

Storytelling element 1: setting

The setting establishes the context of a story so the reader knows where (and when) the action is taking place. Is it ancient Egypt during Cleopatra’s reign? Or the Bastille during the French Revolution? How about a factory starting production for the day?

How to use it: emails

Give your next message to employees a setting. It could be a letter from the CEO’s desk or an update from the sales conference in Berlin. Or it could be as simple as providing background information so employees understand why to pay attention.

Never assume that employees understand the context behind an email you’re sending. Give them a background and they’ll be able to comprehend their place in the communication. For instance, make it clear if the email includes action employees need to take.

Putting the element to work

Here’s an example of an introductory email sentence before and after adding context.

· Before: A new initiative to change our HR information system is launching.

· After: Because our HR information system is outdated and difficult to use, we’re launching a new system to make it easier for you to enter time and view your paycheck.

Storytelling element 2: characters

Without characters, you have no story! The plot revolves around them. The hero has a goal to accomplish or a conflict to overcome. The bad guy is the obstacle who gets between the hero and his/her goal.

Great characters are relatable so readers can feel empathy for them. The nice guy who never gets the girl? We feel for him. The analytics colleague who wants to nail her next performance assessment? We can relate.

How to use it: guides and brochures

Guides are meant to give employees clear instructions on what to do. But often they become as difficult to understand as the processes they’re trying to explain.

Introduce a character and you can transform that difficult concept into something employees can grasp:

· Show a scenario where a colleague walks through the process and suddenly employees can follow along.

· Bring in a character to provide explanatory comments and employees will understand the terms.

Putting the element to work

· Try adding a friendly character to an open enrollment brochure to clarify the complicated benefits language. Imagine your character in a sidebar explaining the difference between the HMO and PPO plans — or giving tips on setting up an FSA account.

· For an incentive compensation guide, first explain the steps an employee needs to take to calculate his/her bonus. Then create three fictional characters to illustrate how the calculation works for employees receiving different bonuses.

Storytelling element 3: plot

The plot is the action of your story. It’s the sequence of events the hero follows to get to his/her goal. Without a plot, stories fall flat. After all, what’s the point of continuing on if nothing is happening?

How to use it: articles

Turn a boring announcement into something employees want to read by structuring it with a plot. Bring action into your announcement by relating how an initiative got started, or the order of events at a meeting. Follow the advice of Lewis Carroll in Adventures in Wonderland:[CR2] “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

If you’ve followed our earlier advice and introduced a character, you can focus on what that character does starting from point A and ending at point B.

Putting the element to work

When writing an internal newsletter article, instead of simply stating that a project team won an award, tell the story of what the project team did to win. Start with the initial call to action, walk through the difficulties the team faced trying to meet its goal, and finish with the team’s triumph in completing its project.

Storytelling element 4: narrative arc

Developing a narrative arc is what takes your plot to the next level. A narrative arc begins with the setup, moves on to the rising tension, reaches the climax and concludes with the resolution.

Your beginning, middle and end need to have some kind of conflict to build suspense. This will make your audience want to know what’s going to happen next and hang on to every word. What is our hero going to do when she meets the first challenge? Will she give up hope or push forward to meet her goal?

How to use it: town halls

Too many employee town halls are stuffed with topic after topic, strung together with seemingly no connection between each segment. No wonder employees get bored. A town hall should involve employees and keep them interested.

The next time you’re planning a town hall, consider the experience you seek. Want employees to become invested in the new business strategy? Begin by explaining the current state, the pressures the company is facing to succeed, and why it needs to alter course to overcome the obstacles. Then paint the picture of the bright future ahead if employees work together to embrace and enact the new strategy.

Putting the element to work

Here’s an example of a town hall agenda before and after adding narrative arc.

Before (boring!):

. 10 minutes: CFO shares the quarterly financial update

. 15 minutes: CEO explains the new business strategy

. 5 minutes: COO reminds employees to put quality and safety first

. 10 minutes: EVP of business unit 1 gives an update on product launches

. 10 minutes: EVP of business unit 2 gives an update on customer satisfaction metrics

. 5 minutes: EVP of human resources (HR) gives an update on performance management activities

. 5 minutes: CEO opens the floor to Q&A; no one raises a hand

After (dramatic):

Topic 1: new business strategy

. 10 minutes: CEO shares the current state of the business: We had a great strategy, but outside pressures are causing our bottom line to suffer, therefore we need to rethink our strategy.

. 15 minutes: COO shares the new strategy: Here’s our new plan to drive long-term growth and succeed, and here’s where we’ll need your help to achieve our goals.

. 10 minutes: COO leads Q&A: What else can we do to combat outside pressures and succeed?

Topic 2: performance management

. 10 minutes: EVP of HR reminds employees that performance management goal setting begins now and shares important details

. 10 minutes: EVP of HR leads Q&A: How can you set your goals to align with our new strategy?

Topic 3: recognition

. 5 minutes: CEO gives recognition to employees who’ve gone above and beyond this quarter

Storytelling element 5: theme

The underlying meaning behind the story — the central idea or main point — is known as the theme. It is typically repeated throughout the narrative and it can often be expressed in one word (love, betrayal, loneliness, pride, teamwork). Including a theme in your internal communication can help employees grasp the main point quickly.

If you’re not sure what your theme is, ask yourself the following questions from story consultant Lisa Cron in her book Wired for Story: [CR3] “What is it I want my readers to walk away thinking about? What point does my story make? How do I want to change the way my readers see the world?”

How to use it: workplace communication

Have you ever noticed employees walking by important posters in the hallway without batting an eyelash? That’s because there’s too much information crammed into that small space, and the employee can’t get the main point without breaking their stride.

The trick to creating engaging internal communication posters is to make your theme pop off of the poster board in an instant. Try finding the perfect image to illustrate your central idea. This allows you to use fewer words and let the image — the manifestation of your theme — do the work. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Putting the element to work

For a poster announcing a new recognition program, you want to express pride. This will help viewers feel good about working for the company and encourage them to take part in the program. So pick an image of an employee standing tall in front of his/her workspace, looking happy to contribute to the company. Colleagues walking by will get the point without skipping a step.

Alison Davis

Written by

Alison Davis is founder and CEO of Davis and Company, the award-winning employee communication firm. Visit https://www.davisandco.com to know more.

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