To Communicate Change, Look to the History of Storytelling
What is the oldest profession? It’s not what you may think.
If you could travel back to 15,000 BCE, you might expect to find our ancestors preoccupied with the basic necessities: hunting, gathering, building shelters and trying not to get eaten by prehistoric beasts. But you might be surprised to learn that some early humans were actually engaged in a different occupation: telling stories.
In the Lascaux Caves in southern France, ancient artists told visual stories of wild horses, deer, woolly rhinos, mammoths and the hunters that pursued them. As language evolved, early orators regaled listeners with tales of epic deeds, fierce struggles, stunning victories and crushing defeats. Imparting this critical information, in fact, was the key to human success.
The communicator is the modern-day storyteller. Because of our history, the human brain is hard-wired to learn through stories. That’s why stories are everywhere: in books, television, movies, art, advertising, pop culture and business.
Today’s employees crave stories, too. And there’s no more important time to tell a story than when there’s a big change in your organization. Change often makes employees feel uneasy about their future. If you don’t tell your story, employees often make up their own stories — which are typically worse than reality.
Employees want to know what is happening now, what is going to happen — and most importantly — what the change means for them. Storytelling helps you share pertinent information and clearly explain the situation.
Follow these 5 tips to develop your organization’s change story:
1. Build your story
Create your narrative by using a story arc, which the Oxford dictionary defines as the development or resolution of a narrative or principle theme. An arc maps the key points of your story in a compelling way — and creates a consistent framework for leaders (and everyone else) to communicate the change.
To illustrate, here is the story arc for a cherished children’s tale:
· Exposition: Cinderella lives with her wicked stepmother and step-sisters.
· Rising Action: She meets her fairy godmother who uses magic to make Cinderella a beautiful dress for the prince’s ball.
· Climax: Cinderella dances with the prince and loses her slipper while desperately trying to get home before the clock strikes midnight.
· Falling Action: The prince takes the slipper to every maiden in the land. But the slipper only fits on Cinderella’s foot.
· Resolution: The prince and Cinderella live happily ever after.
The same story principles can be applied when communicating change to employees, such as rolling out a new strategy:
· Exposition: Company is founded and built upon an important mission.
· Rising Action: The company delivers a solution and helps solve an unmet need.
· Climax: The company grew too fast and is not sustainable.
· Falling Action: Company develops a plan for the future that will set us up for long-term success.
· Resolution: The customers and the company win.
2. Tell your story every chance you get
When a big change occurs, it’s important to reiterate your story so employees feel comfortable with it. This doesn’t mean saying the same thing over and over again, but finding new ways to weave in your story elements. As a communicator, you have a plethora of tools at your disposal:
· An intranet can be used to provide the latest updates that tie back to your company’s story.
· Town Halls are a great way to encourage leaders to tell the story. Trade in the information-packed slides for visuals and try out a TED Talk format.
· Videos bring home your message and inspire employees. Make them proud to be part of the story.
· Infographics are a quick and eye-catching way to get information across.
· Talking points and FAQ documents ensure all managers and leaders have what they need to tell the story.
· Slideshows can be viewed on digital screens throughout the workplace or hosted on the intranet. Some companies even push screensavers directly to employees’ computers.
3. Train your orators
When it comes to storytelling, your story is only as good as the teller. In this case, compelling leaders are your greatest asset. Think about it: Would you rather hear a story told by that monotonously droning college professor or the one whose impassioned discourse made you want to hear more?
Recruit the most dynamic leaders to be your advocates. Set them up with a toolkit: for starters, talking points, key messages and an FAQ document. This will ensure that each leader has what he/she needs to tell the same story. Encourage leaders to have informal discussions with employees over lunch or coffee. A personal conversation will show employees that leaders care and are ready to answer questions.
4. Choose your champions
In 1949, literary professor Joseph Campbell created The Hero’s Journey, a popular narrative structure that can be applied to just about every movie you’ve ever seen.
In “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Campbell outlines the phases of The Hero’s Journey:
First, an average person (the protagonist) sets out on an adventure. (If you recall, Luke Skywalker started out as a farmer.) The protagonist encounters a series of obstacles that prepare him/her for a final test. The hero overcomes the obstacle and is victorious.
This story structure is so popular because it’s relatable to everyone. After all, the ability to create a connection with your audience is what storytelling is all about.
The same idea applies when telling your change story. But you may be surprised to learn that the most relatable “heroes” for your change story are actual employees. Find real employees from different departments and career levels who can tell their own personal stories of how the change impacted them. This builds a connection for employees and makes change more tangible.
If employees aren’t comfortable being the center of attention, you can develop scenarios to tell a fictional but realistic story. For example, if there’s a change in compensation, tell employees about “Abigail” in marketing who is going to see a x% increase/decrease in their bonus and how that number was calculated.
5. Stay focused on your message
During times of change, it’s easy to lose sight of your messaging and react to the latest news or rumor. However, this is precisely when reinforcing your story is most important. This is the perfect opportunity to explain how the latest development fits into your story. Every story has ups and downs, so explain what happened, what the impact is and where your organization will go from there.
Employees want transparency, so don’t attempt to lie or spin the truth. When employees sense a message is not genuine, their trust in the entire organization erodes very quickly.
Sometimes you won’t have all the information up front, but that’s fine. Instead, focus on what you can share with employees and when you intend to have more information to share.
For example, if a division of your company goes up for sale, the first thing you need to do is tell employees exactly how the sale supports the company’s story. Providing this context helps employees understand why decisions are made and the context for change. Even if it’s too early to know the full impact on the affected employees, commit to providing more information once you know more.
Remember, stories are everywhere! As a communicator, you have the ability to weave stories that stick in the minds of employees. Whether you’re communicating a big change or just making a small announcement, stories are ingrained in our DNA, so storytelling is a compelling way to engage employees.