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Why Storytelling Is Hard Work And 3 Tips To Get Started

It was a Monday morning and most of my team members were already in their cubicles engrossed at work. Suddenly, we heard our senior leader call out in a loud and commanding tone across the bay to an intern. The intern had recently joined the team and was headed to Delhi for training. It seems the leader heard she was going for a couple of weeks and wanted some shopping done for her. She pulled a paper from the photocopier, placed it on the floor and drew the outline of her feet. Standing up she handed the paper to the intern and demanded that she bring a pair of sandals from a famous flea market. The intern stood humiliated and accepted the paper while the others in the team giggled at her discomfort. Not surprisingly, she quit the organization in a while. Ironically, the organization has a core value called ‘respect for the individual’ and yet no one, including other senior leaders intervened when they witnessed this incident. I will leave it you to imagine what it did to the team’s morale and their perception of the organization’s culture. I often use this story to explain how culture can get eroded by the actions and the inactions leaders take.

The stories that I remember are the ones which have struck an emotional chord with me. The stories I tell are the ones that have moved my core.

We hear many reasons why storytelling is the way forward and what it means to craft suitable stories that evoke attention. Many organizations invest time and effort to train and coach employees on storytelling. Wipro sent their leadership team to the Jaipur Literary Fest to learn the art of ‘narration’ from authors and artists. Likewise, the Future Group appointed a Chief Belief Officer to use stories drawn from a wide range of sources to inspire and connect employees. We also know that storytelling is the biggest business skill that will hold the test of time. Unfortunately, however much we believe storytelling is relevant – it is hard work. The tendency is to default to a presentation with facts and numbers that tries to substantiate the topic we want to focus on.

Especially in internal communications, where aligning employees to a common purpose is crucial – finding stories that emote can be tricky. Here is why.

Storytelling takes time and effort: Even though we know ‘story’-telling can leave a lasting impact and move people we find it difficult to break away from the tried and tested form of ‘tell’. It does expect us to be mindful and connect the dots.

Storytelling expects us to re-learn a skill: We all know how we grew up on stories and can still rattle off the names of our favorite characters in them. When it comes to telling a story in a business context it often means that we need to get back to understanding our feelings and connecting with the world around us in ways that matter. We can do with some hand holding now.

Storytelling expects us to listen and observe: In a world where time is at a premium and we flit from one task to another, stopping to think about the experiences we have had is taxing, to say the least. To craft a suitable story that resonates we need to pause, acknowledge, appreciate and imbibe a lot more than we think we can.

So what can internal communicators do to be able to identify, tell and teach storytelling?

Reflect: Begin with yourself. Get better with identifying stories and helping others spot them. I encourage you to earmark some part of your day or week to reflect on your thoughts, experiences and feelings as you went about your life. Think of the interactions – what you envisaged and what transpired. Think of how people around you reacted and what were your most delightful and distasteful moments.

Relate: Help your leaders and employees contextualize their stories. Provide easy to use templates that can capture moments of truth. For example, you probably learnt that when you resist a project there is an equal reaction that you received from your stakeholder. Well, there is a story in that. You can either manage your message better or learn to work differently with colleagues. Create simple formats for employees and leaders to use while crafting suitable stories. Help curate good stories by engaging closely with internal teams and observing them at work.

Relive: Tell someone or a group of people you know well what you think you learnt from your experiences. How it mattered to you and what make it stick in your mind and heart. Test your story by blending it into your next presentation. Every story has a beginning and an end and a central theme that we can relate to. Make the story come alive through your internal communication channels. Identify colleagues who are great with connecting others through stories. You may even have talented individuals who can use interesting medium such as theatre or music to tell stories. Tap their potential.

What do you think?

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