Storytelling is often seen as a communication tool to be used by leaders to influence an audience. But some of the most powerful applications of strategic storytelling involve groups of people from all levels and disciplines sharing their stories, and linking these to a higher strategic narrative. Global organizations such as the charity Oxfam, the fashion retailer New Look, the travel company TUI, pharmaceutical giant GSK and defense and engineering business BAE Systems have all developed meaning and purpose for their employees by encouraging people to tell their stories to each other.
There is a danger in creating too much mystique around storytelling by over-complicating it, worrying too much about developing story structure and metaphor. Too much emphasis on developing storytelling skills loses the authenticity that comes from people simply talking from the heart. Most people, if asked when they have felt engaged at work or when they have felt connected to an organization’s purpose, will tell a story. People do not need to be great raconteurs to do this. If the story is honest, if it matters to the storyteller and is relevant, it will resonate with others.
For example, Oxfam GB has a narrative for its people to tell others about what Oxfam stands for and what it does. But the organization struggled to take this narrative, despite powerful imagery and compelling anecdotes, off the page and into deeper conversations and exchanges that helped people connect in a more meaningful way.
To overcome this, a design team started telling each other stories about why they had joined Oxfam and what mattered to them. In this first conversation, they realized how important their personal stories were and how sharing them helped them relate to each other. They developed a picture that captured the history of the organization showing Oxfam as a global movement of millions of people who share the belief that, in a world rich in resources, poverty isn’t inevitable. This became “The Story of Us” and acted as a prompt for colleagues to share their stories.