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.
The design team then took this picture and helped to lead conversations with groups of Oxfam people, asking simple questions such as:
- How does your work contribute to our purpose?
- What inspires you or makes you proud about Oxfam?
- What do you most look forward to in a world without poverty?
Over the course of these conversations, the percentage of people agreeing that they experienced a strong sense of shared purpose within Oxfam doubled. One of their conversation leaders commented: “Feelings are not tangible, but I know that in the sessions that I ran, people left feeling good and empowered and wanted to do more. I had laughter, tears and real pride in the room.”
One of the participants—one of the “storytellers”—said, “We always talk about how we’re a movement of people working towards the eradication of poverty together, but sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day tasks and occasional politics that it is easy to forget how cohesive a movement we actually are.”
The experiences of Oxfam provide a useful balance to the emphasis that often gets placed on developing the storytelling skills of leaders. It suggests that strategic storytelling needs to focus just as much, if not more, on harnessing everyone’s natural storytelling skills, and that this can be used to help provide purpose and meaning to people at work. Sharing real stories about “why I work here” and how I see my job fitting in the context of a bigger picture can be a way for people to co-create meaning that grows from the conversations people have with each other.
Stories give meaning and purpose
This is significant for two reasons. First, because there is a growing need for companies to improve the way they share meaning and purpose. Gallup, one of the organizations at the forefront of employee engagement measurement over the past 20 years, analyzed the views of millennials (20–36 year olds, born 1980–1996) on what they want from work. Gallup identified six major shifts, foremost of which is a move away from a focus on reward toward a focus on purpose.
According to the 2016 Gallup report How Millennials Want to Work and Live, “Millennials don’t just work for a paycheck—they want a purpose. For millennials, work must have meaning. They want to work for organizations with mission and purpose.”
The report Engaging for Success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement, commissioned by the U.K. Secretary of State for Business in 2008, also acknowledged the importance of purpose as a force for alignment and engagement. The first core enabler identified by the report (also known as the Macleod report) is the existence of a strong strategic narrative: “Leadership provides a strong strategic narrative, which has widespread ownership and commitment from managers and employees at all levels. The narrative is a clearly expressed story about what the purpose of an organization is, why it has the broad vision it has, and how an individual contributes to that purpose.”
Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “How great leaders inspire action” remains among the top-viewed TED videos. His subsequent book Start with Why outlines the argument that purpose-driven leaders and companies inspire others to action.
Storytelling’s unique power
Stories are one of the most important approaches we have for communicating with each other in order to understand each other’s perspectives. Presentations, lists, bullet points and logical argumentation are great, but provoke the natural critic in all of us. We tend to look for the flaws in the point of view presented to us. With stories, however, different parts of our brains process the information. Rather than look for flaws in arguments, we are more likely to respond to the emotions and the experiences we hear. We engage in the story. Stories help us to see the world from the perspective of other people. More parts of our brain are activated when we hear a story and we experience the world the storyteller is trying to convey. We are not very good at distinguishing truth from fiction (hence our emotional responses to stories conveyed in film or in books) but we do engage in a vibrant and vivid way and our “resistance” falls as we are invited into the storyteller’s world, providing a more memorable and influential experience.
To harness strategic storytelling in this way does not require working for a global charity fighting poverty. New Look, the fashion retailer, is encouraging its people to tell stories about how they make customers feel better about themselves, while the travel company TUI encouraged its people to talk about how they made travel experiences special for their customers. At TUI, understanding of business purpose went from 20 percent knowing one of the major goals to 50 percent of employees being able to recall all key objectives unprompted.
In conclusion, strategic storytelling can be used to help people connect with organizational purpose and meaning. However, rather than try and achieve this by depending on a small group of leaders transmitting their version of the narrative, a more effective approach involves everyone, inviting them to talk about what the bigger picture means to them and creating shared purpose and meaning that emerges in conversations throughout the business.