We are surrounded by stories.
Movies, television, books, news, history, podcasts, friends, family, strangers on the bus. Stories are a huge part of what it means to be human. They are how we learn, grow, and connect to one another.
Stories are how humans have always communicated and come to understand the world.
As the roles of internal communicators become more robust and creative, storytelling has reemerged in corporate and professional environments as a beautiful way to connect and engage employees and capture the organization’s heart and imagination.
During our April Webinar, Storytelling 101: Bring your internal comms content to life, we asked our audience to hit us with their most burning internal comms storytelling questions. And your questions flooded in.
Here’s what they had to say:
What are the most critical elements of storytelling in internal comms?
Think about the reader
“What is the story really trying to do for the person we’re talking to? Have we spoken their language? Are we in their world?…If we don’t know how, you need to go talk to your audiences and figure out what resonates with them and their world, or what are they doing every day. What are they most concerned with? Bring it back to that.”— Christopher Swan
Key takeaway: Step into the reader’s shoes. Stop thinking about how you’re presenting the story and start thinking about how it will be received. Know what the audience is concerned with and address it in their language.
Stop trying to be perfect
“There’s a desire to always paint things as a bit too perfect or share success stories. It’s actually far more interesting to hear about challenges, how they are overcome, because it is relatable… don’t worry about being so perfect and be a bit more honest.” — Helen Deverell
Key takeaway: Don’t shy away from challenges. Every good story has a challenge to overcome—it makes your story more human. Share it.
Don’t forget the why
“We’re so busy communicating the what, the news, the change, the important quotes from leaders, that we rarely paint the right why, to bring people in and give them a better understanding of why these things are happening… I think when you tie the what and the why together, the story becomes much more compelling and more meaningful for the employee.” — Ally Bunin
Key takeaway: The why gives your story a purpose. Articulating the relevance and context of the story makes it much more compelling and meaningful.
What role do villains play in internal comms storytelling?
Don’t shy away from the dark side
“There needs to be a hero in every story, and there needs to be a villain. I think communicators don’t like to talk about the villain. But the villain doesn’t need to be a person… it could be productivity or safety.” — Chuck Gose
Your villain is the problem
“Isn’t the villain really what we’re trying to solve or what we’re trying to better?” — Christopher Swan
Key takeaway: Be clear on what you are trying to solve. That problem is your villain, and it can make a powerful storytelling element.
What is the best storytelling format for internal comms?
Show and tell
“Think back to the concept of show and tell. You go back to grade school and kids are encouraged to bring something in and tell a story about whatever it is that they’re sharing… People remember things better when they have a visual. There’s lots of data out there that suggest the relevance of a visual communication.” — Ally Bunin
Strategically mix it up“It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Think about how well what you’re doing can translate to different channels. Maybe parts of the story fit better in visuals, but maybe there’s something else that’s a small written piece… Where are these audiences? How are they using communications? If you work in New York City, you’re in the subway a lot, so you may not watch video all the time, but maybe you can listen to a podcast or read the news.” — Christopher Swan
Key takeaway: You can tell a story different ways on different channels. Ask yourself how employees consume information and how you can make it easier for them to get it. Split your content into different channels and find out what and how the audience is consuming that content.
How can internal communicators avoid information overload when storytelling?
Let employees opt-in
“Information overload, to me, is not just the relationship between the employee and the employer. If you, for example, opt into communications, like newsletters, it’s because you’re interested and you’re going to read them. We treat our employees differently for some reason, and we should be enabling opt-in features.” — Ally Bunin
Relevancy is the cure for overload
“Company news is company news, but certainly I think storytelling adds a deeper meaningful connection. If it’s an interesting story and it’s relevant, I don’t know that it falls into information overload. I just think we’re doing it wrong.” — Ally Bunin
Key takeaway: Information overload is everywhere now, not just at work. If you are relevant, meaningful, and interesting, you will not contribute to that overload. We should also allow employees to opt-in to various communications so we know what they want to hear about and deliver that.
How do you synchronize storytelling within organizations that have multiple brands?
Focus on shared values
“It’s absolutely fine to have your own stories for different brands, if you all share in the same values. Find that commonality. As long as everything links back to those values, those stories can be owned by the different brands because there is that thread running through that ties it all together.” — Helen Deverell
Key takeaway: Values are the glue that holds together multiple stories across complex organizations.
How do you communicate sincerely in environments of change or negativity?
Tell your own stories
“It comes back to authenticity. I think people need to be telling their own stories… Naturally, they come across more natural, authentic, and positive, if people tell them from the heart. Especially senior leaders and CEOs. A lot of their stories aren’t actually written by them or shared by them, and it’s far more powerful when they are.” — Helen Deverell
Honesty is the best policy
“I think if your story is open about the fact that not everything’s great at the moment, people are going to believe the rest of what you say. They’re going to give you more credibility for that story. It’s the honesty and openness.” — Helen Deverell
Key takeaway: Honesty will help you stand out among the negativity and keep readers engaged.
How do you create a conversational voice when the company you work for may be strict about having professional voice and tone?
Tailor your tone
“The company’s senior leadership team may project a certain type of tone that you want to maintain in different corporate internal communications, but maybe there’s an opportunity to have a more conversational tone when you talk about benefits, employee wellness, and retirement savings….There doesn’t have to be one tone all the time. You have to find those pockets where you can be a little bit more conversational.” — Ally Bunin
Evolve your voice and tone guidelines
“When people talk about tone and voice guidelines, they talk about them as very static documents and actually, they should be living documents and they should evolve as the company evolves. Just because your tone of voice currently says this is how you talk doesn’t mean there’s not an opportunity to review that and to evolve it as well… They should be reviewed often and updated to reflect how organizations naturally change. Organizations are always changing, and I think those elements should change with it.” — Helen Deverell
“What is your tone externally? Since so many organizations now are on LinkedIn and they’re speaking to the public, there is an opportunity to maybe blend some of that together. That might be something to leverage.” — Christopher Swan
Key takeaway: Find a voice that matches the employee base in your organization. It doesn’t have to always match the company tone and style. It is always worth having conversations about how to bring your voice and tone documents/policy up to date, or include an element pertaining to storytelling ie. using people’s more natural voices/being conversational.
How can you incorporate storytelling in face-to-face communications?
Make it human
“Opening a town hall with a story is really the only way to open a town hall. We encourage our team to share a personal story, even if it’s not related to the topic of the town hall, because it makes them more relatable and it really brings the human back into work and dealing with people….I think it’s so important to be a human first.” — Ally Bunin
Key takeaway: Starting face-to-face communications like town halls with a story can make leaders appear more human and vulnerable, and will make employees trust them more as a person, and as a leader.
How do you tell a story?
Scrap the beginning, middle and end format
“If you’re trying to find out where to begin your story, or what the hook is, think about what you’d say to a friend over coffee. Say, ‘You’ll never guess what…’ and whatever follows that is usually where you start. That’s where the action is and that’s what people want to know. People think you write a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Often you’re actually starting in the middle because the middle is where the interesting bit is.” — Helen Deverell
“It depends on the type of story I want to tell or what my goal is. I do a lot of cold opens and I jump right in on a really interesting moment. It’s never minor. It’s always something that’s a catch that gets you in. I’m trying to get people through an experience. I want them to visualize that. I want it to be visceral. I want them to be part of it. So I need to help them, transport them to a time and place. It’s helping to get them to come along with you on this journey.” — Christopher Swan
Key takeaway: Lead with the most interesting and you’ll have your audience hooked. Then you can fill in the details.
What is your number one storytelling tip?
“Be relevant. What’s in it for me?” — Helen Deverell
“Convey the why in an interesting way.” — Ally Bunin
“Be genuinely interested in the story you want to tell.” — Christopher Swan
We are so grateful to have had such an exceptional cast of storytellers on our panel. If you would like to learn more about who these incredible people are, you can read more about them or watch the webinar replay here.