The following blog is the third in a three-part series examining how storytelling helps drive change. The first part showed change leaders how to use stories to shape the direction of business transformation. The second part discussed ways to ramp up employee engagement – and build change capability – through digital storytelling. This final part of our series identifies four ways to cultivate a healthy storytelling culture in your organization.
Many years ago, when I was a kid attending a summer theater program, I encountered for the first time that staple of team-bonding activities, the “trust fall.” You know, the one where you stand in the center of a human circle (eyes closed and hands crossed over your chest) and allow yourself to fall back to be (hopefully) caught in the arms of people whom you don’t really know. This exercise is a perennial favorite with team-building facilitators because fear of falling is a universal human experience, with manifold implications for business culture.
Practicing the art of business storytelling is the “trust fall” exercise writ large. For while science assures us that human beings are wired for story, telling a story in front of a business audience is, for many of us, anything but natural. We might well have a great story to tell, but looking out at those faces marked by boredom, skepticism, and impatience, we hesitate to present ourselves in an all-too-human way. At the brink of self-exposure, the floor opens beneath our feet. Lacking trust, we cling to our bullet points.
Why the fear? After all, the market is teeming with authors, workshops, and consultants offering great advice on how to craft and tell effective stories in all kinds of business settings. Here’s the rub: trying out our new storytelling skills without falling flat on our back (or our face) requires a receptive storytelling culture. The storyteller’s “trust fall” fails unless “catching the story” is part and parcel of “how we do things here.”
Following are four steps to create a cultural safety net for those in your organization who are willing to take a leap and practice the art of business storytelling.
1. Know your Current Storytelling Culture
How ready is your organization to adopt a storytelling culture? This can be a sensitive undertaking, fraught with risk. Consider a somewhat extreme analogy. When a person is rescued from a situation where they’ve been without food for weeks or months, it seems logical to let them eat until their belly is full. This is a mistake with potentially deadly consequences. Likewise, if your corporate culture treats stories as useless fluff and keeps employees on a strict information diet of facts and numbers, it’s probably unwise to suddenly enroll everyone in a mandatory storytelling workshop.
Thus, the first step in creating a story-friendly culture is to know the actual status of storytelling in your organization today. To assess your current storytelling culture with appropriate rigor requires a robust methodology. For now, consider the following questions a starting point for further investigation:
- Do people in your organization take storytelling seriously? Is there a consistent point of view on the value of business narrative, or does it differ hierarchically and vary across geographies?
- How often do people meet to share and discuss stories about customers, innovations, and challenges? Do these discussions tend to be formal or informal?
- Does the organization identify storytelling as a core capability? Is it included in competency frameworks and job candidate personas?
- How effective are people at crafting and delivering stories for business purposes, verbally and in written form? What metrics point to storytelling capability and the business impact of stories?
2. Weave Storytelling into your Onboarding Process
My freshman year of college I joined the spring pledge class of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity. Much of pledgeship was spent learning the history of the fraternal organization, including the riveting tale of Baldassare Cossa, the corrupt 15th century governor of Bologna, Italy, and the band of students at the University of Bologna who formed a secret society for purposes of mutual protection against the evil tyrant. The historical details of that founding narrative are perhaps debatable, but the story itself was central to the mythos of the fraternity and contributed to the sense of brotherhood that permeated our experience of pledgeship. The story and the experience have stuck with me to this day.
Every organization has an originating story. Does your onboarding process introduce new employees to that founding myth? (Myths aren’t untrue stories; myths are stories about what’s truly important – to a country, a culture, a company.) Onboarding is an opportunity to link the stories and experiences of new employees to the underlying narratives of your company, team, or project, much as tributaries join the ever-changing currents of the larger river.
As with assessing your organization’s storytelling culture, making business narrative an integral part of your onboarding process requires careful planning. Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling:
- Train assigned coaches and mentors to include storytelling prompts in their initial conversations with new hires: “What were some of the key events that led you here? Can you recall any formative or decisive experiences? People who made a difference in your journey?”
- Curate a library of onboarding stories that give new hires an experiential sense of workplace culture, job expectations, customers, and projects. Short, video-based stories told by employees (experienced veterans as well as recent new hires) will be easiest to produce.
- Update existing onboarding training materials to include narrative content and structured story-sharing exercises to bring dry but essential processes and procedures to life.
3. Observe Master Storytellers at Work
I love the story told by the Indian poet Rabindrath Tangore about the famous musician who attempted to give Tangore music lessons. With wry irony, Tangore recalls that “no learning took place” through the master’s pedagogical instruction. Far more valuable from Tangore’s perspective was the “stolen knowledge” he was able to glean by hearing and observing the musician perform.
Workshops and master classes on basic and advanced storytelling skills are useful, but nothing builds a storytelling culture like day-to-day observation and appreciation of master storytellers at work. How is this accomplished?
- First, you need to identify the great storytellers already in your midst. This task is easier if a) your Talent Management system allows you to pinpoint subject matter experts with specific skills and b) storytelling is included in competency models and skills profiles.
- Once you’ve identified your storytelling SMEs, bring them into the open. One way to do this is to enable communities of practice focused on business narrative and ensure that your Master Storytellers are guiding lights within those communities.
- MS Teams is a great platform on which to form and sustain knowledge sharing communities, including those focused on building business narrative capability. Knowledge created by a story-focused community in MS Teams can be readily shared across other Teams within the organization, thus cultivating the ground of a storytelling culture.
- If community members are fortunate enough to work closely with any of the storytelling SMEs, they should make a point to carefully observe and mentally take note any time the Master Storyteller is practicing his or her craft in a business context.
4. Be a Fearless Storyteller
In this article, we’ve suggested several ways to promote a culture that supports storytelling as a core capability within your organization. Sustainable culture change requires leadership vision and support, as well as a willingness at the individual level to take a leap of faith. Everyone has a story to tell. Having the courage to tell that story – combined with the business insight to pick the right story for the right time and the right audience – will go far in cultivating a storytelling culture that drives product innovation and customer delight.
Principal Consultant, Infosys Consulting
David Welch is a Principal Consultant in the Infosys Consulting Talent & Organization practice. He has over 20 years’ experience in the learning & development profession, helping organizations drive change through learning strategy, curriculum design, content development, change management, and communication.