Building an inspiring narrative around an organisation that encourages each employee to picture themselves as a hero leads to powerful results, says storytelling expert, Alison Esse.
May 13, 2022
by Alison Esse, 2022
What does the type of storytelling you specialise in look like?
As human beings, we don’t like change. In fact, we are wired to preserve the status quo. A lot of the time, when we tell stories, those narratives tend to be counteractive towards anything we perceive as a threat – an impulse that draws heavily upon our ‘fight, flight, freeze’ reflex.
We work with large, complex, often multinational companies to reset their organisational narrative, to create meaning and inspire change. So, we work with the leaders of the business to co-create the vision of the path that the organisation is on, its hopes and ambitions for the future and the journey it needs to go on to get there. Then we help to articulate that story throughout the entire organisation to galvanise growth and change.
A key part of that is personalising the story, and bringing it to life through a variety of different media in ways that employees at every level will be able to relate to and understand the parts they play. It’s not just about reaching people in offices – the story has to have the same resonance for, say, forklift drivers or cabin crew as it does for head office staff. So, the story cascades to everyone in the organisation.
How can effective storytelling boost productivity?
According to a 2014 study from Harvard Business School, if we spend 15 minutes per day reflecting upon what we’ve learned in the course of the day, our performance after just 10 days improves by 23%.
If we solicit positive stories from our co-workers about their learning experiences and development of new capabilities, we create a culture of reflection. Encouraging each other to tease out the meaning behind those moments of realisation sparks enlightenment – and that emotional response helps to drive productivity.
When we hear a story about how a colleague has achieved a moment of professional validation, we automatically put ourselves in that person’s shoes. We empathise with them, and we reflect upon our own contributions.
Organisations tend to be very task oriented. However, neuroscience shows us that reflection supports the impetus behind our tasks.
When we learn something and tell a story about how it happened, we delight ourselves and our audience. That’s because the story fires up different regions of the limbic brain that underpin the imagination – for example, the areas responsible for taste, smell and perception of colour.
That leads us on to another point, which is the power of involving people in a story.
Storytelling is not a one-way gig. There’s a teller and a listener. And if you can involve people in a story and ask them to play a part in a narrative that’s larger than themselves, they can see the contribution they can make. Each of those people will picture themselves as the hero of that narrative.
This is about reaching the people who are closest to delivery and fulfilment?
Exactly. The people at the coalface – metaphorically speaking – know their customers best and understand how the sharp end of the business works. If you ask them to think about improved, more productive ways of working, they will quite willingly come up with ideas and turn them into success stories that will catch on among their colleagues.
We once worked with a large packaging company to create an overarching narrative that explained the whole context in which the firm works. As part of that, the leaders went out to their teams and said, “Right – what do you think we could do to be more efficient and productive?”
There were hundreds of responses, but one really stood out: two ladies on the production line pointed out that if a particular box was upended, it would get through the process far quicker and more smoothly – and if that happened thousands of times a day, it would produce huge time and cost savings.
After the business implemented their suggestion, defect parts per million on that line dropped from 2,000 to 500 and their on-time, in-full (OTIF) measure went up from 89% to 96%. That’s all productivity. People understood their wider context through the narrative. And their own stories – in which they pictured themselves as the heroes – inspired better ways of working.
How can organisations measure the effectiveness of storytelling initiatives?
Apart from hard, tangible results like the ones I’ve just outlined, leaders can use staff surveys to pick up anecdotal evidence around the psychological intangibles.
One, key hallmark of the impact of a successful storytelling initiative is improved staff engagement, which is crucial for driving productivity.
If a storytelling initiative has worked, pulse surveys will show that staff have an improved understanding of where their contributions sit within the business, and how their efforts affect the organisation as a whole.