Improve Employee Communication By Sharing a Story

When communicating with your employees, a storytelling approach can engage and motivate them better than facts and figures

Interested in Business?

Get Business articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Business + Get Alerts

The next time your company decides to launch a new initiative, you could use facts and figures and charts and graphs to communicate the program’s goals to employees and show why it’s important.

Or you could try something completely different: Tell a compelling story that emotionally engages employees, builds empathy and motivates them to buy into the initiative.

The latter approach is much more likely to succeed, says Patti Sanchez, chief strategy officer at Duarte, a communications and training company based in Santa Clara, California. Duarte specializes in helping companies use storytelling to create high-impact presentations for product launches and other programs.

“When you use stories about people and the challenges they’ve encountered, it tends to make an audience feel emotions of various kinds,” Sanchez says. “They almost can’t help but put themselves in the shoes of the person in the story. This phenomenon is known as narrative transportation.

“When we’re transported like that, it quiets the critical mind — the part of our brain that asks questions and creates challenging and disagreeing thoughts. At the same time, the emotional and memory centers of the brain become more active.”

In addition, these physiological reactions create a rush of hormones, including oxytocin (often referred to as the “cuddling” or “love” hormone), which helps reinforce bonds between couples or mothers and their babies. As a result, whatever employees hear is more memorable. 

“Studies have found that people are more likely to remember information delivered in story form as opposed to conveying it just as pure facts,” Sanchez says.

Building empathy

During her tenure at Duarte, Sanchez says she’s seen many great examples of clients who have switched to storytelling as a communication conduit and achieved better outcomes as a result. In one case, a CEO used stories in the 1990s to launch a program to make his carpet-manufacturing company fully sustainable — a first in the industry.

The CEO used storytelling principles to announce the company’s mission to employees. He told a story about a customer who asked him what the company was doing to be more eco-friendly. He also talked about a book he’d read that inspired a new “green” vision for the company.

“He eventually gave a TED Talk about his experience,” Sanchez says. “Storytelling was very effective in terms of getting employees behind their goal to change not only the way they made their products, but their place in the industry.”

In another instance, a large technology company hired Duarte to help it explain to employees the importance of a new initiative to increase diversity and inclusion. To do this, the company’s leadership team talked to managers and told stories about being excluded or treated with bias.

“At that point, they didn’t communicate the actual strategy of the diversity program,” Sanchez says. “They instead impressed on managers why bias can be a painful experience for employees and why it’s important to change things. It helped create more awareness and empathy for people who aren’t treated equitably. That paves the way for change because it made something that perhaps was abstract into something more concrete and relatable — created more awareness about why this is a problem.”

Moreover, as senior management talked about their experiences with bias, Sanchez says they became more animated about the issue. The result? A shift in their own perspectives that helped them become more open and vulnerable, too.

Changing perceptions

There’s another benefit: Storytelling can dramatically change employees’ perceptions of managers. Sanchez recalls a CEO who told employees how he had experienced bias because he’s a Christian conservative. But he also talked about one instance where he heard that a gay employee was afraid to disclose his sexual orientation.

“He didn’t realize that because he was so open about his faith, people were worried that he’d judge them unfairly,” Sanchez says. “He apologized and said he didn’t want anyone to ever feel that way.

“Later, when employees filled out a survey about the quality of his communication and how much they trusted and would follow him as a leader, he got the highest ratings ever.”

While there are those who say emotion shouldn’t be part of business communication because it clouds judgment, Sanchez argues that people already feel emotions at work. 

“We all would like to think we’re more rational, but you start to form opinions quickly and rationalize them later through intellectual thought,” she says. “Wouldn’t you rather shape those feelings and use them to purposefully and intentionally motivate employees to do what you want them to do, instead of just putting out information and facts?”

Ages-old tradition

Storytelling as a communication tool is nothing new. Centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote Poetics, in which he described the basic three-act structure of stories: beginning, middle and end. The most compelling form of this structure is the so-called hero’s journey, in which an individual faces numerous challenges and emerges from them significantly changed, Sanchez says.

“The same basic structure is inherent in much of our business communications, but we just don’t realize it,” she says. “We can use even more aspects of storytelling besides the three-act structure to make our communications more interesting to an audience — and make those communications more persuasive, too.

“Storytelling is a form of communication that can increase transparency and create more openness and honesty in your organization’s culture. And I hope that’s what business leaders want, because it creates awareness and openness to change.”

Visit www.duarte.com to learn more about using storytelling as a communication tool.



Discussion

Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.