Great organisations tell great stories: how to harness the power of stories to engage and retain your staff

A simple survey will tell you how staff feel about your organisation. But how do you want them to feel? And what can you do to create that change?

‘Story activist’ Moya Sayer-Jones is the founder of Only Human Communication, a creative agency that works with NFPs, business and government organisations to gather, share and use stories strategically for HR aims. Her clients include NSW Cancer Council, UnitingCare CYPF and ANZ Bank.

We chatted to Moya about the power of storytelling and how NFP organisations can use it to transform their staff engagement processes.

Hi Moya, thanks for chatting to us! To start off, can you tell us how storytelling applies to NFPs?

I think both not-for-profits and corporates are realising that people are always searching for relevance and meaning. They’re searching for an authentic story and how that story fits with what’s important to them. This is particularly the case for NFPs, whose people have often made a deliberate choice to move away from commercial business because they want to make a difference.

But we can’t just tell them why we’re so great! Or why we’re important. We need to tell the stories that prove our worth and are authentic to the experience of working with us. We get much deeper engagement when people recognise themselves in the stories, and make their own choices. Generally, the all-important take-it-or-leave-it organisational voice is dead. People don’t trust it anymore and they’re resistant to being spoon-fed.

And yet in most of our staff communications – for example our online induction programs or the material we write for staff, or when we’re talking to our board – we still use that top-down style that’s out of place in an increasingly horizontal/collaborative world.

Until we get our relationships at work to satisfy these changing expectations, there’s a real tension. We won’t get the best out of people. We certainly won’t get them on board like we want them to be. And, eventually, the best will leave.

Strategic storytelling is dynamic and inclusive. It encourages people to see themselves in the conversation and to contribute to the story we’re making together in a way that strengthens and liberates them – and strengthens the organisation at the same time.

And why is storytelling something HR professionals and managers should care about?

HR is about connecting with staff and what they need to be the best they can be, and to be the best for the organisation. This is supposed to be the people sector, after all – it’s not called human resources for nothing! There’s an expectation of care and consideration, and actually connecting with humans to make the most of all that talent.

There are great opportunities for HR to use story as a listening and understanding tool to support planning and better processes, and as a way to profoundly increase how staff understand changes to procedure or direction. We all know that if we just deliver change, it doesn’t work. If we can actually find a way to tell the story of change, that works.

If we’re trying to lift morale inside an organisation, story is also one of the best tools there is. If we’re having a hard time with funding cuts, or adjusting to a new CEO or a new direction, stories are gold. They can validate the fear or discomfort and inspire new thinking and solutions that will ease it. The trick is to listen and gather stories that engender open conversation and new thinking.

Stories can be fantastic for onboarding too. A story to newcomers about the way we do things around here will stick. Stories are a phenomenal recruitment tool. Stories can communicate the big story and the ‘good’ story! And they’re a powerful antidote to negativity and gossip.

And from a planning perspective, a story approach is one of the most effective listening tools for any organisation.

So why is storytelling more effective than other styles of communicating information?

There are a couple of things: one is that people remember a story. An example of this might be if I’m talking to someone who might join the organisation and I say, ‘We’ve got a great boss who’s really open and respectful.’ That’s an opinion, but is your idea of what makes a good boss the same as my idea? A story will easily clarify that.

Imagine if you’d said, ‘What I love about our CEO is that every time I walk into her office, she stands up from behind her desk and walks around to meet me and she shakes my hand. I feel so welcomed’.

That’s a tiny story, but it’s one that people would remember. I immediately have a strong picture of the culture of that organisation. Story is memorable, while opinions or straight information are less so.

For example, if we’re trying to get people to remember why it’s important to be safe on the job, we can give them a list of safety procedures (and try to ensure they read them!) – or we can tell them the stories of a close call or accident.

Which will make the message resonate more deeply and make it more accessible?

Storytelling is persuasive because it taps our emotions: we’re interested, we’re imagining ourselves in that situation. With a strict informational approach, unsupported by story evidence, the crucial things we need to share often just don’t get through.

Finally, story is a way to listen as well. It’s not just about us telling stories, it’s about creating the spaces for others to tell stories so we can all learn from them. We’re receiving as well as telling.

Do you have a real-world example of the impact of storytelling that you can share with us?

Recently I worked on an external communications project for a medium-sized not-for-profit – a women’s organisation.

Staff went from feeling like they were working in a ‘service’ to feeling like they were a people organisation of many voices built on a strong history.

The changes have been profound. The staff are so proud of themselves and the work they do now. They remember why they’re there! It’s just more dynamic and engaged.

Their story has changed. It’s no longer ‘We don’t have enough money’, ‘We’re up against it’, ‘We can’t do…’ They’re now telling the story of what they can do and why it’s a great thing to be a part of.

It’s been amazing to see the quality of people who are putting their hand up to be a part of that story. They have a waiting list now for interns and a profound drop in people leaving. I think those things speak for themselves.

Thanks Moya!

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