There has been a tangential shift in the way communication is being approached in organisations today, according to Purnima Nandy, who explains that storytelling can be used in a variety of ways to improve communication in organisations
This tangential shift from a formal directive method of communication to a more engaging and inclusive conversational style. The distance between the sender and the receiver is getting shorter and the need for inclusivity and relationship building through communication is getting stronger. One of the major reasons for this shift is the evolution of the workforce and the relationships they hope to make in the workplace. Formality and hierarchy have made way for equality and a flatter organisation structure.
Over the last 70 years, the image of an organisation has evolved from being a mere machine to a socio-cultural system. This change in the image and characteristics of an organisation has also led to change in the way communication strategies are created and deployed in organisations as the focus has shifted from systems to people.
Today it is believed that employees are the most important asset of an organisation and communication systems is like the nervous system of the body connecting the people and the work. In a practical sense, communication cannot be defined by a simple model involving a sender, a receiver and a message. This system involves the sender’s and receiver’s emotions and feelings and the way they interpret and act on the message as well. It is in this very subjective art of interpretation and conviction to action that storytelling excels over any other means of organisational communication.
“Storytelling can be described as the art of communication using stories and narratives”
What is storytelling?
Stories can be heard everywhere in an organisation. There are stories being shared in the cafeteria line, just outside the boardroom, in the boardroom, at the water cooler, in the elevator and just about anywhere else one can care to stop and listen. We have been telling stories ever since we can remember, then why is it that there is so much attention being given to stories in organisations since the last few decades? And more importantly as human resources professionals why should we give this new wave of communication our due attention?
Storytelling can be described as the art of communication using stories and narratives. This practice has been derived from the age old practice of folklore and cultural stories which have been passed down generation after generation verbally and often in the written form. Commonly they are called grandmother stories and they are narratives of identity, history, individuality and culture.
Why does storytelling excel over other forms of organisational communication?
To answer this question, we need to take a deeper look at the human brain and the way it functions. There are four main ways in which storytelling as a communication style makes a deeper impact on the listener when compared to common communication strategies which involve dispensing of information and data.
“When a person needs to be motivated or action is desired out of him/her, communication in the form of stories will generate a stronger reaction when compared to passive data given to him/her”
- Storytelling activates a function in the brain called ‘neural coupling’ which enables the listener to convert the ideas presented in the story into his/her own ideas and experiences. This makes the content in the communication strategy more personal and relatable.
- Storytelling also creates a mirroring pattern in the brain which allows the listeners to experience similar brain activity as each other as well as the storyteller. This allows team understanding and builds motivation amongst the listeners.
- When a person listens to an emotionally charged piece of communication as it happens in the case of a story, the brain releases a chemical called ‘dopamine’ which stimulates memory and helps the person to remember that piece of communication accurately and for a longer stretch of time.
- Finally, Paul J. Zak a professor at Claremont Graduate University and President of Ofactor, Inc talks about a neurochemical called oxytocin which is released when we feel safe or are shown kindness and it motivates cooperation with others around us. In his experiments, the professor found that during character driven stories and narratives this chemical is synthesised which generates emotions like empathy and cooperation which creates reliability and willingness to work with others. This can be especially useful when creating communication strategies for change communication or for sharing difficult news with employees.
In an organisation, a person is bombarded with information throughout the day. This information comes to them in forms of presentations, discussions, reports, memos, emails and conversations. When information is received by the brain in the form of stories as opposed to data and numbers, the inclination to capture, recollect and reproduce that information is higher. Thus when a person needs to be motivated or action is desired out of him/her, communication in the form of stories will generate a stronger reaction when compared to passive data given to him/her.
5 ways in which storytelling can be used in organisational communication
1. Leadership communication: Leadership communication aims to influence change, negotiate with key stakeholders for the larger business goal, create a buy into a strategy or the mission and vision of the organisation and finally to motivate the people in all business scenarios to finally create a win-win for the organisation. This kind of communication is possible only when there is an intellectual buy-in as well as an emotional buy in. Storytelling as a communication strategy influences not only the mind but the heart as well by engaging emotionally and personally with the listeners.
2. Change communication: Every organisation goes through a lifecycle which has several ups and downs. The ups are easy to communicate, but when an organisation is going through structural changes or mergers and acquisitions or simply a low profitability period where jobs have had to be laid off, communicating this change is very crucial to the future of the organisation.
What causes issues in change communication is that the leaders of the organisation stick only to numbers and data and often chunks of information is received by the employees through grapevine which is assumption-based and causes fear. Using storytelling methodologies, the leadership can make themselves vulnerable and honest in front of the employees which will bring about trust and will erase gossip. This does not mean that confidential information is made public; only that the information shared is more relatable and the leader’s skin is in it too.
“Storytelling as a communication strategy influences not only the mind but the heart as well by engaging emotionally and personally with the listeners”
3. Sharing the mission, vision and culture of the organisation: The mission, vision, history and the culture of the organisation can be shared with new hires and lateral hires in the form of a storyboard.
Making a video or even a short animated film about the organisation will make a deep impact on the new hire and will allow the employee to feel a part of the organisation’s history. Lego had created an animated video on the celebration of 80th anniversary and through the art of storytelling they had beautifully communicated the culture and the values of the organisation.
4. Learning and development. Every training program, workshop, webinar or leadership development learning session that is conducted is an attempt to drive change, motivate and inspire the audience to move out of their comfort zone. In order to do this successfully, the content must be relatable and realistic. Learners appreciate training programs which are practical and not only explain the ‘what’ but tell them the ‘how’ as well.
Using storytelling techniques, trainers can tell learners how the content has been used practically by others in the industry and can also share personal experiences of using the frameworks, technologies and models that are being taught which help the learner to accept the practical application of the learning. With the learning medium changing from face-to-face to virtual platforms and from day long workshops to spaced learning, it is essential to keep the learner engaged and committed.
5. Employee coaching. With business coaching evolving as a trend for leadership and entrepreneurial capability development creating a personal connect with the learner is even more important today.
A very common technique used by coaching professionals today is sharing their life story with the audience. They take the learners through their journey, their ups and down and their turning points. This helps the learners connect with their coach and it also keeps the coaching real and not a hypothetical journey.
Storytelling thus enables the employees to think differently, to believe in a new circumstance and to act outside their comfort zones keeping the organisation’s interest in mind at all times.
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