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Internal business stories are often overlooked by companies. Storytelling efforts are concentrated on the external — customers, shareholders, the media — in service to fuelling a company’s brand-building efforts. Often when we are working with our clients, they are shocked to discover that their storytelling needs and goals are more closely aligned with an internal audience. It’s more important to tell stories to each other than to prospective customers, even if it wasn’t initially obvious.
The fact is, you tell stories every day at work. Story is how we make sense of data, so we are almost compulsive about telling stories in meetings, interviews and presentations. One of the first storytelling opportunities that you participate in at work is the job interview (whether you’re the candidate or the interviewer). Both side tell stories about themselves that attempt to connect the facts of the situation (qualifications, experience, salary, vacation time) whilst simultaneously explaining what makes them exceptional.
A few years ago, I interviewed at a local firm. The job seemed interesting and had a competitive remuneration package, and seemed like a great opportunity. Nonetheless, I turned down the job. When they called back to offer more money, I declined again. Why?
The stories they had told in the interview did not confirm the company’s culture on paper. Their internal business stories were overwhelmingly negative, about managing burnout and navigating complicated office politics. Essentially, the stories they told had one moral: avoid at all costs. To be clear, I don’t think they intended to tell me these stories. I think storytelling is so instinctual to humans that we tell stories without stopping — we have to be aware of whether those stories hurt or help our cause. So, how do you tell helpful internal business stories? It’s straightforward.
Be Aware of the Stories You’re Telling
You will tell stories at work. It’s hardwired into your nature. Be conscious of the story that you are telling. You are probably already aware of the story patterns that you are following. Think about whether they are serving your business goals. You are in charge of the story you are telling. If you’ve caught yourself in a negative story rut, then try to figure out why you’re there. It could be truly illuminating.
Make Storytelling a Habit
We all tell stories, but some of us are better at it than others. Luckily, story is a skill — practice makes perfect. You don’t have to clear your schedule for a storytelling retreat or go for a woo-woo poetry circle, either. Internal business stories can grow organically from your existing communications.
Consider starting a weekly meeting with a storytelling session — kick it off yourself and then put a colleague on point. Invite your clients to share stories about working with your firm. More of a solo artist? Make a weekly appointment with yourself to journal one story to develop your own storytelling muscles.
Be Authentic in Your Storytelling
Stories are valuable when they are authentic. This means exposing the mistakes, the bad patches and the straight-up disasters that happen to everybody. This runs counter to conventional marketing thinking, but you have to get ready to be real. No one is interested in a story that goes “It was good, it got better — the end.” No one is inspired by that story.
Authentic storytelling can be hard. However, story can be how you explain your mistakes — and what you learned from them. Sharing your learning through story can do more than transmit your message — it makes you a leader.
Don’t overlook your internal business stories. You are telling a story about your own life every day. Make it work for you.
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