Learning & Development

3 Ways HR Can Win Hearts and Minds Through Better Storytelling

“We’re being forced back to the office.”

“I literally fell asleep during training.”

“AI is probably going to take my job.”

These are all recent quotes from people close to me. Of course, you probably don’t need to chat with my friends and family to hear similar sentiments. A lot of workers are saying these things.

While it’s easy to chalk these sentiments up to employee disengagement or COVID-era uncertainty, I see the quotes as examples of failed “organizational storytelling.” To borrow from Wikipedia’s definition, organizational storytelling is “human beings in organizations connecting, engaging and inspiring other stakeholders using stories and story structures.” Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s not always in practice.

Taking an example from above, when managers ask people to return to the office, they usually have a good reason. Likewise, there are typically attempts at finding a middle ground. But if employees feel like they’re being forced back into the office, it means the company didn’t nail their storytelling.

Think about it this way: What if, before the big decision, the company ran a survey asking everyone their thoughts about returning? Then, maybe the CEO shares a heartfelt message, showing they truly care. They might also unveil the data driving this decision so everyone understands why.

Then they could whip up a funny video reminiscing about the perks of office life—maybe even sprinkling in some humor from The Office. Sure, this might not make everyone thrilled about returning, but I’m guessing fewer folks would feel forced. Again, the way employees talk about these things sheds light on how well a company communicates.

Fortunately, organizations have more control over how they tell their stories than they often think. As a consultant and creative director, I’ve been privileged to work closely with some of the world’s most dynamic HR departments. And every day, I’m astounded by how compelling, employee-focused stories not only win over hearts and minds but also help organizations stay true to their values and achieve important business results.

While I can easily get into the weeds talking about the art and science of storytelling, I believe great organizational storytelling boils down to doing the following three things:

1. View all communications as storytelling opportunities.

From job descriptions and compliance training to benefit explanations and change management initiatives, everything can be turned into a compelling story. For example, we helped one of our tech industry clients create a series of humorous comics to demonstrate how legal, compliance, and security teams were secret superheroes that helped other associates stay safe and productive. Following the release of these comics on internal channels, workers became over twice as likely to reach out to these departments when they had questions or concerns.

And for a major pharmaceutical company, we brought organizational storytelling to a technology training session. Using the theme of the Chutes and Ladders board game, we demonstrated how a new automated system wasn’t designed to replace jobs with artificial intelligence (AI) but to allow employees to spend more time doing the work they enjoy. Unsurprisingly, technology adoption rates were much higher than previous initiatives.

Of course, organizational storytelling is about a lot more than making topics fun and memorable. By highlighting our shared values, posing unique challenges, and making us feel like we are a part of something bigger than our day-to-work, great stories influence our mindsets and even change our behaviors.  

2. Look beyond HR for how to tell stories.

The law of inertia dictates that most of us continue to do what has always been done. This is why so many PowerPoint® slides, training programs, and HR communications remain underwhelming. It also doesn’t help that the world is truly going through a content revolution, in which everything seems to be fun and interactive. Fortunately, this perception (or misconception) that HR and people organizations create boring content and training material is a huge opportunity to surprise employees and differentiate your organization’s stories from competitors.

Borrowing from the playbook of the airline industry, which reinvented safety videos by channeling Hollywood videos in the early 2000s, HR pros need to look to real-world content that’s already engaging their employees. For example, we recently worked with one of the world’s largest retailers to gamify its leadership training through interactive choose-your-own-adventure-style videos. In addition to being a lot of fun for participants, the training resulted in leaders’ seeing the organization’s values not as static concepts on paper but as principles they had to navigate and incorporate into their work.

On another storytelling project, we worked with a major beverage distributor to create a humorous action movie trailer about its employee handbook. Not only did it drive far more employees to read the handbook, but it also reduced workplace accidents and policy infractions.

3. Remember that stories start with your employees.

Though most HR organizations tend to focus their communications on policies and initiatives, keep in mind that the best stories almost always begin with your audience. When employees see that their narrative (career goals, interests, values, etc.) intersects with that of their organization, an incredible amount of affinity and trust is built. This is why storytelling built around empathy, authenticity, and transparency can be so powerful for organizations.

One good example of this is an onboarding program we helped rebuild for one of the world’s largest nonprofits. Facing record-high attrition rates, we took a “design thinking” approach to the project and started by learning about the audience. And it didn’t take long to see that nearly everyone who joined the nonprofit was there to make a difference in the world and support the organization’s lifesaving mission.

Yet, when we looked at the onboarding program itself, very little of this story and the intrinsic appeal was evident. For example, the training started with a predictable welcome message from the CEO before quickly launching into a largely static set of bullet-pointed slides that went over organizational structure and policy. Not only did this create an illusion of bureaucracy and hierarchy, but it also wasted a great opportunity to tell the true story of this amazing organization.

Reworking the nonprofit’s onboarding story to start with an emotional video appeal from patients whose lives had been saved by the organization, we emphasized right off the bat that new hires would be making a difference. We followed this up with an interesting history lesson about the organization and, later, a self-deprecating crossword puzzle as a way to pre-apologize for all the acronyms employees would soon be inundated with. In short, the new onboarding story became a fun and insightful experience that truly reflected what the organization is really about. However, this case study also highlights the risks associated with prepackaged training, legacy programs, and AI-generated content, which can communicate that your organization is self-serving, uninspired, and impersonal. 

The Bottom Line

In summary, remember that everything your colleagues, employees, and recruits say about your organization is the result of how they see your story. Fortunately, through better organizational storytelling, you can flip the script and win more hearts and minds.  

After working for a decade in Tokyo as a writer and content strategist, Seth High brought his results-oriented approach and passion for storytelling to Splainers in 2013. As executive creative director, he has helped dozens of Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, and nonprofits fine-tune their storytelling in the form of creative videos, information campaigns, and training programs. In addition to writing and managing creative teams, he analyzes user research and performance data to make sure every story engages audiences and builds affinity for his clients. He also firmly believes that any idea or initiative can be turned into a compelling human story. 

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