The Art of Corporate Storytelling

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Who doesn’t love a good story? I know I do. Especially one that inspires me to think differently or incites me to do something.

I also like to find stories elsewhere… especially ones that have personal meaning to the people who tell it. Every company has a story and the best way tell it is through the people who LIVE it.

In a recent post, O.C. Tanner says “every team has a narrative, and every company could do better at incorporating storytelling into recognizing their employees. Whether your company has an epic story, a storied history, or has a vision of the future, the way you recognize your employees’ efforts and contributions should be tied to the stories you tell.

Take the chance to remember your employees efforts and how they fit into the story of where your company is going and how it will get there.

Recall the times employees contributed their energy, time, and special resources to accomplish a project; it puts the story of their efforts into context, creating a narrative that gives the employee, and their colleagues not just satisfaction, but allows them to develop a passion for great work.”

There has been a lot conversation lately regarding how best to recognize employees and how the use of social technologies helps to better facilitate this process. But don’t forget that storytelling is a tried and true classic that often gets lost in the digital shuffle.

More than recognizing employees, storytelling can convey your company culture, highlight your products and services (and the people who work on them), drive engagement, demonstrate transparency, share knowledge, and also strengthen your values and credo. Storytelling evokes emotion and can be used to spark action, drive conversation, and to amplify the voice of the employee (internal communications) or customer (external communications).

Most importantly, you “do not want to tell a beginning-to-end tale describing how results meet expectations. This is boring and banal. Instead, you want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness.” Tell a truthful  story which means that while the story itself might not always be very pretty, the authenticity  of the story will produce positive results.

The Story Tree

When developing stories for internal and external use, it’s important to understand your story tree; that is, how the core story itself will be adapted for the appropriate internal versus external audiences. For consistency, you’ll want to follow this hub and spoke model to ensure that your story remains consistent across all audience and distribution channels.

storytelling-tree

Telling Your Story

Building a good storytelling campaign isn’t as simple as putting pen to paper nor is it necessarily an exercise in creative writing. Rather, to tell a good story you must start with a thoughtfully designed strategy — the structure of which is comprised of several dimensions:

Storytelling dimensions

  1. Channel Delivery – will you distribute your story via online channels such as the corporate intranet, digital channels such as video or Yammer, or traditional channels such as printed posters / flyers? Or a combination of all of the above?
  2. Truth or Fiction - Your story should be told by the person best equipped and most knowledgeable to tell it. Leaders are great to use when communicating change management, but if you’re recognizing employees obviously it’s their story that should be told either through their own voice, their teams voice or by their leader. In addition, you should consider whether your story is built from real, personal experience or as a best practice or case study.
  3. Drivers and BarriersHow often will your story be told? As with any communications campaign, storytelling needs an execution plan. How often will you tell this story? Once? Monthly? Quarterly? If your story has several “chapters”, how will you tie your chapters together so that your audience understands that it’s a continuation of the same story versus a new one all together? What will be the process for collecting and selecting stories?
  4. Corporate versus Product – What is it you’re trying to achieve overall? Storytelling should not be your end goal. Rather, it is the means to which you will achieve it. Is the story a marketing tool? Communications tool? Are you conveying products and services? Trying to achieve a stronger brand? Driving change management? Recognizing employees?
  5. Target audience – As with any good story, if you don’t know your audience, your story will not resonate. Your story should be personalized and/or customized to the audience who will be reading it to build relevancy and emotion. The story you tell to your external audience will differ, obviously, from the story you will share with your employees. Also, remember to tell your story in narrative language… stay away from corporate speak!

“The Volvo Way”

So putting all of the above together, you can craft a compelling corporate story, for both your internal and external audiences. There are a lot of really good corporate storytelling examples, but I really like this one from Volvo.

The first Volvo car was finished in 1927, on the island of Hisingen in Gothenburg. Over the years, it evolved from a local manufacturing company to become “one of the world’s largest manufacturers” and on to be sold to the Ford Motor Company. The decisions in the corporation were, for the most part, made through a decentralized type of management and company focus was put on reaching long term objectives and strategies. In order to facilitate this type of management, the company considered it very important for employees to engage and participate in an active way.

“The Volvo Way” became a collection of 35 stories told by employees from different companies within the Volvo Group in Gothenburg Sweden, Lyon France, Greensboro USA, Curitiba Brazil and Shanghai China. 107 employees told the stories based on eleven key values of the organization’s corporate culture. These stories are the employees’ own experiences of working in Volvo; these stories therefore reflect Volvo’s people, values and itself as an organization.

The primary idea of “The Volvo Way Stories” was to support the organization’s corporate values and objectives, “The Volvo Way”, and to inspire people to transcend these values and goals into actions. A secondary benefit was that it also became a tool for unifying the organization, and creating a common culture and shared values among different companies. Moreover, it is a written dialogue and reference point for employees and leaders to discuss issues and areas needs to be improved.

“The Volvo Way Stories” is about real people telling real stories; there are no cuts of the stories in order to keep their authenticity.

Methodology

To collect the stories, Volvo’s internal communications team firstly decided on what the values of the stories that were worth telling and employees could relate to. They then decided that the stories should be collected from different locations, in particular, Sweden, France, the US and China, in order to reflect different companies and variety of cultures within the Volvo Group. They also chose to go to plants with strong Volvo culture, as there is more potential of getting good stories.

The Volvo team also found that the best stories were the ones from real people telling and sharing their own experiences — employees weren’t offered scripts or outlines. In essence, these stories were told by normal employees from their own personal experiences, not corporate theories; and consequently, people felt that they could relate to these employees and their stories.

Volvo found that corporate storytelling illustrated that “our culture, in despite of which company, is what binds everyone together; and the stories employees told are their experiences based on the organization’s common values. For a large international organization like the Volvo Group, stories can help integrate different companies and achieve the goal of creating a common culture and shared values. This is exactly why the team in the Volvo Group started this project.

So what’s your story? Feel free to share it!

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