Tales from the top

Are you on the right page when it comes to telling stories within your business?

Stef MAINFrom water cooler gossip to company inductions, storytelling plays a major part in most mid-caps and large organisations.

As start-ups become employers, they too must learn quickly the art of portraying their story to new members of the team. Making the story of an organisation’s past, present and future compelling isn’t easy.

But mastering the art of passing on important messages can pay dividends in the short and long term.

Dr Stefanie Reissner, a research fellow at Newcastle University Business School, has spent the last six years examining the use of storytelling by managers in communicating and interacting with their peers and colleagues.

Much of her research focused on a public-private sector partnership founded in 2008 with 400 employees (read more on her findings here). Here’s her whistle-stop guide to improving the way you handle storytelling within your organisation:

Don’t ham it up

Practice may make perfect in some disciplines but not necessarily when it comes to storytelling, as Reissner explains.

“We’ve found examples of managers planning and practising the execution of their storytelling beforehand. It’s something that our respondents would practice in front of the mirror or with the wife or secretary.

"They would tweak the story and the way it was performed several times before delivering it. But for some people that can result in it coming across as fake.”

Honesty and believability are key, particularly when relaying stories or messages to employees, says Reissner, while forced or unnatural storytelling can be a real turnoff for staff.

No jargon, no problem

The great corporate storytellers, says Reissner, avoid business speak at all costs, largely due to its ability to suck the life out of compelling tales.

“If you come along and talk about things like KPIs, the audience will switch off. You have to try to translate things into everyday language.”

Numbers are also a problematic area, particularly when it comes to key employee concerns, such as job security. Talk in human terms, says Reissner, which don’t leave staff feeling like a small cog in the corporate machine.

Open up for a better story

For many business leaders, revealing personal details to their employees is as undesirable as red ink on the balance sheet.

But Reissner’s research shows that opening up and telling stories about personal experiences can endear managers to their subordinates. “Employees have told us that personal stories increase their respect for a [colleague or boss].

“If you learn more about someone, you understand where they’re coming from.”

Of course, sharing personal stories should be done in moderation – few staff will appreciate information on the inner workings of their manager’s marriage, for example. But stories which draw on personal experience can help to bring brevity and meaning to otherwise dull leadership messages.

“It’s a very delicate balance that managers have to achieve,” says Reissner.

Keep things in context

If you’ve done a decent stint at a fast-moving firm with poor senior-level retention rates you may have met the type of people that Reissner refers to here.

“We saw examples of people who come into an organisation [newly appointed in a management role] referring to experiences of a previous institution, which didn’t go down well at all.

“It was a case of staff thinking ‘oh the manager wants to impose his greatness on to us without acknowledging that we’ve done a good job here already’.

“Yes there might be scope for change and review of practice, but this approach didn’t come across as supportive.”

Don’t forget your audience

“Being open to listen to what people have to say because there is always a lot of wisdom in the organisation that can only help to strengthen the story that the organisation wants to make true the future that they want to enact,” Reissner says.

Dr Stefanie Reissner joined Newcastle University Business School in September 2010 following lecturing positions at Sunderland Business School (2006-2010) and Bristol Business School (2004-2006). She is a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the British Academy of Management (BAM) and has recently been appointed to the ESRC Peer Review College.