Five lessons I’ve learned about using a storytelling approach within change communications

Having a storytelling mindset in business can pay off.

Research shows that organizations that consistently integrate storytelling into internal change communications see benefits – from building buy-in for change initiatives to strengthening team trust to connecting employees.

Yet, some leaders remain reluctant to consider a deliberate storytelling approach; possibly unsure exactly how to build it into a change communications plan. Others haven’t tried it and need coaching and practice.

That gap – between the benefits revealed by the research and the lack of interest by some companies – formed the research question of my Capstone at Northwestern University last year. I am grateful to the incredible business leaders who agreed to be interviewed for this project. And, after listening to their perspectives, I believe organizations should at least pilot a storytelling approach to bolster change communications.

If I was implementing strategic storytelling at a company, here are a few tactics that I would consider:

  1. Avoid using the word “storytelling.” To some leaders, the term is played out. Others immediately assume they must give a TED Talk every time they get in front of an audience. Others consider it too theoretical in a business context. Can another term or description be used to fit the change communication strategy? Maybe frame it as speaking or writing from the heart, inspiring others to action or connecting authentically. After all, good storytelling can help accomplish all of those outcomes. What term most resonates in your company’s culture?
  2. Not all communications consultants are created equal. Some organizations take a dim view of storytelling because of a past negative experience with communications consultants. That makes due diligence all the more important. Ask references about outcomes. How has the consultant’s previous work sparked sustainable organizational change? How did it align with business results? How does the consultant define storytelling and apply it in a verbal, written and/or image form? (Defining story and storytelling is not as easy as it seems, but the nuance is important).
  3. Storytelling takes training and practice. Then it takes more training and practice. Delivering a story that connects with the right audience in the right moment can take serious practice — and the ability to persevere through trial and error. The storyteller must be OK with feeling vulnerable during practice and during public delivery. The storyteller should determine the desired outcome of using story. The communication consultant should work with the client to develop personalized training.
  4. Make the business case with a storytelling training approach. A storytelling training program should focus on helping participants solve actual business problems. Centering a workshop around a pain point that participants are actually grappling with should help buy-in.
  5. Strategic storytelling is only part of the story. As one change communications expert told me: What does it matter if someone can tell a great story that inspires change if he or she isn’t modeling the behavior? Good point. A storytelling approach works best as part of a larger change communications strategy.

What is the link between self-orientation and trustworthiness?

I’ve been lucky this year to learn from people who are skilled at talent coaching, design thinking, change communications, organizational effectiveness and more.

They all share one personality trait: Low self-orientation.

They work to avoid making any part of the process about themselves. In fact, their actions are almost hidden as they guide others to a solution.

This article looks at self-orientation, which is a part of the trust equation in The Trusted Advisor. When “your level of self-orientation is low, you can pay attention to someone else. If you pay attention to someone, they experience that as caring. If someone thinks you care about them, they are likely to trust you.”

So simple.

Yet, it can be easy to fall into high self-orientation mode where “your attention is focused on yourself and others become acutely aware of it and infer that you do not care about them. Rightly or wrongly, they then decide you are untrustworthy.”

As (one version) of the old saying goes, “be interested, not interesting.”

Northwestern University research

My Master’s Capstone project has been approved. It’s about business leaders and storytelling.

Specifically, I’m examining how senior leaders (director level and above) view strategic storytelling when communicating about change.

I am looking to interview change management and/or change communications leaders to get their perspective on using storytelling to driving business results. Is that you? Is that someone you know? Email me at 

Here’s why change management and change communications pros should care about this topic: A growing body of research reveals that storytelling can guide modern change efforts in an increasingly complex and ambiguous business world. Storytelling, as part of a leadership change communications strategy, can spark employee action, strengthen team trust, deepen knowledge sharing and help employees better visualize the future (Denning, 2006). Stories provide a way for leaders to help employees make sense of change by bridging the future state laid out in a communications change plan with current-state reality, (Reissner, 2011). Senior leaders who use storytelling techniques, methodically and intentionally, can shape the future of an organization, especially in rallying others around a shared purpose (Boal & Schultz, 2007).

Yet, for all indications that strategic leadership storytelling should be universally embraced, questions remain if that is happening during change efforts. Researchers continue to study why some senior leaders avoid storytelling as part of a deliberate change communications strategy.

This gap forms the basis of my project.

colorful books

Photo by Kaboompics .com on

Boal, K., & Schultz, P. (2007). Storytelling, time, and evolution: The role of strategic leadership in complex adaptive systems. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 411-428. 
Denning, S. (2006). Effective storytelling: Strategic business narrative techniques. Strategy and Leadership, 34(1), 42-48.
Reissner, S. (2011). Patterns of stories of organisational change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24(5), 593-609.

Big things I’ve learned about change in the past year (a checklist for media orgs)

I am excited to present this week at the Daily Iowan’s 150th anniversary celebration. As a University of Iowa undergrad, the DI was my first training ground in how to be a reporter and a newsroom manager. It remains an incredible experience for students.

I’ll be speaking about change management, focusing on media organizations. It’s been a year since I left my job as a digital director at a TV station to return to school and head down a new career path in change management. I’ve had plenty of “aha” moments from incredible mentors connected with Northwestern University’s MSLOC program about why organizational change can be so difficult and how to help make it a smoother process.

Plenty of news organizations continue to scramble just to get their product out, find new revenue streams and navigate ever-changing consumer behavior. It’s a tough business and the past decade has been a roller-coaster ride. I also remain deeply concerned that news companies still aren’t paying enough attention to building and growing internal change capability. There’s plenty of “we need to change” talk, but the “how” of the change — the boots-on-the-ground, step-by-step implementation that gets broad buy-in — loses steam. Many are failing to continually train new leaders or set up systems to create, share and scale knowledge in engaging ways. Some don’t have the know-how to create successful and sustainable teams, HR is buried in logistics paperwork, the emotional impact of historic industry disruption on employees is ignored and so on.

Meanwhile, business is only getting more complex. Check out this Industry 4.0 site from Deloitte.

If you work for a media organization, here are a few tactics to consider when navigating change:

Try to stay in the problem. Picture it: You’re in a meeting and a problem is brought to everyone’s attention. It’s the first time most participants in the room have heard of this problem. What does everyone do? They start suggesting solutions. Not so fast. While that behavior is rewarded around deadline-driven news coverage, it may not work best with internal, organizational strategy. Ask the room: Have we really identified that this is the problem? How do we know? Have we tested these assumptions?

Ask questions. Then ask more questions and then ask more questions. How many times do we pretend to listen to others, but are actually simultaneously formulating a response in our minds? This Harvard Business Review article has a different tactic. There is power in asking follow-up questions, which can make a participant feel respected and involved in a change process. Questions can be as much about building rapport and gaining support for an initiative as they are about getting answers. Here’s a challenge: Could you go an entire work day mostly asking questions? You do work in the communications business, after all. Take a page from journalism and avoid “yes” or “no” questions, capitalize on silence and allow the other person to expand on their comments and take care not to interrupt.

Know yourself at work. Do you know your work style? How do you react during times of stress? Can you read a room and adjust your style accordingly? Taking assessments can provide a better sense of how to be more effective in the workplace. Two of my favorites are the CliftonStrengths assessment and the Hogan assessments. Here’s more information on assessments.

Know your team at work. Did you know that teams with more than 8-10 people may not function well? Or, how about that most teams go through four distinct phases: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing? Have you ever considered writing a team charter so that every member is clear on how the team operates, member roles and goals? Knowing how a team works is just as important as ensuring that the team reaches its goals.

Build narrative intelligence. Organizational storytelling is the focus of my Master’s thesis and I am convinced that company leaders (especially) should continue to build skills in this area. Being able to tell the right story at the right time to the right audience to spark action will become even more critical to drive change. Storytelling can be a powerful way to steer through ambiguity.

And, please incorporate story arc, current state and future state into your presentations. This TED Talk from Nancy Duarte should be required watching for anyone creating a PowerPoint:

Learn design thinking. “This approach brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges,” according to the experts at IDEO. This method can be rolled out across the enterprise as a key way to build ideas and test solutions. It works for planning news content, discovering revenue solutions, transforming talent management and more.

To be sure, this is just a starter list. I’d love to hear from my fellow change management practitioners and media leaders on their solutions.