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.