I want to tell you a story

By Clive Wright, Hyperion HR Ltd

I have been chairing a number of network events recently and one subject that keeps coming up and is high on the agenda for both reward and HR professionals is how to communicate reward to employees and line managers effectively.

I have believed for a long time that HR has been poor at communicating reward, I know because when I worked for large organisations I did it myself, others in HR followed the same approach and no one I spoke to did it any better.  It was about sending out the guidelines and process notes with Q&As to managers, emailing employees, sending out booklets and maybe putting up posters for everyone to understand what is going on and what they needed to do. 

Then when I was working on an acquisition in the US and worked with a colleague in marketing and then subsequently joined a consultancy with an excellent communications team I saw how it should be done.

This has been very helpful and the communication programmes that I have been associated with have been much better.  We also talk with attendees on the CIPD Developing a Reward Strategy and Reward in Context courses that I teach on about communication techniques and processes.

But a new one that I have been discovering over the last few months is story telling.  There is even a Society for Storytelling.  Using the format of a fictional scenario and relating it to the current circumstances can reach people that do not like or perhaps don’t understand the dry, business language that we usually use.

Julia Lang used the phrase “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin” each week as the introduction to the children’s’ radio programme Listen with Mother between 1950 and 1982.  It became the stock phrase that anyone might use as the lead in to any story.  And the famous singer and entertainer Max Bygraves used the phrase I’ve used for the title of this blog as a favourite of his for many years.
But more recently I read an article by Dr William Tate, Director of The Institute for Systemic Leadership where he likened an organisation to a fish tank, how the owner (leaders) need to keep the water and environment in the tank fresh and healthy and how failure to test the quality of the environment (values, employee surveys) and treat the fish properly (culture, information etc.) can affect the fish (employees).

I also read a management blog about the problems a person was having feeding their cat.  The question was whether it was possible to train the cat (employee) to behave differently, whether the owner (manager) should change his behaviour, whether he should get rid of the cat or find a different way to do the job.
Anyone at any level in an organisation could identify and easily understand both these stories and how they related to business and this led me to review some of the in-company communication that I’ve seen.  Storytelling techniques can be much more compelling and effective than using our usual dry facts ensconced in business gobbledygook.

How many times have you been fascinated by a good story?   There's no doubt that stories can change the way we think, act, and feel.  Stories can inspire everything from understanding to action. They can create legends that an entire workplace culture can build upon, and they have the power to break down barriers and turn a bad situation into a good one. Stories can capture our imaginations and make things real in a way that cold, hard facts can't.

Make no mistake – stories can be very, very powerful communication tools.

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

  • Clive,

    I strongly agree with what you are saying in this blog!

    Thanks for trying to get the message across - as Frank Carson said "It's the way I tell 'em" - that delivery style can count just as much as the message itself.

    The only risk to be aware of is when the story takes over and your audience forgets the purpose of the message....

    Finally, you can also draw on orally transmitted folk songs to support your position.They have been passed on over many generations, and  the ones that have survived have been those that tell a stong memorable story. (mostly*)


    * I say "mostly" because there are many surviving songs that fit the rythm of the work to which they were sung (sea shanties for instance), and a few that have magnificent unforgettable melodies

    PS now takes off anorak ;-)

  • The very fact that I chose to read this blog because of the title indicates how powerful stories are as a tool. To my mind communication is an important part of anything that an organisation does; however, if it is simplified and made a bit more interesting, people are more likely to buy into the message as opposed to being overwhelmed by overly complicated business jargon.

    As with all things, the key is in striking the balance as over simplistic approach can undermine the credibility of the people involved.

  • Anonymous

    A great point to highlight here! Indeed, 'Storytelling' is actually the reason  'Rewards' gets awarded! With the aim to effect some positive change, nothing is more compelling then a personal view transmitted to each one and made collective for each to grasp and understand in one's unique individual way. Exactly, like those so well communicated and told in songs, movies and books (hence their popularity in all ages!), the same applies to those communicated in press releases, internal company memos and business reports. In times so intent on mass communication, expedience and speed, we're all at risk of 'losing the plot!' The need becomes urgency in HRM, personnel training and staff assessments. With 'Storytelling' we take in the relevance of its essence to appropriate as one's own, then observe the beautiful ripple effect taking hold. As such, the best accomplishments achieved are usually those linked to a great story so well told that we see ourselves in it as proactive actors. The results of which would hopefully be a 'Positive Constructive Transformation' in the right direction.