How to Use the Art of Storytelling for More Engaging Internal Communications
February 2, 2023
Internal communications are the nervous system of your organization. The messages flowing through that system set the tone for team member relationships. The style and voice of internal communications also go a long way toward determining the brand image and message employees will present to external audiences.
But it’s challenging to cut through the digital chatter in our always-on environment. Bland or terse messages often get lost or forgotten before recipients can act on them. Storytelling in internal communications can change that because good stories are interesting, memorable, and even actionable. Stories create connections with hearts and minds. When you know the secrets of building a good story, you can turn any internal communication into an engaging narrative that employee audiences will open, consume, and act on.
How Different Message Types Provoke Different Responses
Let’s look at two internal communications conveying the same message to the same audience. The messages are slightly exaggerated for illustrative purposes. Please notice the reactions each one invokes in you.
Message One (M1)
To all employees:
The break room will be closed until further notice.
Human Resources VP
Message Two (M2)
This morning, I was shocked and unhappy to discover that — unfortunately — our break room is non-functional because of the tornado that ripped through our company grounds last night. I couldn’t even get inside the room.
All I could do was look through the doorway, dismayed at the broken windows, piles of smashed furniture, and storm debris. I wouldn’t get that morning snack and caffeine fix I depend on to make it through until lunch.
Fortunately, three solutions are already in place because everyone understands how vital our little break room is for quick snacks, moments of relaxation, and informal chats.
Immediate solution: For today only, anyone can use the company account to order anything they want from Starbucks for free. Security will deliver it to your desk. The login details are at the bottom of this message. (Mine is already on the way. 😊)
Short-term solution: We've added dish soap dispensers in the restrooms so we can wash our coffee mugs in the sinks. I know this isn’t ideal and doesn't feel that sanitary, but it’s the best we can do right now. A coffee machine and microwave will be on a table in the hall today. See you there.
Permanent solution: We’re getting a brand new break room. 😊👍 The insurance people have already been here, and contractors are coming today. There’s a crew clearing storm debris. Expect to start hearing hammers and saws soon.
Your input is valuable: What would you like to see in our new space?
Please reply to share your ideas. They might be something we would all enjoy and benefit from.
Slightly disturbed but excited,
Happiness team leader
What reaction does each message elicit in you? Let’s look deeply to see what doesn’t work, what works, and why.
The style of the first message may evoke confusion, bewilderment, and even anger and alienation. It could create a sense that management still has an archaic view of workers as separate from them. It’s not difficult to imagine people entertaining thoughts of quitting because of how that communication makes them feel.
The simple addition of personalization would have made it a little warmer. Adding “Unfortunately” would have displayed a bit of empathy. Using a "because statement" to present why would bring more understanding.
Unfortunately, the break room will be closed until further notice because of tornado damage.
"Because statements" are compelling. This one introduces a reason that could make losing the break room acceptable. Using "because" also keeps people reading because it arouses curiosity by hinting more information is coming.
Even with the "because statement," the revision still needs improvement, but notice how this version changes your emotional response. We now have the critical germ of a story present. There is a What, an Action, and a Why.
M2 may make the reader feel like a valued team member who is important and whose opinions and well-being are vital to the organization. The M2 internal communication goes much deeper and serves the company’s goals of retention, job satisfaction, and productivity much better.
In M2, a central, overarching story contains smaller stories that flesh out the message, drawing the reader in deeper while making them feel included and part of the action. The main story is about the break-room destruction and what’s being done about it. The substories are:
- The author’s personal story mirrors other team members’ feelings, heading off complaints because it’s apparent that management is empathetic and knows how people are affected.
- The three other sub-stories about fixes inform readers how to handle the situation and give them something exciting to look forward to in a new break room.
Asking for suggestions makes people feel like they are a valued part of the solution.
The Critical Elements of Good Stories
Examining the elements of good stories may spark ideas about using them in your internal communications. This may help to engage your audience long enough to get your message read and remembered so that people act on it.
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It also contains essential elements.
In M2, the beginning paragraphs are the author’s reaction. Describing their emotions gives them a powerful, exciting way to inform readers about what’s happening, why it’s happening, where it’s happening, whom it’s happening to, what the point of view is, and what is motivating the action.
These elements usually appear as close as possible to the front of the story because they give readers the essential information needed to frame it. Done right, they also elicit curiosity that keeps readers reading.
The middle paragraphs progress the action and expand on what management is doing to generate a resolution. The final section wraps up the story with a call to action (CTA) requesting readers input suggestions.
Here are those eight essential internal communication elements again:
- Plot — what is happening?
- Theme — why is it happening?
- Setting — where is it happening?
- Characters — who is it happening to?
- Point of view — from what POV is this story being told?
- Conflict — what is motivating the action?
- Resolution — how does the action come to a satisfying close?
- Summary/call to action.
Examining these eight elements in detail may help you understand how to use them to improve internal communications.
Plot — What Is Happening?
The action or the sequence of events unfolding is the plot. In a story about using an app, you could start with how to install it, go through the basic functions using substories to illustrate how to use each function, and go on to advanced uses with substories demonstrating successful outcomes for businesses.
Four plot types could be helpful:
- Linear: you start with how to install the app
- Episodic: you have an episode featuring each function
- Parallel: you discuss how the functions work together
- Flashback: you return to a basic function when describing an issue encountered with an advanced use case
Theme: Why Is It Happening?
The frame you build a story around is the theme. It’s the overarching message that runs through your communication and unites all the other elements. Using a theme helps guide the reader through the story. They’ll feel like they’re on track and going toward the resolution.
In the app example above, the theme is that people need help using the app, and you are telling them how they can succeed. In M2, the theme is that a tornado destroyed the break-room, and management is empathetic and doing everything possible to mitigate the disruption.
Setting — Where and When Is it Happening?
Getting the setting right transports the reader to that time and place, giving the story substance that makes it seem more real. In the app example, the setting is obviously inside the app. The time is the first use. In M2, the time is right now, and the setting is the workplace.
There are five aspects you can use to help illustrate the setting:
- Geography. A real place on a map makes the story feel real. In the app example, mapping the functions on a diagram or with screenshots might be helpful. An internal communication to a marketing team could include a customer journey map. Product development or M&A could map a timeline with milestones.
- Physical location. The immediate surroundings the story happens in is the location. In M2, it’s the workplace with mentions of the breakroom, hall, and individual workspaces. In the app example, it’s on a device.
- Physical environment. The forces of nature affecting the location and characters make up the physical environment. In M2, it’s the tornado.
- Time. Time affects urgency. In M2, people want their coffee right now. Shane Goodfellow needs suggestions quickly because the workers are already starting on the new break room.
- Social and cultural environment. These rule people’s attitudes and expectations. App users expect a learning curve and want it as painless and quick as possible. In M2, an essential aspect of company culture is a common area for breaks and informal communication between team members.
Characters — Whom Is It Happening To?
Knowing who receives the action of your "plot" gives you the audience or characters you’re writing to. Once you know your characters, you can build a profile of common characteristics the group shares, which makes it easier to communicate with them using their hot-button motivators.
It’s quite different to write to app users in an instruction set than to all company employees in an email like M2. In the app illustration, it’s happening to the new user motivated by the benefits of using the app promised. You have a bit more time to provide details and build momentum because this audience understands that "happy endings" are ahead. In M2, their hot-button motivator is access to necessary caffeine, and you need to communicate the solution quickly.
Point of View — From What POV Is this Story Being Told?
POV usually refers to the verb tense you write the story in.
- First-person uses the author’s POV. M2 is first person. It works well because Shane Goodfellow can express empathy and mirror the feelings of his audience.
- Second-person uses "you" like the author is addressing the reader personally. This blog post uses the second-person POV to establish a personal sense of connectedness and warmth with you, the reader.
- Third-person uses he, she, and them. Formal writing, like academic papers, news articles, and legal documents, typically uses a third-person POV to establish authority. Gender politics encourages a shift away from using he or she in the third-person POV to using they, them, or theirs.
Conflict — What Is Motivating the Action?
Conflict provides entertaining excitement. It keeps interest high. Creating conflict in stories begins with goals; each character needs a goal. Conflict is about how they overcome obstacles to reach their goal.
In the app example, the conflict is the struggle to master the app. The writer’s job is to make that struggle as effortless as possible.
In M2, the conflict is between the forces of nature represented by the tornado and the human desire for coffee, snacks, comfort, and routine habits. Management is stuck in the middle. The writer’s job is to calm and educate the afflicted team members.
Resolution — How Did the Action Come to a Satisfying Close?
To provide a satisfying close, you must tie up all the issues the story raises. Solving all the problems is another way to think about the resolution.
In M2, the resolution comes with announcing a new break room. In the app example, the advanced use cases demonstrating app mastery resolve the struggle to gain proficiency.
Summary — Call to Action
A good summary recaps the message and may include a CTA. In business writing, the CTA usually incites readers to click through to another page to perform an action like make a purchase, sign up, or answer a survey.
M2 doesn’t have a summary. It has a resolution and a CTA to solicit suggestions for break room amendments.
This article has a summary without a CTA. The summary starts next.
Why Storytelling Works Well
The London School of Business reported that people retain 65 to 70 percent of the information they receive through a story. When they're only given information through statistics, they remember just 5 to 10 percent. Use a story to communicate if you want employees to remember all of the good things you're doing to keep them caffeinated while the break room is closed.
In a Stanford University classroom, students were asked to present a 1-minute speech. After 10 speeches, the classmates were quizzed on what they could remember. Their retention was shockingly low. But what was even more telling were the numbers. Only one in 10 students used a story in their speech, the rest relied on statistics. However, 63% of students could recall the speech with the story, but only 5% remembered any of the statistics listed by their classmates. They related to the shared experience and connected to the story far better than any shocking numbers or data points.
Over thousands of years of storytelling, a satisfying story structure has evolved because the elements in that form work well. Stories need a beginning that sets the scene, a middle that develops the action, and an end that ties everything up and lets the reader know what’s next. As Forbes writer Chris Westfall says, "Change comes from experience. The experience you’ve had, or the experience you’d like to create. If experience matters, share yours. Point people towards theirs." Tell a good story, and watch what happens next.