Telling tales – influencing the informal narratives of your organisation
If you’ve been updating your communications strategy this year there’s a good chance you’ve thought about storytelling. Creating a narrative makes messages memorable and more impactful, whether it’s the story of your brand strategy or a one-off change project.
Where it gets tricky is when we move away from corporate communications to look at the informal stories that our colleagues tell. Each individual will have their own interpretation of what resonates with them. If you’re an internal communications, employee engagement or culture specialist, you can’t control what stories they choose to tell – but you can influence them.
Here’s an example:
A new starter is paired up with a buddy. On their first day as they’re logging onto their computer, the buddy tells them:
“Our IT systems are rubbish. They introduced this new one six months ago and it’s been a disaster, it will annoy you.”
But in a parallel universe the buddy says:
“We’ve got a new IT system and it’s a bit of a work in progress. They’re always making improvements, so if you spot any issues speak to one of our digital champions, they’re really helpful”.
Learning from experience
As part of a digital transformation project team launching Office 365, I’ve heard both versions of these tales being told. The impact that the different messages will have is clear. The key to the second scenario was that we’d worked hard to support the IT team’s communications, managing expectations and explaining the journey of switching over to the new software. It made a tangible difference in how employees talked about Office 365 during the roll-out.
The stories your employees tell new starters are clearly important – most people will join a new company full of enthusiasm. How long this ‘honeymoon period’ lasts can be dramatically influenced by what their peers talk to them about in their early days.
But there are other key audiences too. What tales get repeated throughout the organisation? Which filter upward to your senior leaders? What do staff tell their friends and family outside of work, and do they advocate for you on social media?
Influencing your informal stories
Influencing the informal stories of your organisation doesn’t mean putting a positive spin on everything – in fact this can backfire as employees will quickly see through ‘fluffy’ messaging. Instead give your employees an honest, transparent narrative about what’s happening. Remind them of your shared goals and the future state you’re all aiming towards. If something isn’t working as it should be, acknowledge this and let them know what corrective steps are being taken – otherwise they’ll fill in the information gaps with their own speculations.
It’s worth mentioning that face to face is, of course, your best channel for communicating these stories, especially if they come from trusted sources like managers and internal influencers. Listening out for the tales employees tell, and how the sentiment is influenced by your communications over time, is a great way to evaluate your organisational culture.