Why you Need to Become a Better Storyteller in HR (or Risk Becoming a Talking Head)

Posted by Cathy Reilly on Dec 20, 2016 9:15:25 AM

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Each of us grew up with treasured stories, especially attached to this time of year. As children, stories helped us feel joy and wonderment about the world around us. They also importantly helped us believe and understand through enchantment. But at any age, stories can also take real things or situations and make them more relatable in order to explain a point or teach a lesson.

Stories heighten reality and stir emotions. They can be disarming, facilitate open mindedness and serve as one of the most powerful learning tools, all which can be extremely helpful in the workplace. This is especially so for those working in the “human” space on the job (aka HR). Oftentimes, HR professionals can be unfairly viewed at work as messengers of bad news, cold and unfeeling, or what I term: “The Fun Police”. The ability for HR to relate effectively to employees is therefore imperative. Using stories at work as appropriate, not only helps HR connect with others, it can help them move employees forward. It is a great way to show HR is much more than a talking head. 


Here’s what skilled storytelling in the workplace can do:

Acts as a conduit to change
We rarely think about storytelling in the context of work, and it’s never a job requirement. But in most jobs – at least the ones that involve other people (HR and management) – you have to become a storyteller. The more skilled at it you are, the better you can train and lead employees. This isn’t about making up stories or embellishing situations. It’s about using stories strategically to engage and educate, inspire and move employees forward. It’s about helping employees create meaning. Using stories is a conduit to change in vital areas such as performance and behavior.
And for most, relating a lesson to employees through a story makes for a much more enjoyable human interaction for all parties involved.

Makes facts come alive
In business, we deal with facts, figures, reports, analysis, and data, big data in fact. These are all valuable tools and vital information, but quite often not enough to inspire change and really make that change stick with purpose for employees. Putting a story to statistics is like putting music to words. Just as music makes the words sing, stories make facts come alive and moves people to action. Stories engage an audience in ways that data can’t. When the brain takes in facts and data, the language area of the brain lights up, but not the emotional and sensory areas. These areas are triggered by stories, so that listeners are doing more than just thinking. They are feeling and actually experiencing the story.

Serves as a mighty motivator
Studies at the Emory Institute have shown that reading about an action activates the same areas in the brain as doing the action itself. The better the story, the more a person reading the story wants to do or be whatever the characters are doing. A story about success can make you feel like you are succeeding. 

The story of Florence Nightingale for example, sparked worldwide healthcare reform and has inspired many health professionals to provide better care to their patients. Stories engage emotion, which then fires the imagination, which fires motivation to look at things in new ways. This in turn leads to change.

Builds a connection
There is a saying that the chief of the tribe is always the best storyteller. Strong leaders can accurately describe reality and convey information in a way that instructs AND inspires. These leaders know how to tell stories and identify with others. When you tell a good story, your employees not only connect with the story, they connect with you. That connection is what helps build trust in you, your mission and your purpose.

Gives ‘em something to remember
People forget facts and statistics, but they don’t forget a good story. This is especially true if the story conveys a message that your audience deeply cares about. According to Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, “Stories are 22 times more memorable than facts alone. Studies show that we are wired to remember stories much more than data, facts and figures. However, when data and stories are used together, audiences are moved both emotionally and intellectually.” In other words, stories give meaning and context to data and statistics, and they make the facts and details memorable.

As we close out 2016 and prepare to start anew in January, perhaps this year-end do something a bit different. Take inventory of the wonderful work stories that you’ve experienced over the past twelve months and start building your storytelling file for the New Year. You may be amazed at the important stories you have to share that will help inspire and transform your employees in 2017!

Topics: Human Resources