A Storytelling Approach to Internal Communications
BY John Miller
July 25, 2017

At most companies, internal communications is broken. Emails that no one reads, fliers pinned to bulletin boards no one notices, and all hands meetings in which the entire audience is checking social media on their phones.

Why won’t employees pay attention? Why do they complain about company culture, but never participate in it to make it better?

Almost certainly, it’s because your content is boring.

Internal communications teams and Human Resources must realize they’re competing for attention with everything. EVERYTHING.

Just having video screens by the elevators to broadcast information is not enough.

Just about every company struggles with employee engagement

The numbers from Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workforce study are not pretty. A full 70 percent of American employees are not actively engaged at work. Sixteen percent are so disengaged that they are actively working to undermine the culture of the company; that’s one out of every six employees!

The point is that many employees are not buying what your internal communications team is selling. Too many organizations are stuck in the past when it comes to communications style; today’s workers want company information in the same style they get all of their information—when they want it and how they want it.

That monthly newsletter simply isn’t interesting enough any more.

That methodical, old school style of communication is no longer interesting enough to capture employees’ attention, let alone to grab them by the collar and get them excited about where they work.

In an environment filled with more information that ever before—depending on the study you pay attention to, the amount of content in the world doubles every nine to 24 months—your internal comms content needs to be pretty special to make an impact.

HR is the new marketing

Here’s why it matters. In today’s social media-driven, no-walls world of work, everyone who works at your company is a brand ambassador. No matter what marketing creates, no matter how much money you spend on advertising, what your employees say about the organization carries weight with the outside world.

Storytelling to the rescue

In order to build a connection with your employees, to make them care, you need to be willing to step outside of the established internal communications playbook. You need to have the courage to move beyond facts and reach for their emotions.

You might think that logic will dictate your employees’ actions, and since you, ya know, pay them money, that they’d be on your side. However, that isn’t the way our brains work. In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains “System 1” and “System 2,” the two types of thinking our brain does. System 1 is the brain’s fast, automatic, emotion-driven decision-making process. System 2 is the slower, harder-working and more logical type of thinking. Guess what? We tend to follow System 1 thinking—it’s just easier.

Studies show that your audience makes purchase decisions based upon emotion rather than logic. And storytelling appeals to this emotion-driven type of decision-making. Stories have the power to get our brains working, get us excited, and get us to feel emotion.

For internal communications, this is a new animal. To create stories that will get your internal folks fired up and excited about where they work, you need a new approach to developing these stories.

Rather than PowerPoint decks with bullet points, you need to create content that has some drama in it—challenges faced and overcome, maybe even winners and losers. It needs to explore the emotional aspects of the subject matter. Your goal should be to make the audience feel something, and make them want to enlist in the cause you’re promoting. Most people are far more likely to remember and believe in something that has an emotion attached to it.

Imagine creating communications that your employees actually look forward to receiving. It’s possible, but it’ll never happen if the communicators don’t change, because the way in which the audience consumes information has already changed. Communicators need to catch up.

Distribution matters

OK, so you’ve bought into the idea that better content will help you create a stronger connection to your employees and make internal communications an organizational strength.

But how do you get the busy people who are your coworkers to actually stop and pay attention to your content?

We once helped a convenience store chain get employees talking about their company values by hiring a wandering minstrel (yes, really) to stroll around a big internal company event with a guitar, singing silly little ditties about their values. Hokey? Maybe. Memorable? Absolutely. Impactful? Definitely. Like any bouncy little tune, it’s hard to get those songs out of your head—even all these years later.

Obviously, the way you choose to transmit your content to the audience has to be in line with the company culture. At a buttoned up accounting firm, the wandering minstrel approach might create the wrong reaction and end up having a negative impact.

However, we believe that “little surprises” go a long way toward the success of any communications campaign. A light-hearted touch here and a splash of humor there, and maybe you start to shake people out of their work-obsessed stupor as they walk down the hall. Maybe you can get them to notice.

For instance, how about Facebook? Yes, everybody is on it, so why not use it? Of course, many people consider Facebook personal, not professional—so you could be crossing a line here; be careful about that. One new solution Facebook is just rolling out is “Groups for Pages,” which allow you to create subgroups on your company’s Facebook page that only internal audiences can access. This is an opportunity to create an open, honest dialogue in the company, create and strengthen bonds, and even gain some insights into what employees care about most.

You could also use internally focused social channels such as Yammer or starting a Wiki. The upside of these types of efforts is that they allow for interactivity and employee participation. However, it may also require that you train employees to embrace a new habit, something that requires extra effort.

Whatever channels you use, how you use them is vitally important—boring content on the coolest platform will fall flat. Always remember that content is the atomic particle of all your communications; it’s what everything is built upon. With that in mind, don’t become a greedy collector of new toys—often you don’t need to pay hefty licensing fees for new technologies, you just need to use the tools you have better.

So, if you have a sleepy intranet or company newsletter, liven them up. There are a couple of ways to do this. One is focusing on immediacy, such as live blogging town hall meetings. Another is giving the rank and file access to the top levels of the company—a weekly internal video or blog post from the CEO. Keep it informal and human. If it’s overly produced or looks like it was written by the entirety of the comms team, it will fall flat.

It’s time to change the way you communicate internally. It’s time to end the days of glazed over eyes pretending to scan the latest memo. It’s time to rally people around your brand and have them embrace what the company is doing.

It’s time for storytelling.

Let’s talk about growing your company.

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