There's no shortage of content about the power of stories and storytelling in digital marketing. But how do you tell stories beyond your "brand story," especially if you work for a dreaded "boring" company?
One category of stories that never runs dry is employee stories.
Employee Stories Are Brand Stories
Employee stories give your audience access to your brand on a human, personal level.
If companies are simply collections of people working for a common purpose, then telling the stories of the people... is telling the story of the company.
And that's not just a content marketing win, but a brand win.
What Are Employee Stories?
Employee stories don't have to require any special effort: Your employees tell stories about their work every day! But by guiding the "work stories" that your employees tell internally, you have the opportunity to create, curate, and control the distribution and promotion of some of your best brand stories.
You can also curate stories about your employees' lives that link back to a core value in the business. Employees often have trouble sharing stories about their "work life" but are readily able to share personal stories outside of work.
Find how you can relate stories about their hobbies and interests, their passions in life, back to the brand's values.
Employee Story Requirements
All brand stories should link back to a core value in some way. They should express a human truth that positions your brand and your colleagues as relatable.
Stories are not chronological lists of events or processes or hierarchies. Those are narratives, and they lack the elements of conflict and emotion that stories require. Each employee story should have...
In short, you must set the backstory, find a problem that must be solved, then resolve it.
You don't need to contrive anything or add dramatic flair to create an engaging employee story.
Here's a simple one: "We were elated to sell a huge customer at the end of the first quarter (context), but we found that our designers didn't have enough bandwidth to fulfill the work (conflict), so our executive team jumped in and worked night and day to assist the designers in any way they could (buying dinners, hiring help, helping with design). As a result, the work was delivered on time (resolution)."
The "moral" might be teamwork, or integrity, or both.
Employee stories can be that simple.
Think Like a Journalist
You've probably heard that "marketers spread messages, journalists write for audiences."
Sure, content marketing has rewritten that idiom to some extent, but the point remains that if you're going to be telling employee stories, you need to think about your source material and your audience as if you were a journalist.
Journalists keep their eyes and ears open for not only stories but also data sources that can back up and verify their claims.
Access 'Tribal' Department Knowledge
Employees are trained through a combination of documented training material and hearing the experiences of their peers. Stories explain company culture, values, beliefs, and process in a compact and authentic medium; they carry truths that simple "telling" (training material) cannot.
Ask of your organization:
- What stories are our employees/clients already telling?
- Who in the company is best equipped to tell these stories?
- Who has stories to tell that can help extend the power of our brand?
Think of the representatives from various departments who could add to the overall brand story by sharing their departmental stories.
Material for Onboarding, Training, and Marketing
Dig through employee onboarding materials. Company history documentation, org charts (if applicable), and training material are a good place to start. You may not find anything particularly compelling in this material, but you may come across interesting topics you can pursue.
Analyze case studies and testimonials:
- Case studies can make good business stories, but many fail as stories because they a lack a story arc. They also can come across as heavy-handed and brand-centric.
- Testimonials usually lack context, conflict, and resolution.
But you can use these materials to find data points you can match to employees so that you can gather talking points for interviews.
Interviewing for 'Work Stories'
Interviewing employees is the best method for uncovering work stories. Company veterans always have stories to share. Sometimes asking new employees to tell you the stories they're hearing as they acclimate to their new environment can help you find stories.
Here are a few questions for kicking off a storytelling session with an employee:
- What kinds of problems do you solve for customers?
- How do you resolve those problems?
- When was the last time you did [resolution]?
- Tell me the details.
- Do you have a particularly memorable incidence of [conflict] where you [resolution]?
Asking employees to adopt an "outsider" view about their work can help spark new ideas and new stories. Here are few effective prompts:
- What does your spouse say about your job?
- What do your parents say about your job?
- What do your friends say?
Just asking employees to take some time to reflect personally about their work can lead to some interesting correlations, and from there you can poke and prod about specific stories.
Finding 'Life Stories' That Link Back
To find life stories that you can link back to your brand, you need to ask the right questions to get people talking. Here are a few good priming questions for getting employees to open up:
- What are the five things you're most passionate about? (If you ask for three, you'll get common answers like "friends," "family," "my faith," but usually after three or four you'll get something more interesting)
- How have those passions affected your growth as a person?
- Tell me a story about a time when that passion changed or influenced your life.
You can work with the employee to find a link between that passion, that employee, and your organization.
It's up to you to strike the balance between scripted and stilted corporate stories and meandering, off-the-rails personal narratives. You're responsible for creating the link and guiding the story. The better the connection you create, the more compelling the story.
Of course, as with any interviewing, choose your own words and let the interviews unfold as conversations, not interrogations. The best questions to elicit stories tend to be open-ended questions like these:
- Tell me about a time when...
- Tell me about an experience where...
- When was the last time you...
Group Exercise: Campfire
One group method that can elicit story ideas is called Campfire, a 30-45-minute exercise from the book Gamestorming that has your teammates trade stories in an informal, after-hours setting.
Set up a meeting with a team of volunteers across your organization. Designate a note-taker, and tell the team that you'll facilitate the activity. Then...
- Write 10-20 topics on sticky notes that you've gathered from training material, case studies, testimonials, and other sources.
- Post the sticky notes on one half of a whiteboard, where everyone can see them. Give your team sticky notes and pens. Ask them to look over the ideas on the wall for five minutes and try to associate stories with the topics.
- Start the exercise by removing one sticky note from the whiteboard and tell your story associated with it. When you're finished, move that sticky note to the other side of the whiteboard.
- Ask a volunteer to take a sticky note, tell their story, then place it on the other side of the whiteboard.
- Encourage participants to add sticky notes as volunteers tell their stories, filling up both sides of the board and writing down amazing stories until your meeting time has elapsed.
Toward a Storytelling Organization
Most people think they aren't good storytellers. Creating a safe environment for storytelling is a crucial piece for overcoming that barrier. If you can get just a few people to buy in, others will see that it's safe and rewarding to share their stories, and they'll have the templates and models for how to tell theirs.
If you can generate organizational momentum, you can consistently produce user-generated content through your employees.
Storytelling is a technique to communicate authenticity. It's not fiction and it's not BS. Keep the corporate-speak, the "core values," and the mission-statement talk out of your employee stories. Do find a way to inject some of that spirit into your content without directly using that language.
And do build data and analysis into your story, or bring it along as supplementary material to the storyline. Data always brings credibility.
Finally, remember that the best stories are often the ones that follow the "Hero's Journey" template. For employee stories, that may mean your customer is the main character, your employee and brand as the mentor, and your product/service is the tool that changes their life for the better. Or maybe it doesn't. The most important thing is that your stories are authentic and represent your brand.