Why you shouldn’t use storytelling in your communications

Storytelling. It’s like the magic word in comms. If you can do storytelling, the wisdom goes, the press will run feature after feature on you, your social media followers will treble overnight, and your employees will be so smitten by your internal comms they’ll beg to work for free.

But. There’s one factor that’s often overlooked when it comes to the whole storytelling… fairytale.

People.

As with anything that has a human element, using storytelling to communicate about your organisation is not risk free. You might want to tell your “founding myth” – but are you at risk of sounding nostalgic for a better time? But talk solely about what you’re doing right now and it reads like a report card. Yawn.

Then let’s take a look at who’s telling your story. Your top brass might want to keep a tight rein on the narrative, but telling too corporate a tale can encourage counter narratives, or lead to a resistance to audiences sharing the story. We live in a social media world where people are used to the democratisation of communications channels. Or, in other words, if people think you’re talking bullshit, they have the means and inclination to tell the world they think you’re talking bullshit.

Even if the story is successfully communicated, management must be aware that “actions speak louder than words” – behaviour must mirror the promises made by the corporate story. Otherwise, companies will have an huge credibility problem, while a perceived gap between what is said and what is done can actually increase cynicism in already cynical groups.

So what can you do?

First, get your narrator right. Your CEO might be the most natural storyteller since Shakespeare, and if so great – but don’t stop there. Take an egalitarian approach. Mix up stories from above with material from across your organisation. Management’s version of corporate stories might be filled with all your key messages, but if the audience don’t believe in what they’re being told, that messaging is in vain. We like to hear from people who are like us. So who in your organisation is most like the people you want to talk to? Get them to tell the story instead.

Then, take a long hard look at the story you’re telling. Does it reflect the truth of your organisation? I was talking at work today about the authenticity gap – the difference between reality and expectation – and how it can damage reputations. If you’re audience recognise that there’s a huge difference between your story and reality then you’re going to have the opposite effect to the one you wanted.

Only when you’re telling authentic stories in an authentic voice will your storytelling be effective. Try to do it differently and your fairytale could become a nightmare.

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