2 August 2018

Why do so many organisations ignore the importance of storytelling?

Most employers and HR teams underestimate the power of stories to engage and motivate – but this simple communication technique is crucial to effective change, says transformation consultant Ian P Buckingham


Ian Buckingham

Ian Buckingham

Ian P Buckingham is a business transformation consultant and coach at the intersection of HR, comms and marketing. He is the author of 'Brand Engagement: How employees make or break brands' and 'Brand Champions'. You can find him on Twitter @IanPBuckingham


HR transformation Leadership and management Strategy culture and values


Most employers and HR teams underestimate the power of stories to engage and motivate – but this simple communication technique is crucial to effective change, says transformation consultant Ian P Buckingham

People said it would never happen – but Northern Ireland recently won a host of tourism accolades, including Lonely Planet‘s prestigious region of choice award for 2018.

Its success has been magical – but it’s more than a fairy tale. Back in the mid-2000s, when the tourist board came to me with the conundrum of having to create a captivating brand, it sounded like a nightmare task, given their troubles.

So what changed that? One word: stories.

A recent Fast Company article heralded storytelling and creativity as two of the four essential attributes of HR leaders of the future.

I’m not really that surprised.

HR has been systematised, digitalised, BHAG-ed and VUCA-ed for more than a good decade now. It seems that everyone claims to ‘have an app for that’ problem, but if that was really the case, why bother with the people at all? The channels run themselves, right? The moot point is that people are not relentlessly pragmatic or rational. They are sentient, emotional, social beings. They crave the space and license to feel, to express, to innovate, to think, to create. Financial directors may not always realise it, but these qualities are going to remain at the pinnacle of wants for new generations of workers. They will remain key differentiators for businesses, too, so ignore them at your peril.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s (NITB) senior leadership team didn’t expect me to recommend ‘telling stories’ as their strategy – but I saw it as central to their brand development drive. As well as capitalising on a national characteristic, it was clear to me that storytelling was going to be:

  • A powerful way of making sense of and overcoming a troubled past
  • A unifying force
  • A unique engagement strategy internally and externally

Spoken stories are probably the ground zero of communication. They certainly pre-date written communication and have been used by groups to pass down the legends, myths, folklore and moral codes of particular societies since sentient beings first learned to grunt in code.

Anthropologist Joseph Campbell studied the myths and legends of cultures from across the globe and extrapolated what he called the ‘hero’s journey’ from these stories. This has essentially now been immortalised as the core narrative plot norms underpinning the movie industry. In essence, people expect any narrative to have:

  • A context (once upon a time)
  • A complication (the challenge)
  • A conclusion (what happened?)

This basic thread is imprinted on our brains in childhood from reading stories. Of course, each story has its own nuances and cast of complex characters that test and support the central figure.

But it still baffles me that so many organisations:

  • Fail to appreciate the importance of their story to their employees and customers
  • Don’t manage the over-arching narrative of their organisation’s evolution over time
  • Underestimate basic storytelling as a communication skill for the most important internal engagers – their first-line managers

A change programme without a compelling context will encounter unnecessary resistance because it’s a threat to their ordinary world, their family, their ‘Shire’.

Northern Ireland was an extreme case that proves this point. Factional violence and political unrest had literally divided a country and made an entire population both ashamed of their past and afraid to tackle change. So we had to tread carefully and choose neutral ground. Stories became the banner to unite behind.

Through a simple engagement device called ‘My Story, Your Story, Our Story’, we worked with all colleagues and partners to understand, appreciate and document:

  • Aspects of their past they were proud of
  • Why they joined this organisation and how they made a positive difference
  • Myths and legends unique to their area
  • Their hopes, fears and aspirations for the future
  • Anticipated challenges, opportunities and ways to overcome them
  • How visitors would perceive their country in five years, and why?

Working with the top team and a mixed stakeholder group, we then used this information to create:

  • The NITB’s compelling story: bridging to the past and confidently looking forward
  • A new vision, mission and values for a new age
  • An engagement programme with storytelling at its core to take all stakeholders on the change journey
  • Revised HR systems and processes to create a proper employer brand
  • A system for measuring and cultivating their optimum working culture
  • An internal communications system to support their heroic journey, and brand and marketing work

The senior leadership team worked collaboratively on this. They led by example, with the HR director and chief operating officer playing unifying and orchestrating roles. They kicked off sessions by telling deeply personal stories, then found the baton was much more readily accepted and the communal experience was both bonding and inspiring.

The whole process took around two years, leading to the bold advertising campaign they delayed until the internal work was complete. The original adverts featured an enchanting myth about a mermaid, but the results have transcended even their wildest fantasies, resulting in accolades and tourism figures many multiples more than originally envisaged.

I was pleased to feature NITB as an important case study in Brand Champions, alongside other great examples. The mermaid herself may or may not have influenced one of the characters in the trilogy of children’s books I’ve just written, catering for the other end of the spectrum – before the bad habits of adulthood and cynicism set in.

But whether you’re looking at engagement through the eyes of a corporate executive or a child, the principles are pretty much the same:

  • Be involving
  • Be consultative
  • Be inclusive
  • Be engaging
  • Inspire through example

So that’s NITB’s story. What’s yours?

Want to read more stories from the business transformation front line? Pick up a copy of Ian P Buckingham’s Brand Engagement – How employees make or break brands and Brand Champions – How superheroes bring brands to life