What’s the Story?

Everyone loves a good story. Not coincidentally, stories are one of the best ways to communicate, because our brains are wired for them. Not only do we pay more attention to stories, we remember them better. (There’s research out there demonstrating this, but it will be no surprise to anyone who can recite entire scenes from The Godfather or episodes of Seinfeld, but can’t remember her own cell phone number.)

So it stands to reason that if you’re trying to get employees to remember and use your benefits, work-life and wellness programs, you’ll have more success if you reel them in with a good story.

First, a word about what I mean by “story.” The concept has become a bit of a buzz word in the business world lately and though this is mostly a good sign, it’s also led to some dilution in meaning. It sometimes seems like any few bits of information, strung together in logical order, are called a story. Data can tell a story, but mostly to those who already have more than a passing interest in the data. If you’re running a corporate child care service, the number of people using that service, and perhaps what jobs within the company they have, tell you a story–you’re happy just to look at the numbers. If you’re considering whether to continue offering a wellness program, the decrease in health care costs associated with that program tell you a story.

But if you have some other job altogether, the fact that 20% of employees with young children are enrolled in child care is not a compelling story. What might be compelling, is that someone who initially shared some of the same misgivings you have about the center is now happily using it. Or that someone who thought they couldn’t afford the center discovered how generous the sliding fee scale was. Or, frankly, simply that someone with a name and a face is using the center. Because research also indicates that people respond much better to stories of individuals than they do to stories about large numbers of people.

So, how to go about telling stories? Here are a few options:

  • Depending on the circumstance and what you’re trying to promote (and thus how much privacy concerns come into play), you can simply provide profiles of employees using a program or policy. I once worked with a company that was trying to promote a culture of flexibility. It already had a number of employees working in some pretty flexible ways, and for some pretty interesting reasons. (In other words, not just people leaving at 3 to pick up the kids.) Leadership wanted others—including management—to get the message that these kinds of arrangements were not only possible but encouraged. So they gave me a list of employees working flexibly and I interviewed them one at a time. Then I wrote a brief, lively profile about each one. The profiles were no longer than a handful of paragraphs, but they described a typical day of work and personal pursuits, explained how and why this particular way of working had come about, and summarized how the arrangement was going for all involved. Now, flexibility was no longer an abstract list of potential work arrangements. It had a face—many faces, in fact.
  • Another, less formal option is to let your employees do the talking. Take advantage of social media! More and more organizations are introducing corporate social networking sites like Yammer or Pulse. Take advantage of these to invite employees to tell their stories. Try posting a different question every few weeks. Have you used the R&R service? Tell us how it went. Did you join a Weight Watchers group? How hard has it been to stick to the plan—and how near are you to reaching your goal? Even without official social networking sites, you can invite employees to post their comments on a dedicated Intranet page. Or have a video competition—show us your favorite work-life program and why.
  • Finally, you can take the creative way out (and avoid all privacy worries): make your stories up! I’ve always admired the company that ran an ongoing narrative soap opera, with a cast of characters that got into all kinds of catastrophic situations—only to be saved by one of the company’s work-life programs or policies. The HR department released a new story each week; they were avidly followed by employees. I could imagine doing this as a comic strip, as well, if you’ve got somebody on the team with the talent to pull that off. Perhaps a “Perils of Pauline” -type series featuring a feisty young hero or heroine. Perhaps a contest again, to help decide the fate of the characters. Just think of the possibilities!

Here’s a secret shared by storytellers: telling a story can be just as fun as reading one. (Ok, the writing, itself, can have its agonizing moments, but there’s still something deeply satisfying about a good story, which the writer experiences every bit as much as the reader.) So give yourself and your programs a break: let your storytelling instincts—or those of your employees—take over for a change.

Need help telling your story? Let’s talk!

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