Once Upon a Time in Training: Stories Bring Lessons to Life

By Margery Weinstein

Understanding principles in an employee handbook or an e-learning program can be difficult, but not because the content is hard. It’s difficult because it’s boring and detached from employees’ day-to-day lives. Some companies are finding storytelling can bring to life learning content that now exists only on the page or screen. Others use it to recognize employees, to communicate the company’s values and initiatives to employees and customers, or to develop emerging leaders.

To make storytelling an integral part of your corporate culture, you first must guide trainers and managers to weave a tale that achieves its learning goals.

Leaders Telling  (Truthful) Stories

Sprint uses storytelling to train its next generation of leaders, says Wendy Savlin, manager, Leadership Development, Sprint. As part of a leadership development program in 2013, 150 Sprint leaders spent one full day learning about and practicing storytelling in small groups. Participants in this leadership program since have been able to put the lessons on storytelling to use with clients.

When 50 executives attended the company’s recent Executive Leadership Program, which targets high-potential executives, Sprint partnered with Duke CE to offer innovative training on storytelling using actors to teach important skills. “One participant used storytelling more frequently with his team and reported higher satisfaction and less turnover,” says Savlin. “He also added storytelling to his public speeches and believes his stories helped get his message across more effectively. He has been invited to speak at conferences worldwide and credits the storytelling as a big reason.”

Another Sprint executive who attended the Executive Leadership Program had an unhappy client. “After attending the program and learning about storytelling, he called his team together and challenged them to create a story of success,” says Savlin. “They had some seemingly impossible happy endings. By starting with the story, the team was able to take their problem solving to a new level and implement one of those difficult solutions. Instead of losing an unhappy customer, the storytelling team created a surprised and happy customer.”

On a larger scale, Sprint uses storytelling as a way to share a positive corporate culture. “At Sprint, we use storytelling to help employees feel a sense of community with one another. Whether it is sharing the story about an employee who is a professional female football player or a health and well-being success story, we look for opportunities that allow employees to share their story with their Sprint colleagues across the country,” says Jennifer Schuler, manager, Communications. “These employees often get a lot of positive response directly from employees near and far, and at the same time, it helps create cultural bonds for employees who are located many miles away from one another and may perform very different functions for the company.”

It’s ‘Emotional Transportation’

“Storytelling is important because stories are emotional transportation,” says Diana Oreck, vice president, Leadership Center, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. “It is a fantastic way to make an emotional connection with employees. Storytelling captures peoples’ imagination because stories add color to the facts.”

Stories often are remembered more often and more accurately than straight facts, Oreck notes. “At The Ritz-Carlton, we have a process we call The Daily Line-Up. This is how 40,000 ladies and gentlemen (staff members) around the world align back to The Ritz-Carlton culture 365 days a year. On Mondays and Fridays, we share ‘WOW’ stories. These stories recount random acts of kindness by our ladies and gentlemen around the world. They are meant to inspire and motivate other employees to emulate kindness, and they do! You cannot teach discretionary effort in a classroom.”

Oreck says storytelling in training works best if it is participatory, rather than presented solely by the trainer or facilitator. “The manager should tell his or her story first and then say: “It would be very meaningful if someone else would share a story of their own,’” she suggests. Oreck also says it helps to know your audience. “If you have an inkling that you might offend anyone, do not go there because stories can backfire. If your topic could be controversial and is edgy, practice on people first,” she says.

With those precautions in mind, Oreck says you can weave in popular media to aid your storytelling. “We try and use movie clips or YouTube videos whenever possible to highlight a point. If you can make people laugh or cry through stories, you will effectively get your point across and the learning objective will be remembered,” she says.

Every high-performing organization should have its own “WOW” stories of kindness and stellar service shown to customers or clients. Make use of these stories by passing them along, advises Oreck. “Companies that do not have a formalized mechanism to capture the random acts of kindness of their employees should think about implementing one,” she says. “One of the most effective ways to further engage employees is to recount a positive story about them in front of their peers. That type of recognition is a wonderful psychological pick-me-up.”

Companies that could use help getting started in storytelling can get it from Ritz-Carlton this year. This summer, the company’s Leadership Center, which is open to the public, is asking for its clients’ success stories. “We are asking our clients to submit a customer service WOW story from their company once a month,” says Oreck. “We will vote on the story, and if the client agrees, it will be featured on our Gold Minds blog.”

High-Tech Anthropology

At some companies, such as custom software developer Menlo Innovations, storytelling isn’t just a training device or tool—it’s endemic to the culture. The company’s storytelling is so ingrained in its culture that one of the co-founders, Richard Sheridan, is not just the “CEO” but also the “Chief Storyteller.” Sheridan says employees should be skilled not only in passing along the company’s overall story, but their individual stories to customers or clients.

“The best way to build storytelling capacity and take advantage of the positive benefits of a storytelling culture, is not only to teach the team to speak the company stories in the voice of the Chief Storyteller, but to capture their own voice,” says Sheridan. “This builds authentic leadership capacity as a person’s voice gives insight into the character and the heart of the storyteller. It’s magical. I delight in hearing Menlonians tell my stories in their voice from their perspective. None of the stories we tell— including mine—are 100 percent accurate as they are told from our own vantage point. By hearing the same story from different vantage points, we get a truer picture of our shared belief system.”

Menlo even uses the art of storytelling to help it educate new customers about what the company could do for them.

“Given what we do for a living—designing and developing custom software systems—story collecting and storytelling is an integral part of the practice we call High-Tech Anthropology. Menlo’s High-Tech Anthropologists’ work is to collect stories about the potential users of the software we are designing and retell these stories to our customers,” says Sheridan. “Unlike the boring, templated documents and mind-numbing PowerPoints used by typical analyst teams, our High-Tech Anthropology storytelling events during client Show & Tells draw the client’s minds and hearts into our work. The conversations that result are richer and more passionate, and, ultimately, produce better value in a more compelling and useful design that everyone believes in.”

Storytelling Via Video

Hildebrand Creative has found storytelling videos to be an effective way to help clients communicate corporate initiatives to its various departments, says company founder Dennis Hildebrand. “JP Morgan was building a new mortgage center in California to support its efforts to build its mortgage business. We spent two days in the Illinois mortgage center and produced 10 videos, one for each of the 10 departments that touches a JP Morgan mortgage,” says Hildebrand. “Each video interviewed those in each department to build a story on what the department does for the mortgage process and how each department is critical to a positive and successful client experience.”

Hildebrand points to another example in which Illinois State University needed better insight into the minds and daily workings of angel investors for its entrepreneurial students enrolled in the university’s Means Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Hildebrand Creative interviewed three Chicago-based angel investors on three primary areas to start the video program: The Approach, The Presentation, and The Relationship. The success of the series has generated interest in building out the video storytelling series into an ongoing program for the center, Hildebrand says.

In addition, new managers can be brought more in touch with the meaning behind their new jobs through storytelling videos, Hildebrand believes.

“Our best success with using storytelling in manager training involved a two-year contract with HP’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department. We were involved in remote training managers from around the world via online training and conference calls on how to develop and build their own stories of how they, as HP employees, were contributing around the globe for social good. After training the managers to gather and construct their own assets and write and record their own scripts, all assets were uploaded to an online project management system, and we virtually produced their video storytelling series that played internally within HP to promote the company’s CSR efforts around the globe.”

Hildebrand says such videos then can be uploaded to sites such as YouTube and Vimeo for greater use. “Stories of real people throughout the organization can be shared instantly throughout the company, and used effectively in management presentations inside and outside the organization.”

Storytelling: A Teachable Art

If your company’s managers don’t seem creative, there is still hope that you will be able to nurture them into storytellers. It comes naturally to some, but many others who become proficient storytellers have to work at it. “Storytelling may not come easily to everyone. Some will need to work harder at it than others, but everyone has the capability and capacity to be a good storyteller,” says Melissa Starinsky, chancellor of the Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy. “Passion, patience, creativity, personal disclosure, humor, theatrics, spontaneity, and relevance/context are often critical elements of storytelling.”

Learning to share both good and bad experiences without fear of being judged is a good first step for those for whom storytelling doesn’t come naturally, Starinsky says. “Managers and employees who feel they are able to freely share without retribution or being judged are more likely to be honest so the richness of the learning experience can be optimized. While we all must and should be held accountable, it is critical that managers, leaders, and all employees show respect toward one another and never use the exposed vulnerability to harm another. Doing so will halt any kind of disciplined and deliberate storytelling effort from ever getting any traction,” she notes.

Part of the trick, Starinsky says, is learning how to generate discussion of others’ stories, so the manager isn’t alone in the storytelling process. People generally want the opportunity to share, so managers should create an environment where this is possible.

“In meetings, the manager can ask, ‘Does anyone have a similar story they’d like to share or has anything like this ever happened to any of you?’ A manager also could pose the question along the lines of: ‘I’m really struggling with how to deal with this issue. Does anyone have any prior experience on something similar to this that you successfully navigated that you could share?’” she suggests. “Recalling the element of interactivity to effective storytelling, the manager and employees should participate by asking probing questions to better understand context and promote a healthy dialogue.”

Reprinted from Training Magazine

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