Storytelling That Spreads Like Wildfire

“Stories are like viruses. They are contagious.”
Lori Silverman, author

We’re living in a strange and dangerous time. We’re living in a time when there is more talk, more seminars, more training, and more books on teamwork then ever before, and yet people feel more disconnected and demotivated than ever before. At least some people.

Ever since 1979, the Gallup organization has polled about three million American employees. And they’ve found three levels of employee engagement: “engaged”, “not engaged”, and “actively disengaged”.

But here’s the scary thing. Gallup says only 29% of the U.S. workforce is “engaged,” while the other 71% are doing just enough to get by … if indeed, they’re even doing that.

And to make matters worse, most organizational leaders have no idea this is going on. They don’t get it. They’re trying to drive an 8-cylinder organization on 2 cylinders … and it just doesn’t work all that well.

Gallup concluded that the greatest contributor to an organization’s success … is made by “engaged” employees. And the performance of an organization is markedly reduced by “actively disengaged” employees. Not too surprising.

So that brings up a mighty important question, “How do you ‘engage’ your employees? How do you motivate them to give their very best? How do you change them from a state of disengagement to a state of being fully engaged?”

The old answer was to “Give them the facts.”

But facts don’t change people. Alan Deutschman, writing in “Fast Company” magazine, cites a study that found two years after having heart bypass surgery, 90% of the patients did not maintain the healthier lifestyle they had been urged to adopt. As author Lori Silverman asks, “Given such resistance in the face of potentially dire consequences, how then do we get people in an organization to change?”

Others have tried to get employees to change … or get them to be more engaged … by changing the organization’s strategy, structure, culture, or systems. Well, Dr. John Kotter, the world renowned expert on change, a professor at the Harvard Business School, found that none of those things was very effective.

What Kotter did find … will surprise you. To change people, Kotter said you have to tell them stories. You have to speak to their feelings. For example, it’s one thing to hear drug prices are skyrocketing. It’s something else when you hear the story of a grandmother who must choose between paying for life-sustaining drugs or buying food.

In the first case, you may file away the fact that drug prices are going up, and that’s probably the end of it. But in the second case, the story of the grandmother may resonate with you. You may think, “Yeah, I can relate to that.” You may even be inspired to do something about the drug prices or support a political candidate who promises to do something about the prices.

Amazingly enough, story telling is the oldest communication device or the oldest motivational technique on the planet. Cave men used stories; Jesus used stories, and Confucius used stories. And now Harvard is telling us it’s one of the most powerful things you can do to lead, motivate, or change people.

So that brings me to another question. How can you use stories in the business world? Look at Lori Silverman’s book called, “Wake Me Up When The Data Is Over: How Organizations Use Story Telling To Drive Results.” She gives you dozens of ways you can use stories to build your business, attract customers, or even motivate your workforce. Let me get you started with a couple ways.

=> 1. Use stories to give life to your vision and values.

Even though I like the concepts of “vision” and “values,” they often fail to bring about the results their authors intended. They may be stated in sterile terms, sound like everybody else’s, or be hard to remember. And if your employees don’t “get it,” they won’t do it.

But you can make your vision and values come alive by telling stories that illustrate what you really mean. Gary Comer, the founder of Lands’ End did a beautiful job of that. He would always say, “Take care of the customers and the rest will take care of itself.” And then he would look for examples of employees who followed his advice, tell stories about their efforts, and talk about the positive results that followed.

Jackie Johnson-Caygill, the director of Lands’ End Business Outfitter Contact Center, continues the tradition. She says, “Our philosophy is simple: ‘Guaranteed. Period.’ To show we really do mean what we say, we share stories about employees who have taken the authority to do whatever is required to make a customer happy. When they hear about Nora Halverson, who sent her husband’s set of cuff links to a customer because the ones the customer ordered were on back order, they understand the extra efforts our people extend to serve customers.”

Lands’ End has even compiled booklets containing stories that demonstrate how each employee goes the distance for customers. “These booklets are useful in helping people understand what Lands’ End is all about,” says Johnson-Caygill. She especially likes the story about the time a team of employees took an unexpected trip to Las Vegas to deliver attaché cases after the first shipment was incorrectly embroidered.

Employee Ruth Lang contributes another amazing story. One Friday night, while working the third shift in customer sales, she received the strangest but most enjoyable call ever. A customer called and asked if Ruth would call her at 5:00 AM EST. She was staying in a mansion-turned-hotel that did not have a wake-up service. The next day was her wedding day, and she was afraid that she and her sister would oversleep. Since she had been a loyal customer of Lands’ End, she knew she could count on them to help in any way.

Of course, Ruth didn’t turn her down and agreed to call. When the bride-to-be answered the phone the next morning, she said she and her sister were sure Lands’ End would come through.

Wow! Can you imagine the impact you could have on your employees if you had a book of stories like that to pass around? Everyone inside and outside the company would know what you stand for, and almost everybody would be clamoring to get one of their stories in the book. It’s a powerful way to communicate your vision and values.

=> 2. Use stories to put your customers at ease.

For example, most customers wonder if they can trust you. They wonder if they can trust your product or service to perform as they expected. They wonder if they can trust the fairness of your price, the quality of your merchandise, or the sureness of your guarantee. That’s human nature.

And nothing builds trust more quickly than have your customers know that other customers have wondered the same things … but everything worked out well. Those other customers discovered you could be trusted.

That’s why Orlando Regional Healthcare puts their “Healing Stories” into booklets in the waiting rooms. As Tracey Biggs says, “Reading ‘Healing Stories’ about people who have experienced similar ordeals and had amazing healing experiences right here in this very hospital inspires them with faith and hope.”

The stories could be as simple as the nurse who taught the new dad how to change a diaper or the doctor who came in on his own time to check on a patient. Such stories bring peace to a family going through a difficult time.

Many of the stories convey a similar theme. As Tracey Biggs goes out to collect the patient/customer stories, she says, “They often describe their experiences in four steps. One: I didn’t want to have surgery. Two: I needed surgery. Three: I had surgery. Four: I didn’t want to go home.” Now wouldn’t that be comforting for a patient to read? Absolutely.

Whatever business you’re in, your business will be much more successful if you use the power of story telling. And if you’re not maxing out this incredible tool, I want you to:

* Train everyone to be on the lookout for stories in your organization that illustrate your values,

* Share stories of outstanding customer service to inspire others to provide similar service,

* Publish and share your stories with customers so they become a part of your organization, and

* Sponsor contests that reward the best stories.

Yes, stories spread like wild fire. And the right stories can spread your organization’s message better than you can imagine.

Action:  As a team, decide on a key message or value you want to spread or reinforce in your work area. And then brainstorm a list of stories from your area that you could share with old-timers, new hires, customers, and other departments.