Strengthen and Sustain Culture with Storytelling
By Nancy Duarte
When a new hire joins your company, what do they take away from their first impression of your organization?
In most process-driven companies, the first impression is usually a twelve-inch binder full of procedures, checklists, and forms that tell employees exactly what to do, and what not to do. In product-driven companies, new hires might get a sample of your company’s flagship offering — a shiny laptop, a sporty bike, a sweet box of chocolates — along with that twelve-inch binder. If your company’s product isn’t tangible, that binder might come with a pile of collateral on the strategic/integrated/value-added/flexible/contextual/virtual/something-as-a-service your company sells. I don’t know about you, but the only thing I’d be interested in is the chocolate.
The good news is there’s a better way to communicate your company’s values and engage your employees: infuse your culture with the power of storytelling. Some of the longest lasting and most inspiring organizations in the world use story to educate, invigorate, and motivate their staff. I know the word “story” has become a buzzword, but that’s just story with a little “s.” What I’m talking about is story with a big “S”: the art of communicating your ideas using a persuasive narrative structure. It’s a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, and uses dramatic principles of tension and contrast to move your audience to a different state of thinking, feeling, and acting. Like this.
In all sizes and types of organizations—from consumer brands like Nike, to causes like charity:water, to tech companies like Workday — stories are more than content for marketing campaigns. They’re the fuel that feeds and sustains a strong corporate culture. Nike teaches its managers to tell stories about the leadership principles espoused by Nike’s co-founder, Bill Bowerman, so employees can “remember the man” and reflect his values in their behavior.
Scott Harrison, CEO of charity:water, travels the world telling the story of how his non-profit began. It’s a perfect story of redemption that started when he realized his life had no meaning, then changed course when he found new purpose among the suffering, and emerged to change the world. Workday’s co-founder, David Duffield, tells a story about the day he and fellow co-founder Aneel Bhusri sat down at Jax Truckee Diner to brainstorm the type of company they wanted to create. Today, that story reminds employees and customers about the values on which Workday was built.
After meeting with hundreds of executives and spending years studying how leaders communicate, I’ve gotten to the point where I can recognize pretty quickly whether a company believes in the power of storytelling and embraces it in their everyday practices. Here are some signs that can help you tell if your company has a truly story-driven culture:
- Information delivery reflects a balance of analytical and emotional content—it’s not just about the facts but also about the context, both the “why” and the “what”
- The underlying values and principles that govern day-to-day decisions are documented in the form of anecdotes or narratives that explain their origin
- Corporate artifacts and “lore” are actively collected, documented, and archived for later use in communications and celebrations; extra credit for having a staff historian or librarian
- It’s second nature to look outside your four walls to learn from the stories of other companies, industries, or disciplines
- Your company places a high value on activities that foster understanding between people and invests in training to build communication skills
- Leaders at all levels of the organization demonstrate empathy in their interactions with employees, customers, partners, investors (even competitors!)
- People who exhibit authenticity, vulnerability, and creativity in communication are valued and recognized
- Communicating clearly and persuasively is seen as central to mission success rather than a waste of time
More than any other facet of our culture at Duarte, storytelling strengthens the foundation of my business by creating shared experiences that knit us together as a company and maintaining a unity of purpose that fuels our success. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Illustrated by Brittany Postler