Quit Advertising to Employees and Start Storytelling with Them

Employee communications is often an area of responsibility that falls in organizational no-man’s land, wandering overlooked and under-served between the purview of Marketing Communications and Human Resources, who typically have more pressing priorities (e.g. advertising, branding, recruiting, compensation, etc.). In an ideal world, employee communications is a joint effort between these two departments, leveraging the communications expertise of the former and the workforce insight of the latter.

Storytelling for employeesBut even when this joint effort exists around employee communications, companies do it a disservice if they approach them in the same way they do with external communications, advertising to their employees instead of conversing with them. Too much of the internal communications we see feel like overwrought ad campaigns, designed to ‘sell’ an idea to employees instead of truly engaging them in it. They seem to be driven by the thought that, “This is what we do in the marketplace and that seems to work, so let’s just do the same thing internally.”

But selling to employees results in employees feeling like they’re being sold, which over time can foster disengagement, distrust and detachment. Rather than advertising to employees, companies should practice more of the authentic and highly human craft of storytelling with them. Outlined below are three guidelines on how best to communicate with employees in a storytelling way.

ONE: Turn down the hype

Some celebration and fanfare can be appropriate for employee communications, but only if it’s reserved for truly special milestones or events. Fanfare will quickly lose its impact if it’s connected to the internal launch of every single initiative, idea or message. It’s like the organizational equivalent of the boy who cried, “This is a really big deal…no seriously…I mean it this time…really big!”

Instead of trying to sell and persuade employees through decibels and intensity, internal communications should look to engage and enlighten them through the softer, more human fashion of storytelling. Companies should recognize that, with internal communications, they’re talking to family, so those communications need to be more genuine and collegial than sales-y and gimmicky. Good internal communications should be conversational, respecting the more intimate and honest nature of the relationship employees want to have with the company they work for. They should feel more like friends sharing stories versus one trying to sell a used car to the other.

TWO: Give voice to the people on the front line, not just those in the corner offices

Far too often, the role of internal communicator is relegated solely to company executives. While there is always a time and place for employees to hear from the ‘captains’ who chart the course and steer the proverbial ship, they also want to hear from their fellow oarsmen. No matter how well scripted (see below) or delivered communications coming down from the top may be, they will always be tinged with the power gap that exists between the executives communicating and the employees they’re communicating to. It’s like the organizational equivalent of the emphatic leader saying, “This is a really big deal because I’m telling you it’s a really big deal.” In contrast, when fellow employees present an idea or message (even when done in combination with executives), cynicism and skepticism more readily fall aside. Employees listen more intently because, well, “that’s someone like me talking.”

We recently worked on a brand video for TELUS that used a rich variety of employees to bring their remarkable brand to life through their personal stories and off-the-cuff testimony versus having a senior leader present that brand. Though TELUS had used this sort of approach before, it was still somewhat atypical for them. But they understood how important it is for TELUS employees to hear from fellow employees, not just TELUS executives; and they also knew how well storytelling can work in humanizing their brand and giving voice to important ideas. And work it has. Since completing the video and sharing it internally, the response has been, in our clients’ words, “phenomenal.”

THREE: Have the faith to be unscripted, especially with videos

Video is used a lot in internal communications because it fires on so many levels. However, too many of those videos are little more than a senior executive reading a teleprompter in front of a camera. No matter how well-written that content is and how well the senior executive delivers it, there will always be something inauthentic about those videos, feeling more like a prepared statement being read at a press conference than a genuine exchange of meaning between human beings.

The concern usually driving this approach is around messaging (i.e.  “We’ll script it so it will say exactly what we need it to say.”). But genuine storytelling is more organic and fluid, having key messages and ideas unfold for listeners versus regurgitating them. It can go off script without going off purpose. When we work with clients on their internal communications videos, we make sure we understand what key messages and information we want those videos to convey and then have a conversation with people in front of the camera to draw those messages out. The result is something infinitely more genuine and human while still being on message, as evidenced with a video we recently completed for Relais & Châteaux North America.

In the world of one-to-many communications that we once lived in, a more scripted, tightly-messaged, executives-only style of employee communications was perhaps more appropriate. But in the more networked, many-to-many world of communications that is our current and future reality, that approach no longer works. Companies need to focus more on engaging with employees through communications versus talking to them, using storytelling to pull people into ideas instead of more straightforward messages to push those ideas upon them. This approach requires more faith, trust and relinquishment of control, but it results in internal communications infused with greater humanity, which in turn generates greater understanding, conviction and a profound sense of belonging among employees. And so it grows.

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