The Importance of Storytelling In HR and Business

by Michael Haberman on August 10, 2012 · 6 comments


Twice in past year I have posted about storytelling. Here is the last one A revisit to Storytelling: A Key HR Competency? Twice in the past week I have been reminded of the importance of storytelling in HR and business.

First, I was reading something on my iPad sitting at Starbucks and came across a post on the importance of storytelling as an employee retention tool. (Unfortunately I cannot find the link to this article.) What I recall of the article was that a company needs to have a compelling story to tell to its employees and they in turn have to have a compelling story to tell to their audiences, be they family, friends or social media contacts. If there is not something about the company, such as its mission, its product, the benefits, the cool president, the beer tap in the lunchroom, the fact that you can bring your dog, etc. then the employees are not talking about you. If they are not talking about you they are not engaged. Or worse they are disengaged and unhappy.

We all know that employees who are unhappy with you also tell stories. In fact, quite often they are the biggest storytellers. Do they tell the story of how you have let harassment continue without addressing it? Do they tell the story of how you used Facebook to recruit them but now will not let them check it at work? Do they tell the story of how they feel abused, under paid and under-appreciated? You certainly need to have a feel for what they are saying so you can help change the story. And that is where the second part comes in.

In my post referenced above I said that I thought storytelling should be a key competency for all HR professionals. Well I came across a book by Stephen Denning called The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling. The subtitle is mastering the art and discipline of business narrative. Denning’s contention is that storytelling should be a key competency for ALL business leaders. Storytelling has been around for as long as humans have been able to speak. It was how information and learning was passed down from generation to generation before writing. However, as we came into the age of reason, especially in the business world, we quit using storytelling. We let cold hard facts speak.

I have not gotten any further in the book than the introduction, so this is not a book review, but the premise is wise. Denning said that in his work he was “…startled to find that an appropriately told story had the power to do what rigorous analysis couldn’t: to communicate a strange new idea and move people to enthusiastic action.” Denning then sites many dismal statistics about the lack of success many businesses are experiencing. He then says: “The choice for leaders in business and organizations is not whether to be involved in storytelling….but whether to use storytelling unwittingly and clumsily, or intelligently and skillfully. Management fads may come and go, but storytelling is fundamental to all nations, societies, and cultures and has been so since time immemorial.”

Think about it. Everyone loves a story. One very successful friend of mine, Kenny Burts, has a very compelling story about how he started his business Kenny’s Great Pies. (The story is on his website.) Everyone that meets him wants to hear the story. Many entrepreneurs have compelling stories and we enjoy hearing about how they became successful. (At least I do.) So don’t discount the power of the story as a business tool. All company leaders need to be schooled in the art and science of storytelling.

I will let you know more as I read further in the book.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen Chace August 14, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Hi Michael,

Wonderful post, and as a professional storyteller and former HR Supervisor I completely agree with your assessment. Steve Denning does offer very good insight into using the oldest art, storytelling, in modern business situations. I think the article you are referring to can be found here: http://www.brandingstrategyinsider.com/2012/08/brands-must-master-the-art-of-storytelling-.html

I offered a presentation to marketing students at Boston University about merging storytelling with business a few years ago. Yet, I was careful to offer the caveat that we must always use our stories ethically and not merely as just another marketing tool.

A few years ago I was commissioned to write the story of a company for their 75th anniversary. The marketing VP wanted it to be fun and lively, the president wanted specific dates, facts and names included. You may read the story of how I managed to do both here: http://www.storybug.net/publications.html

Kendall Haven, storyteller, author and oceanographer wrote a very useful book, _Story Proof: The Science Behind Startling Power of Story_. It is full of scientific research proving that we are all hardwired for story. You may find some of his research, used with his permission, here under Hardwired for Story. http://www.storybug.net/teachers.html .

Thank you again for your helpful insights and foro promoting the art of storytelling, in all of its forms.

Karen Chace

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Michael Haberman August 14, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Karen, thank you for the additional material on storytelling. I look forward to reading your article. Perhaps I will reach out to you in the future to tell us a story.

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NALINA February 4, 2016 at 11:56 pm

Please do send me some stories that substantiate HRM in an organization.

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