Storytelling as the ninth HR competency

by Michael Haberman on October 5, 2015 · 1 comment

StoryTelling[1]I am preparing a presentation on culture. As I have done my research it has become apparent that “storytelling” as a way of connecting new employees to the history of the culture is vitally important. In the SHRM Learning System there are eight competencies that students of HR are taught. Two of these deal with culture and communication. I think a key skill related to these two competencies is the skill of storytelling.

Tell a story

In 2011 I read a blog post that had nothing to do with human resources. It was called The One Essential Key to Developing Your Social Media Influence. The author, Joshua Leatherman, says “The greatest predictor of social media success is also the most challenging to master; it is the ability to tell a story well in very few words.” He went on to say:

“Those who succeed in social media, those who have the ability to influence the behavior of others, are master storytellers.  They have learned how to graft powerful words together that pique emotion, stimulate a need, elicit a vision, and produce engagement.”

A bell went off in my head and I thought HR! Piquing an emotion, stimulating a need, eliciting a vision and producing engagement are wonderful ways to attract and attach and retain workers. Tell them a compelling story to attract them, to help satisfy a need, to get them to see what the organization is about and to get them engaged in their work. This is what helps communicate the culture. It gets people more quickly engaged to the organization. After all who doesn’t enjoy a good story? Since more and more of us use social media I thought his topic dovetailed quite well with HR.

Developing the skill

In 2012 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.

Denning 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.”

The question then becomes “how do you develop good storytelling skills?”

Possible answers

I am open for answers on this question of how you develop good storytelling skills, but here are some of my suggestions:

  • Read good stories. Fiction, non-fiction, blogs, articles, news. They all involve the ability to tell a story. Did something grab your attention? What was it? Why did you find it compelling?
  • If you have an opportunity, take a creative writing class, whether you think you can write or not. You will be able to do a bit better when you are done.
  • Take a journalism class, in fact I think this should be required in all HR degree programs.
  • Take a class on being a stand-up comedian. All comedians are storytellers. One of my favorite was an old Borscht Belt comedian named Myron Cohen. He was a favorite of Johnny Carson. I am not Jewish, so I did not really relate to the stories he told but he told them so well I would still laugh. He was a wonderful storyteller.

I am not suggesting you give up your livelihood to become a reporter or comedian, I am suggesting the skills that you might acquire would serve you well in being able to craft a good narrative. Think about how you can incorporate a story into your talent acquisition and your employee communication. Perhaps you will find it pays major dividends and you just may have some fun with it too. Make storytelling the ninth HR competency.

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