July 30, 2021 / Esther Choy

Business storytelling helps attract and retain happy, engaged employees.

Rebecca is the HR Director for a uniforms wholesaler, and she has a frustrating problem. Employee turnover has been steadily increasing, and the resounding feedback from these exiting employees is they feel invisible and inconsequential at the company. Their work feels mundane and meaningless, and they don’t feel like their efforts are recognized. As she recruits new employees, Rebecca finds that the best candidates (among few) seem uninterested and don’t understand what contributions they can make at a faceless corporation that deals in scrubs and embroidered polo shirts. Maybe their industry isn’t the sexiest, but she doesn’t know what she can possibly do about that.

This situation is common across the US right now. According to the National Federation of Independent Business, 46% of small businesses have jobs open they cannot fill, and a whopping 89% of those businesses say they cannot find qualified candidates. Prudential found that among the approximately 1 in 4 American workers seeking to change jobs post-pandemic crisis, 42% graded their employers a “C” or lower for ability to communicate and foster employee connectedness. “Issues of communication and company culture were also top of mind among workers surveyed, and employers that worked to maintain both will find it easier to retain talent, the survey finds.”

Many companies fail to communicate effectively both with their existing employees—fail to inspire, connect, and empower them—and cannot present a compelling story of their organization to attract talented new prospects. These problems are solvable by adopting a business storytelling approach. Here are three key ways business storytelling can help inspire current and prospective employees.

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1. Create meaning with company history.

 The three-generations-old family business focused on personal excellence and pride. The innovative company started in a garage by two high school classmates reunited after ten years. The woman-owned or minority business enterprise founded in the wake of struggles for justice. The company that came back from bankruptcy with a brand new product.

Humans are wired for story and for creating connections among events and people. Consider our fascination with prophecies, coincidences, epics, cycles, and heroes’ journeys. Stories create meaning, and meaning drives buy-in.

What is your company’s story? I have previously outlined different types of story structures that help us connect, from tales of rags to riches to overcoming the monster. Finding the structure that fits your story allows you to draw a clear picture and provoke the emotions that build connection. 

Your employees need to know your company’s history to feel a connection to all the work that has been done to get to the present point. It’s also essential to present that history to job candidates who are wondering who you are and why they should choose you.

 2. Illuminate purpose in work.

Fast Company found that “CEOs who use purpose across their organization are more likely to see very practical perks when it comes to growth and long-term value creation.” Employees want to feel that their work matters and is contributing to something worthwhile.

Ninety-one percent of Patagonia employees report that their company is a great place to work, compared with 59% of employees at a typical American company. Among the reasons for their high rankings are reports that they “feel good about the ways [they] contribute to the community” and they are proud to tell others they work at Patagonia. These employees have a very positive story about their company and the purpose served by their work!

A CPG client of ours contracted us to help them find the right story to help recruit MBAs to their company. What worked? Stories about food—its comfort, nostalgia, and connection. Once the candidates realized their work would bring warmth and nourishment to people’s tables, it was a game changer in their perception of their potential career. The client’s conversion rate increased 20% with this storytelling strategy.

Rebecca’s uniform company has many stories to tell of their diverse clients—hospitals, family owned businesses, summer camps, and more. Her company can and should highlight those stories to bring purpose to employees’ everyday to-do lists. It should also show employees how the company’s success is a direct result of their hard, passionate work.

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3. Paint the future in color.

 Most employees are cognizant of their own professional needs and goals, and this should be incorporated in your company’s story. If you want your employees and prospects to paint you into their future, you must paint them into the company’s future with vision and clarity. Paint a future of opportunity, of growth, of positive change, of evolution—whatever you see ahead!

Individuals who see an exciting future with you are not going to stealthily update their resumes during staff meetings. If you know where you are going, if you have great plans, if you’re excited for your company’s future, you absolutely must build this narrative and communicate it often to your employees. It should also be part of the narrative told to prospective employees; make them excited to join you!

Who should be telling your company stories? Yes, it should be top leadership, and yes, it should be your HR team. But it should also be every employee of your company. Once you have formed and told your story and have a storytelling culture in place that brings narrative into your celebrations, low points, and times of upheaval, you’ve built a strong sense of history, purpose, and optimism to rally everyone together.

Define, refine, tell, and live your company story. 

Ready to use business storytelling to attract and retain talent? Learn how you and your organization develop a meaningful narrative and communicate it effectively. 

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.

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