Storytelling is an essential part of what makes us human and is increasingly recognized as a powerful business tool. As we move into the next phase of COVID-19, and hopefully a post-pandemic environment, a structured approach to storytelling can help organizations retain the hard-earned agility of recent months.
When faced with COVID-19, many organizations displayed unprecedented levels of speed, adaptability, and innovation. Tasks that previously took months were accomplished in weeks. Problems never faced before were solved in days. Decisions previously unthinkable were made in hours.
Organizations have a wealth of COVID-19 stories with the potential to act as a driver of future performance. The challenge is that when crises pass people forget, versions differ, and stories lose their impact. Without a structured approach to collecting and sharing stories, the collective memory will fade and organizations will lose an opportunity to embed the mindsets and behaviors that delivered such high levels of agility.
Whilst some leading corporates with a Chief Storyteller were able to capture and share their inside story of the pandemic from the very beginning, most organizations have yet to do so. However, every business has extensive contemporary records and materials available to them. From leader blogs, podcasts, town hall recordings, intranet updates through to COVID-related social media channels, organizations can mine these resources to capture their stories, augmenting them with additional first-hand accounts as required.
The question is: How to use these to ensure an organization’s COVID stories drive performance and do not just become a forgotten archive? Here are four steps every organization can take.
1. Set up a COVID-Stories ‘campaign’
Simply having a set of videos, recordings, photos, and blogs is not enough. By themselves they do not constitute a story. A recording of the CEO’s perspective or a glossy corporate video will not provide the necessary stimulus to action going forward.
If colleagues in the future are to understand the mindsets and behaviors that produced unparalleled levels of agility, they need to understand the reality of what happened from a range of perspectives. That benefits from a structured approach.
Set it up as a firm-wide campaign, with a clear goal and remit to use and expand the diverse range of source material to reveal the key stories that drove the organization’s agility through the pandemic. It can be just one or two people but get it up and running as quickly as possible, while memories are still fresh.
2. Select your stories and tell them from multiple perspectives
You do not need to tell every story of what an organization went through. You should focus on the most relevant to driving speed, adaptability, and innovation in the future. These will come out of sifting through the raw materials and identifying the short-list where you want to tell the wider story.
The wider story means developing a holistic picture of what happened, what was in people’s minds, how it felt, what worked, and what did not. One of the big things that came out of COVID was a realization that everyone’s experience was not the same – that a single issue (or story) felt markedly different depending on your personal experience. To fully leverage the power of stories, organizations need to be truly inclusive and look at things from a much wider variety of perspective than might previously have been the case.
One of the big things that came out of COVID was a realization that everyone’s experience was not the same.
Whilst much of the materials will already be available, this typically means augmenting existing materials from senior leaders with further input from colleagues, suppliers, and customers. A simple example is to ask people to record themselves on their phone on a given topic or ask them to participate in interviews. The increasing return to the office in many countries is a great opportunity to do this. Crowdsourcing stories increases their reach. Aspects that resonate with Human Resources colleagues may be different to technical teams. Hearing the CEO’s experience will resonate for some, while for others the learning will be from customers or peers. The most impactful stories will be those told inclusively from the broadest range of perspectives.
3. Be innovative and authentic to have impact
With online meeting fatigue and email ‘blindness’, being two consequences of the increased communication that came with COVID, organizations need to be innovative for a story to have an impact on people’s performance. A 50-page PowerPoint deck, 5,000-word article, or standard intranet blog is not going to cut it.
For business stories to motivate colleagues, they need to be accurate, engaging, and cover aspects of the five components of classic stories, namely setting, plot, characters, conflict, and theme. However crucially they should be candid, personal, and detailed to engender learning. Talking about how everything worked perfectly will backfire because people will know it’s not realistic. Telling a story about the firm’s speed of change generically doesn’t help anyone go faster. Sharing a measure of the speed of change achieved and the first-hand account of who was involved, the challenges they faced and how it was done, does.
Use a variety of visual, aural, and written media to reinforce the key messages. One global tech firm through their Chief Storyteller team created an online hub of COVID stories using integrated articles, photos, drone footage, video clips, and illustrations to bring to life the unfolding global perspectives and shared experiences as they adapted to events.
Most importantly of all, keep your stories authentic. Senior leaders should not shy away from sharing candid, personal realities of the situations they faced. Share the story from the perspective of family members, not just colleagues. Explain what failed as well as what worked. Do this in personal and practical terms. Show the importance of test-and-learn when faced with unforeseen situations. The more authentic, the greater the emotional connection and impact of the story compared to traditional corporate communications.
4. Share, discuss, and embed the stories
Don’t just collate the stories but share, discuss, and embed them in the organization. Stories are there to be told, debated, and iterated if they are to help retain agility in a post-pandemic environment.
Simply posting a story on a firm’s intranet is unlikely to drive performance. Assuming people read, watch, or listen to something will be less effective than a structured approach. Embed the stories through a variety of mechanisms such as onboarding, training, town halls, off-sites, social media, board meetings, and team discussions in the months ahead. Track the response and iterate based on feedback. Capture the suggestions and actions that arise.
Where possible, share the stories transparently across the entire organization and externally. Engage customers, suppliers, and shareholders in the debate. There is obviously a trade-off with the level of disclosure you can provide externally, but the benefits of an open discussion are material.
Chronicle the previously unthinkable
At the risk of understatement, COVID has been the toughest period in many companies’ histories, and the continuing COVID variants signal that this is far from over. But through it all, many organizations have achieved levels of change that would previously have been unthinkable.
These are stories worth capturing, sharing, and discussing. If you want your organization to retain your new-found agility, a good place to start is to gather and tell your own story.
You could of course leave that to business authors and commentators, but that would be a missed opportunity. These are the stories of you, your people, and your customers – and only your organization can truly tell them.