WEDNESDAY 8 MAR 2017 4:56 PM


Corporate storytelling can bring an organisation together from the inside and help set the tone for the customer experience. Amy Sandys explores narrative, tone and messaging in storytelling

Flick to page 719 of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2012 edition. Two words down, below ‘stormy’ but above ‘stoup,’ find four definitions around the entry ‘story.’ ‘An account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment,’ ‘an item of news’ or ‘(informally) a lie’ are among the descriptions offered. All different, but all indicative of the power of stories to capture an audience’s imagination. And historically where opening a book or turning on the television is the obvious way to consume stories, storytelling as a corporate concept is gathering traction. For many companies, storytelling weaves a purpose between departments and levels, creating a common thread through which the company narrative is seen.

For Ann Booth-Clibborn, owner of London-based corporate storytelling agency,, corporate storytelling allows organisations to clearly communicate their purpose to new recruits and existing employees, as well as drive external stakeholder relationships. Important for employees and internal stakeholders alike, corporate storytelling encourage clarity of communication, with significant consequences for future business success. “Corporate storytelling helps answer the questions that a business has to be able to answer in this day and age,” Booth-Clibborn explains. “You need to be able to answer who are you? What do you stand for? Why should I care? And that’s quite new for business; you can’t really use facts and statistics to answer those questions.”

Before Damian Kelly took his current role as VP of product management at customer experience software provider, Genesys, he was founder and VP of Belfast-based software start-up, SpeechStorm. Communicating the purpose of the organisation to external stakeholders inevitably involved extracting mundane details and navigating through technical jargon. Yet, through storytelling, Kelly was presented with a means to connect with external interests in SpeechStorm – one big change involved articulating the practical ways in which the company impacted the lives of its customers. Kelly says, “One of the challenges with software is that software engineers and design and development teams often focus on a lot of the detail of the features and what they bring to market. But what that gets in the way of is telling a very simple story of what difference that software is going to make to somebody’s life.”

In an age of multiple distractions, the need to engage with employees of any age and standing is therefore of increasing importance. This means internal communicators should adhere to traditional storytelling concepts to involve their audience in the story’s experience. “A story is a journey,” says Booth-Clibborn. “There’s a beginning and it’s heading to something. And that’s certainly one of the principles of corporate storytelling. That’s what makes a difference to the people who are working together for a common goal.”

Corporate storytelling allows the company’s common goal to be articulated and therefore reached. If done well, participation occurs through storytelling’s immersive nature. And, while the customer service ector and immersive experiences don’t necessarily always fit hand in glove, it is a testament to the power of storytelling that if done well, it can make anything interesting.

For Kelly, storytelling achieved clarity in stakeholder communication where technical jargon couldn’t – a positive also extended to SpeechStorm’s employees. An emotional connection emerged between teams previously siloed due to their job roles, says Kelly. “It provides a common language; each part of the business can relate to the story in terms of their impact on it. If you think about that in terms of the consumer’s end to end story then you end up with something which is far less disjointed.”

Storytelling can facilitate belonging. Booth- Clibborn says, “Storytelling helps everyone who is part of the business understand what they belong to and how they belong. It nurtures pride, motivation, a sense of belonging and a clarity of purpose for the members of the organisation.” In fiction, understanding the essence of storytelling and simplifying it helps the author create a believable and compelling narrative. In corporate storytelling, employee engagement and a willingness to participate encourages a positive internal culture. Booth-Clibborn explains, “When it’s in its perfect form, we as members of a business should see our story reflected and included in the corporate story.”

Yet storytelling in the context of corporate communications is, for some, an alien concept. Traditionally storytelling is the preserve of fiction, concerned with fairy tales and fantasy, found only in literature. But the need to capture the audience’s imagination is where the worlds of fantasy and corporate communications collide. For Darren Hockaday, former head of HR for London Overground Rail Operations Ltd (LOROL), storytelling was a way of relaying to employees and colleagues how much their input into the organisation was valued. The Overground, a badly-kept and under- used railway line of which people were sceptical, impacted negatively on staff morale. Improving the employee experience, says Hockaday, became a major factor in the railway’s projected success under the operation of London Overground. “There was always going to be an overall story of transformation,” says Hockaday. “But within that, lots of other separate stories became the building blocks or incremental milestones in the overall transformation of the railway.”

And, explains Hockaday, due to its social mobility potential, as well as the 2012 Olympic Games, the pace and scale of change was faster than is usual for the railway industry. As a result, LOROL carefully monitored the wellbeing of its employees, improving it where necessary. Corporate storytelling enabled senior management to bring together a workforce separated temporally and spatially, while noting the worth of each individual contributor to the Overground project. Hockaday adds, “We thought we had a story to tell to the industry, but also internally, to engage and involve our employees in these change initiatives and to help ensure we were successful in our workforce understanding what needed to be achieved and their role in it.”

“Storytelling helps everyone who is part of the business understand what they belong to and how they belong. It nurtures pride, motivation, a sense of belonging and a clarity of purpose for the members of the organisation”

Similarly, for Kelly, correlating positive customer experience with the action of SpeechStorm’s staff helped facilitate a dialogue whereby employee contribution to the business was more easily recognised. This strengthened the company’s internal culture, facilitating camaraderie and encouraging the sense of belonging that contributed to SpeechStorm’s acquisition by Genesys. Kelly says, “What storytelling does is reinforces that, as a value of the organisation, we do place great emphasis on the impact software has on the working lives of the people who use it. It’s a big reinforcement of one of our values, which is a main part of our culture.”

For SpeechStorm employees, storytelling created a direct link between their work and customer satisfaction. This, says Kelly, contributed to a positive internal culture which in turn increased profitability; so great was its impact that storytelling became integral to the Genesys business approach. “One of the things I’m particularly involved in at Genesys is orienting the way we think about what our software does. We talk about the software functions in terms of a story that an end customer or consumer is going through, which is hugely helpful in aligning sometimes very different parts of technology components to get them to work together so the customer experience is better,” Kelly says. “It’s another use of storytelling.”

In the same way SpeechStorm’s siloed work force banded together via a common thread, so do the internal and external faces of an organisation or brand. The external engagement levels often indicate the strength of a company’s internal storytelling. Booth- Clibborn says, “Corporate storytelling is consistent in terms of internal and external experiences of it, and of course it’s not going to be exactly the same because belonging to an organisation isn’t necessarily the same as interacting with an organisation.” While this distinction is important, says Booth-Clibborn, storytelling impacts all facets of an organisation, “There will be a thread, it’s a very important part of corporate storytelling – until you know what you belong to and what the value is of what you belong to, you can’t possibly communicate that to anybody else.”

Vital to this, an integral but oft-neglected aspect of storytelling, says Booth-Clibborn, is setting the tone. It must be consistent with what the company offers. Just as with fiction, the story’s tone should correlate to its events and climax. Booth-Clibborn says, “What a story does is talk about the things between the facts.” The tone, she notes, should match the world created by the story and be consistent with the business’ tone of voice.

Particularly for customer service-oriented companies, creating a welcoming and open tone facilitates strong external and internal connections.

Kelly says, “It’s also about structuring the story that brings an element which has an impact and has emotion. It seems a contrary thing to bring into the software sphere – it’s strictly emotional – but that’s what people can relate to and then they can understand what we do.” In this sense, the building blocks behind the corporate story became just as important as the storytelling itself. For all employees, seeing the company structure laid out in an understandable format rationalises its company mission. In a process such as onboarding, new recruits can understand what drives the organisation in simple terms.

“We never dressed it up or labelled it as storytelling,” says Hockaday. “It helped with structure, how we told the story, how we constructed it. And that helped people envision the future and see what we wanted things to look like, what customers wanted it to look like.” Referring to Booth-Clibborn’s emphasis on applying traditional elements of storytelling to the corporate world, Hockaday likens the LOROL experience to fiction. “There was jeopardy around whether we could deliver [the rail changes] or not,” he says. “That allowed us to focus on what were the risks and challenges.” For LOROL, a focus on jeopardy paid off. Over the 2012 London Olympics period, the London Overground system carried an additional 7m passengers. SpeechStorm was acquired by Genesys and is thriving.

“If you get your stories right, you get to walk, that’s how I would see it,” says Kelly. “But it takes time and effort to refine those stories and find the right words to find the emotional impact in them and that’s where storytelling becomes very prevalent in them. It is a skill, it can be taught, it can be learned and it can be applied.” Learning that simple word, found on page 719 of the Oxford English Dictionary, is easy. But for employers and employees, applying it to a corporate context makes all the difference in the world.