Employee engagement: the power of stories

Written by
Dan Lucy

13 Oct 2016

13 Oct 2016 • by Dan Lucy

Roffey Park’s Management Agenda (2016), our annual barometer of working life, consistently identifies gaps in the capability of leaders to inspire and engage those they work with, particularly at times of change. Communications focussed on facts, figures, graphs and charts have been shown to be less compelling and memorable than a story well-told. 

Stories can bring the customer to life and enable employees to connect with the value they create on a more personal and intimate level. They appeal to the emotions and so, as the latest evidence from neuroscience would tell us, are more likely to lead to behaviour change than rationality alone. As neurologisy Donald B Calne, says, ‘emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions’. 

So, how do you tell a good story?

First things first, it’s important to think about how much of the power of a story depends on the storyteller. Telling stories comes more easily to some people than others. Practice and experience helps, but ultimately we need to find stories and ways of telling stories that we are comfortable with.


Know your audience

It’s not enough to tell the same story about increasing margins, market share or cost benefits regardless of who is sitting in front of you. The story needs to be relevant and meaningful to the audience. Sound obvious? Understanding your audience’s needs, wants or goals is crucial to engaging and motivating towards a particular course of action or behavioural change. Simply, they need they need to know what it is in it for them.

Pace and pitch

Effective storytellers use pace to bring the story to life. Make sure that you pause as you speak to give the audience a chance to reflect and connect it with their own experience and thoughts. Use pace to stimulate and engage your listeners. Think about your tone of voice and use this to cue what is significant so your audience knows to sit up and pay attention. 

Get peoples attention

Start with an interesting situation, surprise, mystery, challenge or a self-depreciating opener: a beginning that grabs people’s curiosity with a desire to listen further. Bring your story to life with metaphors, dialogue or humour but use simple language rather than corporate speak so that it is grounded and your audience remain engaged. 

Dont ram the point home

A good story takes people on a journey through engaging their imaginations. If the story is good enough, you will not need to state your point as the listener will figure it out for themselves. As Schank (1995, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence) argues, “…the more work the hearer does, the more he or she will get out of your stories…”.

Assess the impact

Is the audience engaged? Do they understand? As with any form of communication it will be most effective when the storyteller seeks feedback from the listener. So look for visual clues to check that your audience is engaged. Make time for discussion and questions to provide the opportunity for your audience to reflect back what they have heard.

But will they act differently? Establishing trust, shaping behaviour and engaging employees does begin nor end with telling a story. Stories are a powerful leadership tool but they only work when they are aligned to other initiatives, behaviour and actions. 

Right then, so, what story can you tell today?

You can find out more about Roffey Park’s latest research report, The Leader as Storyteller, at www.roffeypark.com.