Long live the story

21 September 2020

“In uncertain times in particular, it is crucial to have an unambiguous story that you can tell your employees. A story that makes clear what the organisation stands for and where it is heading.” But how do you create that story? Six questions for Marianne Jaarsma, strategist at PROOF and author of the agency’s sixth book, to be published in early 2021.

What do you mean by a story?

“By story, I simply mean having written down what your organisation stands for, its ambition and what your employees can contribute to this. The story should be relevant to each internal target group and written in normal, everyday language so that everyone in the organisation understands it.”

Why is it important to have a story?

“First of all, a story provides context and direction. A story gives employees a picture of the challenges the organisation faces and the choices the organisation is making. In addition, a story creates connections. Is the organisation’s ambition a good fit with that of the employee and does it make them enthusiastic? Lastly, a story drives consistency. Once you have agreed what wording to use, you can implement this consistently across all communication.

“For these three reasons, having a story is not only crucial for employees during uncertain or changing times, but also where remote working is the norm and employees may miss that feeling of connection with their colleagues, supervisor or employer.”

How do you develop a powerful story?

“The key aspects in creating a story are making choices and focusing. Think about how much you typically remember when you hear a story and then ask yourself what, as a minimum, you want your employees to remember. In other words, what should the mantra be? Force yourself to get to the point: why do we do what we do, what do we strive for and what are the steps to realise our ambition? Above all, remember to think about how you plan to get there and what you expect from employees. Write everything down as concretely as possible. There is nothing more confusing than being served up half a story that leaves you wondering “but how” after you have read it. People switch off then.”

Do you have any advice to help organisations get to the heart of their story?

“At PROOF, we often summarise the story in a picture or illustration. Visualising it helps you to figure out if your story is logical. And it really forces you to filter out the most important points. After all, your story has to fit on one side of A4.”

What role does Communications play in story development?

“The Communication department should govern the story. It should summarise the organisation’s strategy in language that is understandable and make it SMART. This story then forms the basis for all communication. It is also the Communication department’s responsibility to train management to be consistent when telling the story, and to equip managers to talk with their teams about the story’s content and act accordingly. Communications filters the core messages per target group (internal and external) to make the story relevant to everyone and brings the story to life with the right activation steps and evidence.”

You made a point of mentioning management. Why?

“If the story coming from senior management is ambiguous, is presented unconvincingly or is not matched by actions, you cannot expect the rest of the organisation’s employees to adopt it. We believe that organisational alignment begins in the boardroom.”