Storytelling in internal communication

About the author

Adam Clarkson recently completed his CIPR Internal Communication Certificate with PR Academy. For his final assignment he chose to explore storytelling and how it can be used for effective internal communication.

Public sector change – The never ending story

Storytelling is a super useful technique to have in your communications armoury, if you’re like me and you’re an internal public sector communicator, you’ll be used to one word: change. In fact change programmes are so frequent in the public sector, that without them, a lot of us might be out of a job!  Recently I completed my CIPR Internal Communications Certificate with PR Academy and for my final assignment I wanted to explore how storytelling can help drive change within an organisation.

So why tell stories?

A good starting point is to think about why we (humans) tell stories. A useful way is to break it into three categories. Understanding and Remembering, Empathy, and Forever.

Understanding and Remembering:   Stories help us Understand and Remember. The human mind in an attempt to understand and remember assembles the bits and pieces of experience into a story (O’Murchu cited in Ruck 2015).

Empathy:  Stories create Empathy – When we hear a story we begin to empathise with the person in the story as it is the closest thing we have to an actual experience (O’Murchu cited in Ruck 2015).

Forever:  Stories have been told Forever – Storytelling is a medium that has been part of human communication for millennia, and continue to play a critical role in the passing on of knowledge between generations.  (Gill 2011)

So that’s why we tell stories, but what about using stories in the internal communications arena?

The model approach

There are a number of published storytelling models out there and the skill is to have a browse and see which techniques are useful to your particular project at the time, just as Denning suggests:  there is no single right way to tell a story but that there are a number of narrative tools that can be used for different business purposes (Denning 2006 pg. 42).  Think of the storytelling models out there as a buffet that you’re free to pick and choose from depending on the situation. It’s about using what’s appropriate to what you’re trying to communicate. For example, you wouldn’t go running on a full stomach, but you might eat a banana an hour before.

Paul Smith for example believes that a good story needs to have three elements, a ContextAction and Result or CAR.  (Smith 2012). Quirke asserts that storytelling can be an effective tactic for communicators if we stick to his rule of three by communicating three reasons we are doing somethingthree things we are going to be doing, and three benefits (2017), and Kent in his essay “The power of storytelling in public relations: introducing the 20 master plots”, introduces Tobias’s 20 master plots which identify the 20 most commonly used storytelling plots (Tobias cited in Kent 2015) that can be picked and used depending on the type of story you want to tell.

All very useful models to consider, but they will only work if the context is appropriate.

Storytelling and change

I recently looked at a successful public sector change programme where a number of storytelling techniques had been used been utilised and sat centrally in all three phases of the programme. On average 87% of staff surveyed agreed that communications were timely and clear before, during and after the process across each phase and storytelling was a large factor.

For example Springboard storytelling (Denning 2006) was applied as a narrative technique in the form of two brief yet positive news stories that asked staff to imagine a better future with reference to previous similar success’s. Interestingly a central protagonist was used in these news stories which made partial use of Paul Smiths CAR (2012) framework with a senior leadership figure casting herself as a central character. At the bottom of each news story, she was quoted carefully explaining when the story was taking place, what the subject was, what she wanted to achieve and, what was getting in the way (Smith 2012). We can also site Tobias’s Quest story (Kent 2015) in that she was acting as a guide to staff through each step of the journey. This use of Paul Smith’s Context and elements of Tobias’s Quest master plot in combination with Denning’s Springboard Storytelling is a good example of when a combination of techniques can be successfully used.

It won’t work on its own…

While story telling is a brilliant weapon in any change arsenal, it’s important to understand that storytelling is just one set of tools that can drive change. For example we need to consider leadership voice, two way communication, and engagement alongside storytelling for a change programme to truly work and without utilising a number of techniques, storytelling might be less effective.

In summary, Storytelling alone won’t drive change but when used as a set of tools, in combination with other internal communication techniques and theories, it can certainly help to drive it.

Enjoy browsing the buffet…


References, learn more:

Denning, S., 2006., Effective storytelling: strategic business narrative techniques, Strategy and leadership; 34, 1 ABI/INFORM Global

Gill, R., 2011., An integrative review of storytelling – Using corporate stories to strengthen employee engagement and internal and external reputation. Prism (8)1:  (last visited March 2017)

Gill, R., 2011., Using storytelling to maintain employee loyalty during change, International  journal of business and social science Vol. 2 No 15; August 2011, Using storytelling to maintain employee loyalty during change.

Hallahan, K., 1999., Seven models of framing: Implications for public relations, Journal of public relations research, 11(3), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, USA

Kent, M., 2015., The power of storytelling in public relations: Introducing the 20 master plots, Public relations review 41,  Elsevier Inc, USA

Quirke, B., 2000., Making the connections – Using internal communication to turn strategy into action, Gower, England.

Quirke, B., 2017., Making the connections – Using internal communication to turn strategy into action, Taylor and Francis, England.

Ruck, K (ED)., 2015., Exploring internal communication – Towards informed employee voice, Gower, England

Schawbel, D., 2012., How to use storytelling as a leadership tool (interview with Paul Smith)  (last visited March 2017)

Smith., P., 2012., Lead with a story: A guide to crafting business narratives that captivate, convince and inspire, Agency/Distributed, England

Smith, L., with Mounter, P., 2005., Effective internal communication, Kogan Page, England

Spear, S., 2015.,The role of storytelling in co-creating a corporate brand with employees www://, England

Waddington, S., 2015., Chartered public relations – Lessons from expert practitioners, Kogan Page, England