Storytelling: The Modern Way to Increase Staff Motivation


A picture of a storytelling cartoon

Sean Spurgin of Blue Sky introduces us to storytelling and how it can be used to increase staff motivation in the contact centre.

Storytelling Changes Behaviour

Stories are our oldest technology. Since Homo Sapiens first sat around campfires eating roast mammoth, we’ve been using stories to share learning and create meaning for the world around us.

Stories help us feel a part of something larger than ourselves, give us a sense of purpose, and smuggle beliefs and information into our brains in an emotive and memorable way.

In other words, they’re naturally viral and a powerful tool for staff motivation.

How to Use Storytelling to Increase Staff Motivation

McKinsey research found that you’re 3.7 times more likely to succeed on a change journey if you have a clear and compelling story that people can attach themselves to, so telling tales is key to creating a revolution you can buy in to.

What you want to do here is build stories around a purpose, so that your people can get their heads around what you are trying to achieve, using metaphors and real-life examples that people can personally relate to.

Build stories around a purpose, so that your people can get their heads around what you are trying to achieve…

In the book “The Meaning Revolution: Leading with the Power of Purpose”, author Fred Kofman references McKinsey research, which found that leaders tell two types of stories to inspire their teams.

The first, the turnaround story, runs along the lines of: “We’re performing below industry standard and must change dramatically to survive — incremental change is not sufficient to attract investors to our underperforming company.”

The second, the good-to-great story goes something like this: “We are capable of far more, given our assets, market position, skills, and loyal staff, and can become the undisputed leader in our industry for the foreseeable future.”

The problem with both approaches is that the story centres on the company, and that will inspire some but by no means all employees.

The research showed that four other sources increase staff motivation by giving individuals a sense of meaning, including their ability to have an impact on:

  1. Society – For example, making a better society, building the community, helping people’s relationship at home flourish.
  2. The customer – For instance, making life easier and providing a human service.
  3. The team – For instance, a sense of belonging, a caring environment, or working together efficiently and effectively, building a safe and high-trust climate.
  4. Themselves – Examples include personal development, a sense of empowerment, worthwhile work, reducing stress.

If you’d prefer some quick tips to increase staff motivation, read our article: How to Motivate Staff in 25 Ways

10 Tips for Creating a Compelling Story

A good story is like a recipe – certain “ingredients” need to be part of the mix for it to be a success.

Here are some tips for how to build a compelling story for change and increase staff motivation in the process.

1. Take Time to Craft the Story Structure

It’s a changing world. What changes are impacting us?

Maybe it’s trust, customer expectations, regulation, information accessibility or the competitive landscape.

Whatever example you go for, this is a key question to ask when crafting your story, alongside others, such as:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where are we going? (What are we trying to achieve in terms of the big intent, the vision and the why?)
  • What can you expect from us to support you in living and breathing the new behaviours?
  • What will it bring? – for customers, for you, for us, for the business
  • Be passionate and positive (of course!)

2. Be as Direct as Possible

Don’t try to sound like Harvard Business Review and hide behind business jargon.

Imagine you’re reading your story to a friend who has nothing to do with the industry. Would they understand what you mean?

Imagine you’re reading your story to a friend who has nothing to do with the industry. Would they understand what you mean? Would they laugh at how stiff and pompous you sound?

Your story has to be as simple and direct as possible if it’s going to stick in people’s minds and become a powerful tool for staff motivation.

Use short sentences and avoid clichés, but the odd colloquialism (yep, honestly), down-to-earth metaphor (in the trenches, lip service) and emotive word (love, hate) is fine.

3. Ask: Is This Honest?

If you feel like you’re just writing a load of corporate justification, with no bearing on the actual reality you’re working in, stop. Think. Challenge yourself. Are you really being honest about the status quo, or are you trying to soften the blow?

Are some of the actions you’re asking your people to take going to be hard, and do you need to acknowledge that? Are you exaggerating for effect? Are you underplaying because it sounds scary?

Tweak until you’re 100% committed to the truth of what you’re writing, or they’ll just come across as hollow words.

4. Ask: Does This Excite Me?

You’re trying to influence people here; you should feel genuinely excited about your big ambition and the effect it’s going to have.

And that excitement should sing through your words – not by using lots of overblown adjectives (inspiring! empowered! brilliant!) but by laying out your vision in the simplest, boldest, most heartfelt way.

5. Twitter Pitch

If you really want to get maximum clarity, try summarizing your entire story in one hashtag, as if it was a marketing campaign.

Try summarizing your entire story in one hashtag, as if it was a marketing campaign.

What revolution are you trying to inspire in your people? What’s the essence of the change you’re trying to make or the result you want to achieve?

If you can condense your story into a memorable phrase, it’ll help clarify the rest.

6. Personalize the Story

Personalize your story. It needs to mean something to you and your people.

This is a key piece of advice for storytelling and increasing staff motivation, but we also need to abide by the principles in the bullet points below:

  • Be human, believable and authentic
  • Don’t hide behind a script or a slide deck
  • Paint a vivid word picture – give detail and background
  • Share how you felt before, during and after your own event
  • Consider what would be motivational to the person you’re talking to
  • Remember – your people will mirror your passion and energy, so bring lots to the journey

7. Be the Author of Your Own Story

All of us are living out our own personal stories every day.

Everything we experience and the decisions we make are interpreted through this lens and whether we see things as conflicting with, or supportive of, our unfolding story.

This lens has a huge impact on the places we choose to work and the way we choose to approach it.

8. Repaint the Story

Just because you have told the story it does not mean people have heard it or understood it. You won’t automatically increase staff motivation.

Great leaders will retell the story and repaint it continually. They coach others to tell the story in their own authentic way. They check in with people to see if they have understood the message, dispelling any myths along the way.

For more tips on being a becoming a great leader, read our article: How to Develop Team Leaders in the Contact Centre

9. Role Model

How many times have you heard: “Leaders in this business just pay lip service to customer service, saving money is more important.”

Many leaders are not proximate to their people so don’t even hear these stories, or they choose to ignore them, and some even contribute to them.

It is important to stand by your story. If it is: “Customers really matter to us,” and then you tell your people to rush off the phone due to service levels being low, guess what, people won’t believe you. It is only through actions people start believing the story.

10. Shift and Reframe

Great leaders also recognize that not everyone is going to be waxing lyrical about the direction of travel and they are skilled in shifting and reframing cynicism.

Meaning Makers dispel the myths and legends that arise and impact how connected people feel. They create a movement of followers who are truly connected to the work they do.

Creating such a movement through purpose is the most powerful way to intrinsically increase staff motivation.

The Problem You May Find With Storytelling

The problem is that many organizations don’t know how to make their employees feel a sense of meaning or purpose.

Inspirational visions, along the lines of Walt Disney’s “Make people happy” or Google’s “Organize the world’s information” have little relevance if you produce ball bearings or garage doors.

As an alternative, tell stories that touch not only on the internal workings of the company but also on the broader beneficial effects of the business on society, the customer and the employee. That’s the secret to increasing staff motivation.

Just Remember, Stories Travel Like Wildfire

Create the wrong story and it can break trust and take a long time to recover from.

In the absence of a story, myths and legends quickly become viral. You may hear an advisor say: “Did you hear John said we can only spend 3 minutes on the phone, or we will get in trouble.”

It is the leader’s role to dispel these myths, which will only serve to negatively impact staff motivation.

Leadership stories can get inside people’s minds and hearts and affect how they think, worry, wonder, agonize and dream about themselves, and in the process they create – and recreate – their organization.

Having a compelling purpose is not enough, you must find a meaningful way to communicate it to others…

But having a compelling purpose is not enough, you must find a meaningful way to communicate it to others, so that it is more than just a series of random thoughts. That won’t improve staff motivation.

Change won’t happen simply because of creating a story. You have to bring the story to life. Leaders need to live by the words: only through your behaviour and actions will people start to believe and hope.

So, find your own story, figure out what is your purpose. Connect people to the ‘why’. Tell the story with passion and enthusiasm every single day.

If you’re doing it right you should start to feel like a broken record!

Final Thoughts

Great leaders recognize the benefit of storytelling and are fanatical about creating meaning for people.

They do this regardless of the company they work for; you don’t have to be a doctor to find meaning in the work people do!

In the great companies, leaders build and cascade their compelling story. Not just the “what and how”, but the “WHY”.

Connecting people to why the company exists is something greater than just the task and this makes people feel the job they do is purposeful.

Thanks to Sean Spurgin, Director of Learning Design at Blue Sky, for sharing this article with us.

For more on the topic of increasing staff motivation, read our articles:

Published On: 2nd Apr 2020 - Last modified: 6th Apr 2020
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