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The Power of Storytelling to Drive Change

In charge of change? Know when to use storytelling and when to stick to facts to help make your transformation a success.

Leaders everywhere are facing another round of difficult decisions that will have a direct impact on company culture, the employee experience, how they recruit and retain top talent, and ultimately, their business’s bottom line.

But employees are already feeling overwhelmed and burnt out – many even opting to leave their jobs in favor of flexible working options. And at a time when retaining talent and maintaining engagement and productivity is so key to success, it’s critical that leaders are clearly articulating the why behind their decisions, the vision for the future, and how it will affect employees’ day-to-day experience.

Right now, people are craving human connection – real human connection. They want to hear and see authenticity and empathy from their leaders. And while there are many ways to achieve this, storytelling is a powerful tool that can help create lasting change and belief in the future.

The psychology behind storytelling

Neuroscience tells us that the human brain is hardwired to respond to stories. By engaging the brain in different ways than data does, stories lead to deeper connections and greater retention of information. Stories appeal to how we process information and connect people on an emotional and rational level – eliciting understanding and belief.

If crafted and shared correctly, storytelling is a powerful tool to use during times of change and uncertainty. Stories have the ability to create belief in a change and help to shift skeptics into advocates – creating a groundswell of support for change. Most importantly, stories can motivate people into action and keep people on course when the change gets hard or when we don’t have all the answers.

For example, when one of our clients announced major changes to their ways of working as part of their future of work strategy, not all employees took the news well. We helped our client create a storytelling initiative that featured employees and leaders across the organization who were embracing the change. This shifted perceptions and made people realize that there were positives about the change and there was a reason to believe in the future direction of the company.

But not all stories are created equal when it comes to change.

As people go through change, their mental and emotional state, mood, perceptions and motivations shift. Different types of stories have a different impact, which depends on what stage of the change journey people are at.

The first stage of the change journey is often shock or surprise. The task for leaders at this stage is to help employees understand where the organization is going and why without overwhelming people with details. Visual stories can paint a picture of the future and allow people to visualize what it looks like without getting caught up in how they’re going to get there.

Beyond the initial shock of change, confusion, anger, frustration, and fear are common emotional responses that people have as they try to grapple with what the change means for them and their day-to-day experience. Acknowledging that negative feelings around change are normal – but can be overcome – is key at this stage. When a leader shares a story about their personal experience of going through change (warts and all!) it can be really powerful. Showing a vulnerable side, and not sugar-coating the hardships that come with change, will resonate with people and help them see how to move forward.

There may be times when avoiding stories and sticking to the facts is actually more beneficial.

A recent study on organizational behavior found that where emotional engagement is high for the audience (e.g., personal involvement in the change or perceived threat due to change), stories are more powerful than data. However, in situations where emotional engagement is relatively low (e.g., change doesn’t have a direct impact on the individual), sticking to facts may be more powerful in engaging people around the change.

People’s emotional responses to change are very different depending on where they are on the change journey. So, the most effective communication and storytelling approach will change too. Think about how you can use storytelling to help influence positive change in your organization, by understanding where people are on their change journeys and what might help them move towards the future.

Becky is an Associate Principal at Daggerwing Group. She specializes in managing organizational change, with a people and engagement focus. She works with organizations, teams and individuals to plan, manage, and embed lasting change. Becky’s work has included supporting organizations with mergers and acquisitions, organizational transformation, system reform, culture change and operating model design. She has experience working with a broad range of public and private organizations across government, pharmaceutical, education, professional and financial services, retail, utilities and automotive. Becky’s favorite way to spend her spare time is a long country walk followed by an even longer pub lunch and a glass of red wine by the fire.