How to use storytelling in HR to attract and retain top talent | The long-read

Charlotte Nicol
Published on 19th September 2019
7 min read

Storytelling – it’s a skill we use every single day without even realizing it.

For instance: “I went to the mini mart to buy a loaf of bread. But they had sold out. So, I went to the bakery instead.”

This short quote contains a premise, a conflict and a resolution: the three pillars of storytelling.

While buying bread isn’t exactly the most gripping story – it’s got nothing on Aladdin or Pride and Prejudice, has it? It goes to show how simple it can be.

People naturally engage with strong, compelling stories so, storytelling could make the difference when it comes to attracting and retaining top talent.

Applying techniques in Marketing to HR and recruitment

Storytelling is also an approach used in Marketing – an area HR and People professionals are increasingly looking to in order to help win in the war for talent.

In fact, we’ve blogged before about the role of People Marketing, in attracting and retaining top talent. Quite simply, organizations can no longer just post available positions on a job board and wait for the applications to roll in.

In today’s competitive landscape, progressive people-focused companies must find use new ways to attract top talent.

Brand loyalty, a clear message and emotional resonance all stand to be gained through storytelling techniques in Marketing.

Progressive HR leaders and recruitment teams can stand to gain the exact same in their recruitment and retention strategies.

Let’s look at three lessons HR can learn from storytelling in this way.

Chapter 1: What HR leaders can learn from the 7 types of plot

The first thing HR and People leaders can learn from tactics in storytelling is to adopt a clear plot. The author Christopher Booker wrote that all stories can be condensed down into seven basic plots.

1. Overcoming the monster (example: Star Wars)

The hero must go on an adventure to rid the world of evil. Along the way, they face many challenges and learn some valuable lessons.

2. Rags to riches (example: Aladdin)

In this story, the hero starts at the bottom and works their way to the top – learning a few interesting lessons along the way.

3. The Quest (example: The Odyssey)

The hero’s objective is to make it to a certain place. Perhaps they are going in search of treasure. Whatever the case, the journey is beset with all sorts of perils.

4. Voyage and return (example: Alice in Wonderland)

The hero finds themselves trapped in a world they must escape from. Now they are fighting for their freedom.

5. Comedy (example: Much Ado About Nothing)

No matter what the hero tries, they just can’t seem to make sense of things. The more they fail, the more ludicrous things become until, finally, something happens, and it all makes sense.

6. Tragedy (example: Romeo and Juliet)

The tragic hero has a major character flaw that ultimately proves to be their undoing.

7. Death and rebirth (example: A Christmas Carol)

The hero is forced to see things from a different perspective. Just as they are on the verge of tragedy, finally the lessons they have learned sink in – and the hero changes their ways for good.

Example: Oxfam and ‘overcoming the monster’

As a charity, Oxfam relies on storytelling to make its company mission statement heard. Their slogan is ‘We won’t live with poverty’, and in their storytelling, they make poverty out to be a big, bad monster that they must destroy.

In Oxfam’s story, poverty throws all sorts of challenges at them – from natural disasters, to stopping children access education, to creating inequality for women.

Yet Oxfam rises to fight the beast by calling on their supporters to give aid. Their ultimate aim is to stop poverty once and for all, and everything they do is with this objective in mind.

This message isn’t just clear to the public, but also to employees.

Oxfam asks employees and candidates to help in the fight against poverty. As an employer, they market how employees can do this. ‘Saving lives is all in a day’s work’ is their ultimate message to candidates.

Lesson: Ask yourself what story and plot are you trying to tell employees and candidates?

Knowing the seven types of plots makes it much easier to approach storytelling. What kind of story are you trying to tell?

What challenges you trying to overcome? Knowing what your story is, is the first basic step for effective storytelling in recruitment and retention strategies.

Chapter 2:  The three-act structure

Earlier, we used the example of purchasing bread to show you the three-act structure: premise, conflict, resolution. Ultimately, all stories can be boiled down to this basic structure. It goes like this.

In the premise, the author establishes the world. There is a problem that the hero is motivated to fix. This leads us to…

The conflict, where the hero goes in search of the answer and find themselves in an unfamiliar environment.

Finally, after facing the conflict head-on, the hero discovers the resolution. This is where they must take all the lessons they have learned and apply them, to save themselves, their friends, and the world.

The three-act structure is a useful tool in corporate storytelling, too. Are you trying to change the world for the better? What conflicts do you face, and how do you overcome them?

Example: How Google is putting information in the palm of our hands

Google is an excellent storyteller. Every year, they release their ‘year in search’ videos that tell the story of the past 12 months in terms of data gathered from their search engine. The things people were searching for tell the story of our world.

Even at their very core, though, Google has a strong story which it has been telling since day one. Their mission has always been to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useable”. To that end, they continue to improve their search engine daily. Or, in terms of the three-act structure…

Premise: The world is full of information, but it’s hard to find what you’re looking for, quickly.

Conflict: Disappointed that they couldn’t find the data they needed, Google created a search engine. Now, new information is created daily, so Google keeps updating their search engine in order to keep up.

Resolution: Google celebrate the end of every successful year with a retrospective video – and then, it’s on to another year of searching.

Lesson: Tell your story to prospects, candidates and employees with a clear resolution

Employees who feel they have a clear mission in their organization are 54% more likely to stay at a company for five years or more, and 30% more likely to become high performers.

Ultimately, companies and teams who are working towards a shared vision and purpose have employees who are significantly more engaged and productive.

Can all your employees explain in a sentence what their company’s mission or goal is? Does it come across clearly to candidates? Do you make it part of your candidates’ experiences through the interview and onboarding process?

If not, it’s time to start thinking about how you can communicate this more clearly, at every stage of the employee journey.

Chapter 3: The hero’s journey

The three-act structure is useful when you want to tell a story, but it lacks the element that makes storytelling truly relatable: a human perspective.

The reason we connect with stories is because we are fascinated with other human beings. We see ourselves reflected in the characters of every story we read. We imagine ourselves facing their challenges, making their mistakes and even falling in love like they do.

Professor Joseph Campbell coined the ‘hero’s journey’, a structure which is consistent across almost all great stories.

He splits the hero’s journey into 17 stages, which can be briefly summarized like so – as you read, try to imagine your favorite story, like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

The 17 stages are: The call to adventure; refusing the call; meeting the mentor; crossing the threshold; belly of the whale; the road of trials; meeting the goddess; the temptation; atonement with the abyss; ‘ego death’; the treasure; refusing the return; the magic flight; rescue; crossing the return threshold; master of two worlds; and, finally, freedom.

Examples: The hero’s journey in action

That’s a pretty long list of tropes that you can expect to find in a major story. As a storyteller, though, you needn’t tell the whole story in 17 stages – you can pick and choose the bits that suit you.

You could think, for instance, about who your company’s mentor is. Is it a famous person, a philosopher or a figure from history? There’s a reason Elon Musk named his car company Tesla.

Think about the road of trials your company has faced, too. How has each trial proven your company’s character? When Nintendo’s Wii U console didn’t sell as well as hoped the CEO, Satoru Iwata, took a huge pay-cut rather than make any redundancies – that showed Nintendo’s character as an honorable company.

Lesson: Personalize and humanize experiences for employees throughout the employment journey

How do you communicate your company’s journey – in other words, if your company is the hero, at what stage of their journey is it at?

Do your employees feel that your company is a human or people-focused company? As with everything, employees aren’t going to respond if your approach isn’t authentic and personalized.

Different employees have different priorities – so it’s up to you to tell your story in a way that resonates with every employee on a personal level, no matter what drives them.

A good way to do this is to include a range of characters in your story. Think about the people throughout history who have influenced and helped your company to grow, and what backgrounds they came from.

If the employee doesn’t identify with the hero themselves, they may still identify with one of these people, which will make them feel like they have a place in the story.

How HR and People teams can use storytelling

Now that you know the secrets of storytelling, it’s easy to weave these techniques into your recruitment and retention programs.

Firstly, consider the easy wins like your external channels such as your career page or Glassdoor page. Do they feature a strong story?

You could go back in time to tell the story of your company from day one – who founded it, and why? What was their mission and how has the company helped to change the world? More importantly, what role does great talent play in that story?

This should be reflected in all messages to prospects, candidates and employees. You want every employee to understand what your company’s story is, and what resolution you’re striving towards.

Secondly, and most importantly, it’s vital to tell your story to employees at every touchpoint throughout the employment journey. By making your story resonate at every touchpoint, you can help employees to feel like they are part of it. They are on the journey with you.

Relate messages and updates back to your company’s story. Let your employees know that without them, they won’t be able to achieve their ultimate mission.

Is storytelling the next chapter for HR and People teams?

As more and more People teams adopt marketing techniques into their recruitment and engagement strategies, it’s likely we’ll see an increasing number of companies using storytelling approaches to attract and keep top talent.

Are you ready to turn the page and start using storytelling in your programs?

Discover more about what really drives your workforce. Download our research from 3,500 employees ‘Why your workforce isn’t working’.

How to effectively navigate HR issues this Christmas | Infographic

Browse more topics from this article

Workforce Experience

You're losing the war for talent