Editor's note: We first shared this story almost a year ago, but it's message is worth repeating: Tell a story!
"If you want to control a message, you need to tell a story. If you want to create change, you must tell a story."
That was the message that Justina Chen, an author of books
for young adults and formerly executive communications manager at
Microsoft, had for an audience of communicators at Ragan's Role of Communications in Creating Best Places to Work conference
at SAS headquarters. Rather than labeling yourselves communicators, she
told them, think of yourselves as storytellers.
Why is storytelling so important? Citing research from John
Medina's "Brain Rules," Chen said stories that evoke strong emotions
help people transfer information from short-term memory to long-term
memory. People tune out to speeches every eight minutes or so; stories
pull them back in.
Chen detailed ways communicators can become better
storytellers themselves, and can turn their managers and executives into
better storytellers, too. Here are seven of the biggest transformation
1. Build myths.
Myths are the foundation of storytelling, Chen said, and
they live on through stories about heroic journeys such as the Harry
Potter books or "The Lord of the Rings." She told the audience to look
for heroic journeys in their own companies.
"We are so focused on the news cycle stories," she said, but storytellers should also focus on foundational stories.
One example she gave was of an insurance company that laid
off an entire department, then spent six months looking for ways to
place those people in other jobs. It was hard, but it was worth doing.
"That's great mythology," she said.
2. Consider your intentions.
"I refuse to write a single word for any client until we are
on the same page, until I really understand what their intention is,"
Chen said. "What do they really want the audience to feel, think, and
She said knowing your intentions and what you want the
audience to feel from the beginning is important because you might end
up telling the wrong story.
For example, Chen said she used to tell at-risk students her
own story about moving to Australia at age 23 and hearing racist
comments. Often, that story would result in an emotional response from
the students, in the form of shared anger over racism.
"This is not the emotion I want," she said. "I need inspiration."
So Chen tailored the story to get that emotion. She replaced
her Australia story with one about her own children sending letters
about their favorite book to Will Smith, asking him to make a movie out
of it. The author of the book responded, saying Smith was meeting with a
screenwriter about that very book when he received the letters.
3. Find the superstars.
Identify 10 superstars within your company—you know who they
are—and get to know them. The best way to do that, Chen said, is to ask
them for a one-hour interview. Ask for their personal stories, and
learn all about them. Once you really know them, ask them to keep you
posted any time big news happens. You'll be loaded with stories. Plus,
if you're writing communications on behalf of those superstars, you'll
be able to add touches of his or her personality into all his/her
speeches, blog posts, or memos.
Chen also suggests asking everyone you interview for the names of three people you ought to interview next.
4. Find the soul keeper of your company.
Someone at your company is the person who injects what you
do with personality and soul. Be sure to interview that person, because
the soul is what brings in customers.
"People want to do business with companies they believe in,"
Chen said. "They want to have a relationship with a company that has
soul, that has heart, that are great global citizens, that can change
the world for the better."
5. Be a magpie.
Magpies collect shiny objects and bring them back to their
nests. You should do that, too. Shiny objects—photographs, prototypes,
quotes, props, and so on—make your stories better.
When you use one of those objects, which Chen calls
artifacts, make sure the people who created them know about it. If an
executive gives a speech mentioning such an object, make sure he or she
emails the creator to tell them, Chen says.
6. Be fearless.
Stories can come from anyone, in any position, at any time. You have to make sure you have the freedom to get those stories.
How can you do that? By winning over your managers and
executives in your company, Chen said. Make them believers in the power
of storytelling with research (from sources such as "Brain Rules") and
7. Embrace chaos.
Don't be afraid to ask a crazy question. If a story looks
like it's going in a weird direction, follow it. That's where the best
stories come from, Chen said.
"It's always easier to ratchet back," she said.