Employer Branding – A story at a time

Imagine this is 1992, you are a 2nd year student and you have just received a 5 page letter from a friend who is one batch senior to you. Your friend has just spent the first 2 months of an 18 month training program at one of the leading FMCG companies in the country. A few excerpts from that letter read…

…places that cannot be covered by direct distribution e.g. small villages are covered by cinema vans. These vans are used as propaganda vehicles in order to increase awareness of our products. I have been working with one such van since yesterday. The villages we have covered are over 100 kms from Gorakhpur. During the day we went to two villages where we setup stalls and used a loudspeaker to run ad jingles. We have now stopped for lunch under a tree and the driver and helper are cooking lunch. This evening, like yesterday, we will setup a screen in one of the villages where we will be showing a ‘chitrahar’ type film song reel interspersed with our ads. All this is such a fantastic experience….

….last two weeks were extra strenuous because after returning from a full day at the market, my trainers came to the hotel and took classroom courses everyday till midnight. Two days the sessions went on till about 3.30/4.00am. Now I know why this training program is so famous. The amount of time my trainers are willing to spend on me (for no benefit of their own) is incredible. This is definitely not a job. I have really enrolled myself in a school of marketing funded by soaps and detergents….

Now imagine the next day at campus where a competing company is holding a pre-placement talk. Some very senior managers in natty suits make a presentation. They start with telling you about the vision, mission and values of the company. They share last year’s results and the next 5 years plan to become the fastest growing FMCG company in India. They also talk about the fact that they have brought all their global best practices for trainee induction into the program they have designed for India. They assert that the induction program is very well designed and that the foundation they give on field sales and marketing is second to none. They finish by reminding you that in your marketing bible written by Philip Kotler, no other company has as many mentions as they have.

You now have a choice to make. Are you going to apply for a job at the company your senior works (the one who wrote the letter) or the competitor ?

The above excerpts are from a 5 page letter I had written after my first two months as a management trainee at what was those days called Hindustan Lever Limited. Even as you were reading the story, something fascinating was happening in both our brains. The neurons lit up and followed a similar pattern, a phenomenon called ‘speaker-listener neural coupling’. That is the difference between the power of a story and the power of assertions. Assertions aren’t often credible and can never connect to the core of an individual. Stories do. Hearing a story is as close as the listener can get to a first hand experience of watching the event in real life. The conclusion that the listener then draws for himself is almost unshakeable and far more powerful than the assertions.

Apart from the credibility of a story and the power it has to let listeners come to their own conclusion, stories harness two other powers – stories are memorable and stories are repeatable. It is this memorability and repeatability that lends to the spread. When was the last time you heard a student get out of a pre-placement talk and talk about the values, beliefs and the five key takeaways the next day ? Well structured and well narrated stories will get told over and over again.

Many companies have understood that employee speak is a powerful way to convey a message to both the prospective employee world to attract them and to the current employees to cement their beliefs about the company. But what most of these are getting wrong is that employees asserting that the company listens, the company empowers, the company has an open culture is again never as credible as when employees let stories about their experience of the same and let the listener come to the conclusion.

Many of these companies even label the videos as ‘employee stories’ as stories slowly seems to have become a new management buzzword. In the last few weeks I have watched 50 videos on company websites and company YouTube channels and of these only 6 are actually stories. Even though almost all of them have the word ‘story’ on the label. Just calling something a story doesn’t make it a story. Assertions definitely don’t make it a story.

According to Shawn Callahan and Mark Schenk, who run one of the world’s leading business storytelling companies, there are five elements that are essential ingredients for a story.

  • Stories usually start with one of two ways: with a Time Marker or a Place Marker. Most oral stories start with Time Markers. So if you hear some say “On Tuesday…” or “A few months ago…” or “In 1992….”. there is a good chance you will hear a story.
  • Stories are always about something happening – a causal sequence of events. This event followed this event which resulted in that event. Good stories help you see what’s happening. Great stories help you feel what’s happening.
  • If you hear people’s names, and in particular if you hear dialogues, then you know you are in a story.
  • And it isn’t a story unless something unanticipated happens. A story is a promise to the listener that they will learn something new. It has to contain something that is at least a little unexpected.

While I often like to leave the story at this stage and let the listener make the obvious conclusion, often people are more comfortable in making sure the message is clear and driven home and for that the fifth element is

  • A relevance statement. Why am I telling you this story ? What is the business point you are making. The story might even be prefaced with this point, e.g. “The leaders in this company really care about the well being of the employees”. The rest of the story then illustrates this.

So how does one go about collecting these stories from employees ? In the work I do, in order to collect stories we run something we call anecdote circles – group discussions designed to elicit stories. Unfortunately, the question “Tell me a story about leaders caring for employees…” is unlikely to lead to the story. This is because we have been conditioned, in business, to give our opinion. “The sales are down because…”, “our project needs more resources because…” etc etc. To elicit stories we use questions that take people to a moment in time where they experienced the same.

Since stories are best told orally, we would video record them and push them out into the ether through the various channels available to the company.

So my invitation to you is to go ahead, collect and share stories and see for yourself the power of stories as it send the attractiveness of your company soaring.

(This piece was published in the People Matters Magazine, July 2017)

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