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Ep 438: The Power Of Storytelling

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Effective storytelling is a crucial part of hiring, flowing through recruitment marketing, employer branding, assessment and onboarding but does your organisation have a strategy that sits behind it? Knowing what kind of stories to tell and how and where to tell them is something that brings a considerable competitive advantage. So how can we all get better at telling our stories compellingly and effectively?

My go-to storytelling expert is journalist, writer and tech entrepreneur Shane Snow. I’m delighted to welcome him back to the show to do a deep dive into storytelling strategy. In a world of challenging talent markets and virtual hiring processes, this interview is a must listen for everyone.

In the interview, we discuss:

• Why business storytelling is important and what it can achieve

• The four elements of a great story

• Storytelling in employer branding and recruiting

• The three different types of business story

• Why should people care?

• How and where do you tell a story?

• Weaving storytelling into every piece of communication •

Interview transcript:

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Paradox: The AI assistant for recruiting (40s):
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Matt Alder (1m 5s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to episode 438 of the Recruiting Future Podcast. Effective storytelling is a crucial part of hiring flowing through recruitment, marketing, employer, branding, assessment, and onboarding, but does your organisation have a strategy that sits behind it? Knowing what kind of stories to tell and how and where to tell them is something that brings a considerable competitive advantage. So how can we all get better at telling our stories compellingly and effectively? My go-to storytelling expert is journalist writer and tech entrepreneur, Shane Snow. I’m delighted to welcome him back to the show to do a deep dive into storytelling strategy.

Matt Alder (1m 49s):
In a world of challenging talent markets and virtual hiring processes, this interview is a must listen for everyone. Hi, Shane, and welcome back to the podcast.

Shane Snow (1m 59s):
Hey, it’s great to be back. I can’t believe that so much has happened since we last spoke, but it’s lovely to hear your voice and to be back on.

Matt Alder (2m 8s):
Absolutely. And it doesn’t feel like that long ago, but I think it was back during the first lockdown when, yeah, things felt very different to the way that they feel now. For people who may not have heard the previous episodes that you’ve been on or come across your work before, could you just introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do?

Shane Snow (2m 29s):
Sure. My name is Shane Snow. I am a journalist and writer, first and foremost, and I’ve found myself starting a couple of technology companies over the years. So I started out writing about business and technology for WIRED magazine, Mashable, Fast Company, other places like that. And then in studying great teams, great innovative companies and how they built what they built. I was inspired to build some things of my own and in the course of building my own companies, I have kept coming back to wanting to write. My passion is storytelling and understanding people, finding those stories, and telling them.

Shane Snow (3m 12s):
And so over the years, I’ve written a few books about innovation and storytelling and teamwork, which are kind of my three topics and written for a whole bunch of places, has gotten into screenwriting and making content for television. And then back again into business. So been in a couple of different worlds, but always on the theme of writing business and technology.

Matt Alder (3m 33s):
Absolutely. And storytelling to me is just so critical right now for businesses, with everything that’s going on, particularly critical in terms of talent acquisition. And we can sort of get to that as we go through the conversation. What I’ve always really liked about your work is really kind of bringing the elements of great storytelling to business and doing that in a really, really interesting way. Tell us a little bit more about why storytelling is so important to business and what it can achieve.

Shane Snow (4m 7s):
Yeah. So if you look at the history of humans, there are a lot of things that we can do better than other animals. And that’s why we’ve kind of taken over the planet. And some of them are obvious. We can speak. We can communicate. You know, we can collaborate. There are lots of features that we have that make us very well equipped to work together and to build things. We’re also very smart, you know, compared to dogs and cats and everything else. But one of the things that we’re uniquely capable of that has been key to our success as a species and certainly as societies and communities is storytelling. And there’s a couple of things that are part of that.

Shane Snow (4m 49s):
One is before we can even communicate with a written word, we use stories to pass down knowledge. And stories, it turns out are very great ways to remember things. So our brains will latch onto information when we hear it in the form of a story. And stories also, they cause these effects in our brains that basically make us care about things, one thing or another. So you hear a story about someone and, you know, what they’ve been through. You will find yourself caring more about that person or caring more about the thing they went through than if you just, you know, sort of see the facts on paper. And this is the shortest sort of science and history lesson about storytelling of all the time, but that’s essentially what’s going on.

Shane Snow (5m 34s):
Stories help us remember, they make us care, and you look at the history of mankind and that’s been a thing forever. We get people motivated to do things that are hard because we tell stories about why it’s important. And it really is about getting our brains to respond in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise with other information. And so the reason this is interesting for business is businesses want to build relationships. They want people to remember them and to know about what they’re doing to want to do business with them. And they want people to care. And storytelling is this mechanism that since the beginning of humanity has been something we’ve used to make people care, make people remember to build relationships.

Shane Snow (6m 14s):
And so when you look at companies that have very great loyalty or, you know, people remember them, think about them often when they have a need or whatever it is, they tend to be companies that are very good at telling stories about who they are, what they care about, who their customers are, how their products came about or what they stand for. So there’s all sorts of ways you can do this, but that’s the pattern. Businesses are great at building relationships and making people remember and care, use stories as part of their whole strategy for communicating with the world.

Matt Alder (6m 47s):
Before we sort of dig into that in a bit more detail, talk us through the key elements of a great story. What’s the theory behind it? What’s the structure? How does it work?

Shane Snow (6m 59s):
So there’s four that I tend to talk about. You can kind of parse the pieces of a great story, a lot of different ways, but the way that I like to break it down. The first element of a great story is relatability. Some people would say familiarity, but something that the audience, the listener, the viewer, whoever it is, can latch onto that kind of tells them this relates to me or someone in my life somehow. So relatability. It’s about starting the story off with characters who, yeah, you can relate to, who appealed to you in some way that gets your attention, makes you want to pay attention to that versus something, you know, a story that’s about someone that you could never relate to and would never care about.

Shane Snow (7m 43s):
It’s harder to get you on board. Now, good stories can get you on board with someone you’ve never cared about, but they need to get you onboard first so that you can get there if that makes sense. So relatability is the first one. The second one is novelty. So our brains are wired to pay extra attention to things that are new and kind of going back to sort of crude prehistoric science lessons. If something was running at you in caveman times, and you’d never seen it before your brain was going to pay extra attention to it because it was either something that you could eat or that might eat you and you needed to pay attention. And so novelty, new things that we encounter tend to light up our brains.

Shane Snow (8m 25s):
And that is part of what triggers this memory and attention thing that relatability also triggers. So a good story will take those two things and say, to get someone to even, you know, want to consider engaging with this, we need something for them to relate to. A character that’s like them or a theme that is, you know, reminiscent of something that’s going on in their life, whatever that is. And then you need to quickly take them to somewhere new, show them something that’s novel that gets them to really pay attention. I always use Star Wars as the example. You know, I write about that a lot. I speak about that a lot, but if you’ve ever seen, you know, the original Star Wars movies, there’s a scene where the main characters end up in this bar where there’s a bunch of aliens playing flutes like these weird bald aliens with like huge eyes and they’re playing flutes.

Shane Snow (9m 16s):
And if Star Wars had started there at that very novel, very bizarre scene, a lot of people would have walked out of the theater, but where Star Wars starts is with this kid who is, you know, he’s basically trying to get out of the house. He has a dream. He wants to be a pilot. He wants to go places, but he’s stuck working on a farm. And that is a much more relatable place to start the story cause we’ve all been kids wanting to leave home or at least a lot of us have. And so starting there with a character you can relate to that gets you on board with the journey and the intentions and desires that he has. And eventually, that kid ends up at this weird bar with the aliens playing flutes. And at that point you’re on board and the flute aliens get your attention and keep you going.

Shane Snow (9m 60s):
But it’s because that relatability was where you started. So those are the first two. The third element of great storytelling I say is tension. And it’s essentially the gap between what characters wants, what their intentions are, and the obstacles in the way of that. So, you know, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, he wants to be a pilot. He wants to leave home. He has a dream. The obstacles, the tension are his aunt and uncle want to make him work on the farm for about a year. And then eventually there’s bad guys trying to, you know, take over the planet and they burn the village down. And all of these things that get in the way of him living his dream, that tension is what makes for a great story.

Shane Snow (10m 39s):
I always talk about Jack and Jill, that nursery rhyme Jack and Jill went up the hill, like the worst love story would be the love story about Jack and Jill. They were friends. They were next-door neighbors, and they grew up and they got married and lived happily ever after. That story has no tension in it. But the tension in, you know, a love story like Romeo and Juliet is Romeo and Juliet, they also grew up as neighbors, but their families hated each other. They were forbidden to see each other, but they love each other anyway. They were willing to die for each other. That tension makes it a great story that we remember much more than the Jack and Jill story that’s boring. So the third element of great storytelling, as I see it is that tension, intention and obstacles to getting what your intention is.

Shane Snow (11m 24s):
And then the fourth thing that I like to add in which I think is particularly useful for business storytelling is basically the idea of making it easy on the audience. You know, I call it fluency. Like if you are speaking a language and you are fluent, people can understand you very easily. And I think a good story is like that. If you’re using such big words and such confusing structure that you sound smart, but it is harder for other people process what you are saying, even if they can process what you’re saying, it takes you out of the story. You know, that kind of the emotional reaction, you get to a great story that makes you care.

Shane Snow (12m 4s):
You get kicked out of that if it’s very difficult to wrap your head around. And so those four things relatability, novelty, tension, and fluency are, for me, the key things that if you are telling any kind of story. You’re a writer writing a novel, you’re writing an episode of TV, or you’re just sharing a story at dinner. Or if you’re a company trying to tell your company’s story or the story of your customers, you can weave those things in. So say you’re telling the story of how people are successful with your product. Start with the story of someone who your customers can relate to. You know, so-and-so had this problem just like you do, and that’s relatable.

Shane Snow (12m 45s):
And, you know, the tension was they wanted to get rid of this problem, but there were all these obstacles with the novel thing. They encountered was our products and here’s all the reasons why it was surprisingly effective. And then make sure that you make that easy on people. Those kinds of stories tend to work very well in business. There’s a million permutations of that, but that’s the basic idea. Those sort of four underlying principles weaving them into whatever story, rather than just saying our product’s great. You should buy it. People love it. That’s not nearly as captivating as something that follows those four principles.

Matt Alder (13m 19s):
Do you have an example of a particular company or business who’s really good at this and is creating stories within that framework?

Shane Snow (13m 27s):
So one that comes to mind right away and there’s lots of great examples out there. And, you know, I read about this a lot and you know, and teach about this. But one example that I love is the story of Shinola the watch and kind of a luxury goods brand in Detroit. So this is a company that when they started like a decade ago now probably, they saw that the auto industry in Detroit was having a lot of trouble, you know, was during like that really hard time. Maybe it was 15 years ago. Now, something like that. But the auto industry was having a lot of trouble.

Shane Snow (14m 6s):
A lot of workers in Detroit were losing their jobs. These were people who were very good craftspeople, good with their hands, good with metal, with leather, with, you know, they’re making car seats and car parts and engines, and all of that. These people are losing their jobs and Detroit is suffering. The economy is in bad shape. All these amazing factories and buildings and resources and talent, but it’s hard times. And so Shinola, they launched this company to start taking those workers and their skills and making things other than cars. So they started making watches and bicycles and record players and fancy leather wallets, and, you know, fancy leather-bound notebooks. And you can now find Shinola stores kind of in every major city you walk in and they’re awesome.

Shane Snow (14m 51s):
The design is fantastic. The craftsmanship is fantastic. I have a Shinola watch that I love. Actually, I have a record player, also my best friend and I, we got matching Shinola watches and they’re so great. These products are fantastic, but the company tells the story of, we wanted to make this company and make these awesome products because we wanted to put people in our city in Detroit to work. I mean, we wanted to use the skills that we had as a community to give people jobs and to make things that people love. And it’s so much more powerful of a story than our watches are great. Look at how fancy they are, you know.

Shane Snow (15m 33s):
Look at how high quality they are. When you add in that story of, you know, Detroit’s on hard times so there’s all these people who have these great craft skills. And we created this company with the mission of, you know, making awesome things with them that you want to buy that watch more than just a watch that looks similar and seems nice. Even if the Shinola watch is more expensive than one that looks similar and seems nice, you want to buy it because you care already about these people that I’ve just told you about. Even you hearing this story third hand, you know, on the podcast here, anyone who’s listening to this, hearing me tell the story that they told like Shinola. Yeah, next time you see a billboard for them where you see a Shinola store when you’re walking down the street, you’re going to be more inclined to check it out because you’ve heard that story.

Shane Snow (16m 18s):
It’s going to stick with you. You might forget the name of it until you see the name there on that store sign. And then you’ll be more likely to walk in. But that’s an example I love.

Matt Alder (16m 28s):
Yeah, I’m already Googling it to find out more. It’s so interesting what you’re saying there about, you know, really, really making that company and their brand stand out and get people interested and persuade them that this is something that they really want. We’re at a point now in the recruiting market employers all over the world in so many different sectors are struggling to find talent, to find people to come and work for them and move their businesses forward. And to me, storytelling is the absolute key to this in terms of how they can make themselves stand out, how they can persuade people to effectively be part of their story and move and come and work for them.

Matt Alder (17m 22s):
How powerful do you think storytelling can be in things like employer branding and recruiting?

Shane Snow (17m 29s):
I think it’s the thing that makes a difference, especially right now. In a normal environment where there’s, you know– If the workers who are looking for jobs are the ones who have fewer options than companies don’t need to stand out as much. They just need to offer you money. And, you know, a stable job, but in an environment where workers have more choice where there’s more competition, and where it’s harder for the companies to get the kind of talent they want, then those companies need to stand out. They need to get people’s attention. They need to get people to want to care about their company to actually want to work for them, you know, beyond just the paycheck and, you know, when people are exploring all of the options they have, you would need to get people to remember you after they’ve done that exploration, you know, want to come back to you as a company.

Shane Snow (18m 22s):
So these are all things that I’m sort of phrasing it this way, because I’m trying to point back to the things that I’ve been talking about, you know, as a recruiter, you want people to remember you, you want people to care about your company and you want to get their attention. You know, you want to stand out. And so storytelling, I think is one of the best things that you can do as a company, as a recruiter, to get people, yeah, to apply or to lean in, or to consider you over other people they’ve applied to. It’s, you know, easier said than done but I think there’s a couple of, I like to think about business storytelling or telling company stories in terms of three categories.

Shane Snow (19m 2s):
If I can kind of dig into this for a minute. There’s the origin story of a company like the “why we started this company” I kind of told that origin story of Shinola, for example. That can be a really powerful way to get people to want to work with you if all the other things line up. Telling that story of why we started the company, you know, the company Spanx comes to mind, right? Certainly, I see the founder of Spanx, she was trying to go to a fancy event. She didn’t have something to wear. She didn’t have the right, you know, outfit. And so she had these types she cut the feet off of them and wore them underneath her outfit so that she could fit into her dress.

Shane Snow (19m 47s):
And it was such a great sort of hack that she did. She loved how this actually like helped her outfit out, that she realized that this was a product that should be on the market, but all, you know, kind of hosiery companies were run and designed by men who didn’t understand what it’s like to be a woman getting dressed for a big event. And so she started this company with women designers to design undergarments, essentially that actually were designed for the way that women dress and that, you know, and feel and want to feel. And that became Spanx, which, you know, is this awesome billion-dollar company that, you know, has inspired a lot of people. But telling that story of her solving this problem, that a lot of people can relate to.

Shane Snow (20m 31s):
You know, you can sort of see some of the elements of storytelling and me telling that story, but telling that story has helped Spanx to recruit a lot of great designers and workers and, you know, even retail workers, people to sell those products. So that kind of origin story is really powerful, but a lot of companies don’t have some really interesting story like that. You know, your company might be, hey, I worked at a box factory. We made boxes and found a better way to make boxes. So I started a competitive box factory. Now come work at our box factory. That’s not as inspiring, but chances are you as the box factory have one of the other two types of company stories that can be compelling to get people to join you.

Shane Snow (21m 16s):
Not every company has, you know, awesome origin story but the other two kinds of stories that you can tell are the, what I call the unique process story, like how your product is made, the process of how these boxes are made and why that is unique and different and special. So maybe, you know, a better way of making boxes is we recycle, you know, newspapers from landfills in India and we turn those into boxes. That process story, that story of how that go about doing that, maybe even the origin story of how you discovered how to do that, or maybe it’s just here are the people who make this product. These are the people who are making the boxes and their human stories and where they live. That kind of thing can be very inspiring.

Shane Snow (21m 57s):
Even if the, you know, the why you started isn’t that interesting. The third story that I think every company has, any good company that anyone would want to work for has the story of the compelling customer. So who is it that is your customer that you are helping make a difference in their lives, or make them happy, help them have fun or change things for them, help them thrive, whatever it is that your company does. You have interesting people who are human beings who have that relatability. There’s definitely some novel people who are your customers. And there’s definitely people who have tension that you have helped alleviate or solve or whatever it is.

Shane Snow (22m 36s):
And so even if you’re like we make boxes and we don’t make them in an interesting way, but we are a good place to work. And, hey, the boxes we make, you know, sometimes they go, you know, to help these kinds of people. Sometimes, you know, if someone wants to use our boxes, I don’t know, to like, you know, Martin Luther King’s, you know, microphone was stored in one of these boxes. And we, you know, on the day that he gave the big “I have a dream” speech, it was our boxes that were there. And you know, I’m just totally making this up now, but that’s already a better way to tell the world and people you want to recruit what it is that you do and why you should care than just, you know, here’s how much money you’ll make and why it’s, you know, the benefits are good.

Shane Snow (23m 19s):
So you want to pay people well, and you want to give them good benefits. You know, workers should be treated well. And now, you know, more competition in the job market means I think there’s more of a push to do that, which I think is great. But on top of that, you can tell the story of your origin, your process, you know, how you make, what you make and/or the people whose lives you affect with what you do, your products and services. And that makes a huge difference on top of that regular kind of job posts of here’s how much you’ll make.

Matt Alder (23m 51s):
One of the other things I wanted to ask you was about how you tell a story because very often when I’m talking to employers or I see people talking about storytelling in our industry, people can very often think that’s kind of writing a book or a long-form piece of content or making a 15-minute origin story video. But that really isn’t the case, is it? I mean, what kind of inventive and interesting ways have you seen companies tell their story and perhaps in a shorter form?

Shane Snow (24m 20s):
So I have a strong opinion that you can weave in storytelling or at least some of the elements of storytelling into every single communication you do. So I would say a good example of this is Allbirds the shoe brand. You go to Allbirds website, I think it’s just allbirds.com. Every page of theirs has either a story or a snippet of a story, or you’ll see these elements, you know, the relatability, novelty, tension, you know, here’s where our products are made of and how they’re made, here’s who our team is and why we started, you know, all of their whole site is kind of built around this idea of storytelling.

Shane Snow (25m 1s):
And if you look at a place like that, you’ll see that it’s not just long-form blog posts or interviews, or they’re telling the story. They’re dropping pieces of the story of the why and the how and the who all over their website. I think that’s an example that you can do this kind of thing, whether it’s, you know, on your website. Yeah, you can post on social media. You can make videos and blog posts where you tell some of these more meaty stories and I think every brand should. My last company, Contently actually is a tech company that helps brands to do just that, you know, publish stories on their blogs and in social media and all of that.

Shane Snow (25m 43s):
But, you know, the job post itself that someone comes across, you know, on a job board, you could say, you know, we’re hiring this right now at my current company, it’s called Showrunner, we’re hiring engineers. So you could just put a job post and say, we’re hiring a Full Stack engineer and you need to know JavaScript, and we’re gonna pay you 200 grand a year. You could do that. Or you could say, here’s the story of how we started this company. You know, we’re a group of filmmakers that saw that workers are always in overtime and never see their families. And we were tired of that and we decided to start building technology to make it so they can get their jobs done and, you know, in a regular eight-hour day and then go home for dinner and to do that, we’re building technology.

Shane Snow (26m 27s):
And that’s why we need Full Stack engineers. So putting that little intro in your job posts, you wouldn’t believe how much better job responses we get to those posts weaving in, you know, that backstory like I just did, you know, into a job post that does very well. So you are doing a job interview, you know, that screening interview, or maybe it’s an in-depth interview or interview as a recruiter taking a minute to tell the story of why you work there. You know, not just like, here’s how it works, here’s what the job is. And here’s why you should do it. Saying, “Hey, here’s how I discovered this company and why I was passionate about this.” And, you know, telling the story of your relationship with the CEO or, you know, people on the team who inspire you.

Shane Snow (27m 10s):
Again, tell them to sort of who is, you know, affected by this company. And that might be other employees. That’s a really powerful way to get people to remember and to care about your company versus, you know, the 10 other companies they are interviewing at. Every step of the way you can do that and you can even, yeah. I mean, there’s lots of examples of very clever kind of micro ways you can tell a story. I think about even in, you know, coupons and, you know, small social media posts, instead of just saying, here’s the thing that we want you to do, adding a little bit of context.

Shane Snow (27m 51s):
You know, context, I think is a kind of a good euphemism for a story. You know, like we’re having a sale, you know, President’s Day sale on Saturday. You can add into that, you know, advertisements. Now, I’m really making things up, you know, what the President’s Day sale but, you know, like let’s say it’s the, you know, our CEO, you know, has been bedridden, you know, with a broken leg for, you know, the last week and a half. And now she’s so excited to be back on her feet that she’s personally coming to the President’s Day. That’s like a very silly example, but if your CEO had a broken leg, you probably wouldn’t think to like, you know, put that out there in the world.

Shane Snow (28m 34s):
But actually adding that little bit might get people’s attention and get people to care a little bit. Like here’s a human being who, you know, I can relate to, you know, being sick or being injured and then being excited to be back out there. Even if, you know, it’s a little bit difficult. Those little kinds of things might have nothing to do with your product, but have to do with the people who are working with you and get people to, again, pay attention and care. So really random, like off the top of my head example, but that’s what I’m using it for is to illustrate that any place where you are communicating, you can find ways to put story and those human elements of story into what you’re doing.

Matt Alder (29m 14s):
So final question, where can people find out more about you and where can they find out more about storytelling?

Shane Snow (29m 20s):
So my website is just my name, Shanesnow.com. I have my books there including one called the Storytelling Edge, which you can check out. You can also get to a ton of my articles and my LinkedIn blog from there. And, yeah, my new company is called Showrunner, showrunner.tech. You can find out about some of the stories we’re telling abour, what I’ve alluded to here, you know, with filmmaking and, you know, helping film workers, do their jobs to help tell stories and then, you know, get home in time for dinner. Anyone who’s listening to this, and who’s interested in that story, I’d be delighted if you spread the word. But, yeah, that’s how you can find me.

Matt Alder (29m 58s):
Shane, thank you very much for talking to me.

Shane Snow (30m 0s):
Hey, it’s my pleasure. I love this stuff. Thanks for having me.

Matt Alder (30m 4s):
My thanks to Shane Snow. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple podcasts, on Spotify or via your podcast app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at RecruitingFuture.com. On that site, you can also subscribe to the mailing list to get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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