You aren’t the only communicator: Let your employees tell their stories

It’s been my experience that communicators sometimes adopt the attitude that it isn’t communication until we say that it’s communication. We compulsively review anything with words to ensure alignment with strategy, brand and culture. Many of us started out as English majors, so we know best what it takes to make a good story. We know how to develop heroes (our customers), villains (excessive costs, declining sales, the competition), plot twists (budget cuts, a change in the market) – and we can do it all in the corporate voice (and without typos).

But, it has never been clearer to me what a valuable resource we waste when we use only this approach. The alternative was eloquently demonstrated last Tuesday evening when IABC-Los Angeles held its May meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, Calif.

Scientists and engineers may not be among the most emotional individuals, but they are all heart when they tell their stories.

JPL is a federally funded research and development center managed by the California Institute of Technology for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). When these people claim, “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” they aren’t kidding. Their current projects include the Mars Science Laboratory mission, the Dawn mission to the dwarf planet Ceres and asteroid Vesta, and the Juno spacecraft en route to Jupiter.

With all that science, all those engineers, so much technology and so much at stake, you might not expect to find much emotion or humor. This is serious business.

You would be surprised.

Dr. Teresa Bailey is an Information Science Specialist in JPL’s Library, Archives and Records section. It was in 2000, while working on her doctorate in human and organizational systems that Bailey launched the JPL Stories program, the springboard for her dissertation. The dissertation focuses on the experience and behavior of the storyteller. But it is clear from the success of the program that the storytellers are not the only individuals to benefit.

Bailey works with each of her potential speakers to set parameters, but the choice of subject matter, the decision whether to use audio-visual support – the stories – are theirs. They speak about the projects they’ve worked on, their successes and sometimes their failures. The only criteria are that the story be personal and be about a JPL experience or a dream for JPL’s future. Held at the end of the day in an informal setting, the sessions last as long as it takes. “People rarely leave early,” Bailey notes.

The sessions are well attended and the feedback is resoundingly positive. With Dr. Bailey’s encouragement, for more than a decade, storytelling has been a form of knowledge sharing, a way to build camaraderie and an important part of the JPL culture. It is clear that while these scientists and engineers may not be among the most emotional individuals, they are all heart when they tell their stories.

The moral of this story: Communicators should step aside every now and then. A story can be genuine communication, even if someone else is telling it.

© 2019 Betty Henry Communications