Storytelling for Recruiting & Leading People: Q&A with Amanda Marko

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Leadership communications expert Amanda Marko shares how you can use stories to recruit, inform and lead people in a business environment.

Business storytelling expert Amanda Marko

Credit: Amanda Marko

Amanda Marko is President and Chief Connection Officer of Connected Strategy Group. She helps business leaders communicate strategy and engage stakeholders through storytelling. We got on a call to discuss why storytelling is such a powerful communication tool, how businesses can use it to their advantage, and what role stories can play in the recruiting process.

“Instead of pushing facts at people we should be pulling at their heartstrings.”

What is storytelling, in a business context? Why practice it?

Storytelling is the most powerful communication tool that you have in your arsenal. Yet in business, it’s the tool that we’re most afraid to use in our interpersonal interactions—the conversations you have sitting at your boss’s desk, around a conference room table, or standing behind a podium at a company-wide meeting.

In business, stories often get lost in favor of the facts. Instead of pushing facts at people we should be pulling at their heartstrings. There are a number of reasons why that happens. One is that with a story, inherently there is an emotion attached—and there is a stigma against using emotion in business. We think we’re rational; we think we make decisions based on facts. Except we don’t—we are emotional beings. There’s also the expenditure of time. We’re very busy, we don’t have a lot of time to listen to a story, and we always want to “just get to the point.” But a well-told story can make its point and invoke emotion in just 90 seconds.

Storytelling can help you be memorable, cut through the noise and get people to focus their attention on what really matters. We’re fooling ourselves to think that facts are the reason people make decisions. We might as well face the reality, and make sure that we’ve got stories to go along with the facts in order to give people a complete picture.

That speaks very well to the idea of candidate experience: giving consideration to the emotions that people have as they go through the recruitment process.

What’s more emotional of a rollercoaster than going through a recruiting process? For both candidate and recruiter. Storytelling is a fantastic way to share with the candidate the true essence of the company culture, the kind of people that they’re going to be working with, what the workload might be, what their manager is going to be like.

If you just tell somebody the facts, “we’re a top-rated employer, we’ve won all these awards, we have low-turnover rate,” that might be attractive to a candidate. But what if you tell the candidate a story about one employee who was recruited and nurtured by the company, was able to excel beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and is now a vice president? A story like that could be the difference between the candidate choosing you over another offer.

Let’s take a step back—what is a story, actually?

There is a very specific framework I teach in the ‘Storytelling for Leaders’ program:

First, your story needs a marker: a time, or place, or maybe even a person. For instance, your market could be “last week…” or it could be, “we were all in the conference room…” or, “Frank from Accounting walked in…” Once you say that, your audience’s ears should perk up, because it’s a signal that you will be telling a story.

Next, there needs to be a real-life person or people. Not just “the IT department”—it needs to be “Jessica from IT.” There are a few different ways to signal that there are people in your story. People have names, so you mention someone’s name in your story. People talk, so you include dialogue in your story.

You have your marker, you have a person or people, and then there needs to be a series of causal events: “this thing happened, then that thing happened…” This must include an ‘aha moment,’ but that doesn’t necessarily have to be earth-shattering or dramatic; your story can be about a simple, everyday occurrence. The final piece you need to state is a business angle: “why are you telling me this story, in context of this bigger conversation we’re having?”

Are there ways to elicit someone—say, a job candidate, or an employee who reports to you—to tell you an informative story?

The best way to kick off a story is to tell one yourself. If you want to hear about a time when the candidate overcame adversity, tell your own version of the story. Then you can ask them if they have had any similar experiences.

Another way is to ask questions that prompt the candidate to recall a specific moment in time, because a story is a moment when something specific happened. For example, you can ask resume-related questions like “when you worked at McDonald’s, sometimes I bet it would get really busy.” You’re taking them to a place that might evoke a memory. Or you might inject an emotion into your question and say, “I bet when you worked at McDonald’s, you dealt with some really irate customers.” You’re sending them back to a stressful moment, and that’s the point where you might get them saying, “oh yeah, there was this one time with this lady …”

“Storytelling can help you be memorable, cut through the noise and get people to focus their attention on what really matters.”

People tell stories when talking or gossiping around the water cooler. Is there a way to shape those stories, or leverage that storytelling to help you meet business objectives?

If people are telling negative stories, you can counter them by coming up with better stories. The only thing that beats a story is a better story. If people are sharing a story that isn’t based on fact, and isn’t indicative of how the organization normally operates, you can’t counter by showing them the data. It’s not going to change their mind, or stop them. You need to come up with better stories and trust that those stories will take hold.

What is an anti-story, and why do they matter in recruiting?

Anti-stories are stories that aren’t true and run counter to the point you are trying to make. When hiring, these are the false beliefs that stop candidates from accepting your job offer. Maybe they received a bad impression of someone who interviewed them, or maybe the parking lot seemed too far away from the front door. Whatever it is, it’s the reason they’ve decided not to take the job. So, as a hiring manager or recruiter, uncovering anti-stories will let you be able to communicate better and counter the negatives with positive stories.

Are there other types of stories that might be useful when recruiting and hiring?

A connection story is a great way for managers and recruiters to connect with candidates. This kind of story involves you telling the candidate something about yourself. You can use a connection story as a way to share personal information with a candidate, let them know that you and they are alike, and to earn their trust. A connection story is an excellent way to accelerate the intimacy you have with another human being.

When you’re hiring, you interview more people than you have jobs for. That means you’re going to have to tell a whole bunch of people “no”. And so in order to do that, it is a natural human inclination to kind of shut yourself off from candidates. But if you start off closed, the candidate is certainly going to be closed off as well, and you will not be able to get their true essence. Telling stories will help put them at easy quickly, and give you a window into who they truly are.

Are there common mistakes that people make when they are trying to use stories for business purposes?

Often, people are afraid that storytelling will be too dramatic or uncomfortable in a business context. But it shouldn’t be. You should be able to easily insert your stories into conversations. You don’t need to make dramatic gestures. You don’t need to use accents or voices to portray characters. You simply have to relate the story in a very conversational tone.

Other mistakes include going on too long, repeating the same story over and over again, and telling what I call ‘drive-by stories’: stories without real people, where you lose the emotional impact and opportunity for connection.

The way to deal with these mistakes is to practice your stories. When something happens in your life that you think could be a story, immediately tell it to someone. That is going to help you remember it, and plant it in your own mind, and it will also give you a chance to work out the kinks.

“Practice your stories. When something happens in your life that you think could be a story, immediately tell it to someone.”

What is a first step someone can take to start telling stories that inform, engage, influence and inspire?

Start being aware of stories. Start collecting them and building up your own repertoire of stories to use in different instances. Whether you are trying to make a point about teamwork, or explain your company’s values, having a number of ready-to-go stories at your disposal prepares you to harness this powerful communication tool.

Download Amanda’s free ebook ‘How to Find Stories to Tell’ and learn more about the ‘Storytelling for Leaders’ training program.

Christian De Pape, Recruiting Social’s Head of Marketing and Content
About the author

Christian De Pape is the head of brand experience at Recruiting Social. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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