Communicating effectively through storytelling

Steve Rawling is a storytelling expert. He believes that the way we tell our stories to the people who need to hear them leads to success in the workplace. “It’s no good having a brilliant idea if you can’t get anyone to listen,” Steve says.   

We’ve found this to be true at Co-op Digital. It’s part of the reason we blog, hold regular show and tells and tirelessly send out weeknotes. We keep in mind that our stakeholders and the rest of the Co-op Group are not digital experts – their specialist knowledge is in other disciplines. Telling our story helps those people understand our work, and telling it well, with their needs in mind, can heavily influence how receptive they are to our ideas.

To help us develop our storytelling skills further, we invited Steve in to Federation for a series of training sessions. In this post, a handful of Co-op Digital colleagues reflect on what they learnt and how they’re gonna change their approach in the future.

Story arcs and stakeholders

I had a presentation a few days after Steve’s first session with us. We’d been doing some exploratory visual design work and we were preparing to talk to stakeholders about what we’d done. I structured what I wanted to say around a ‘story arc’ – a kind of formula that helps the narrator order all the parts of the story they want to tell in a compelling way.

photo of gail's notebook full of notes on story arcs

The ‘recovery arc’ was the most fitting because I needed to communicate that:  

  • we were in a comfortable state but we’d known things needed to change – we needed to push our design work from functional to more playful in our customer facing products and services to make a customers experience of Co-op more enjoyable
  • we started the exploratory visual design work we needed to bring about change
  • we were overwhelmed by ideas and input and although this was brilliant it felt chaotic
  • after lots of exploration, we chose to focus on a few ideas and our direction became clearer
  • we’ve now reached something new, something we’re proud of that we believe will be better than what we had before – we’ve recovered!

In my experience, the design process mirrors a recovery arc in most cases: it can be messy and confusing at times. Although the meeting with stakeholders didn’t quite follow the structure I’d noted down, it definitely helped me talk about things at appropriate points along the way.

Steve also talked about the importance of considering where someone else is in their story arc. For example, being aware that they’re at the chaotic or ‘crisis’ point of their story is useful because it may help you speak to them sensitively. Mapping where I think I am on a stakeholder’s story arc, will be really useful for thinking about how to approach things in the future.

Gail Mellows, Lead visual designer

Showing not saying through storytelling

Storytelling is a big part of my job as a user researcher: I need to communicate what I’ve seen and heard from our users back to the rest of the team in an accurate and unbiased way. The way I tell the story of “what I observed when I spent a day at Co-op Funeralcare in Glasgow” is fundamental to how the team reacts to, and prioritises, what we work on next.

This point from Steve will stick with me:

Saying you’re humble doesn’t work as well as telling a story which demonstrates this.

This translates nicely to how researchers present their findings to the rest of their digital team, plus the wider team who may not be as familiar with user research. Saying I spoke to 5 people at Co-op Funeralcare in Glasgow about a feature update isn’t as compelling or engaging as *showing* the team photographs of the people I interviewed over a cuppa in their staff kitchen; or pictures of the office they work in where paper files stack up next to dated technology. Giving and actually showing the context is a huge part of what makes a story trustworthy.

Steve’s point can be extended to telling the team when users are finding it difficult to use something we’ve designed. It’s more engaging to find a way to *show* the struggle – it helps people empathise.

Recently, several Funeralcare colleagues were struggling with the size of a small screen so I held up the same size screen in a meeting with stakeholders and asked them to read from it. They couldn’t. As a result, those screens are being replaced.

Tom Walker, Lead user researcher

Plots twist and turn – talk about failures

Steve asked us to think about well-known film plots and showed us how the pivotal points in them could be mapped out. He pointed out that we can choose to tell the story of our product and service innovation in a similar way because our ups and downs can follow a very similar ‘journey arc’.

photograph of steve in front of white board with the journey arc described below.

With digital product development there’s usually a constraint followed by early success before a setback of some sort. The minor setback often gets worse and we find ourselves in ‘crisis’, before making a discovery as we try to fix things and end up in a better place. Both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter follow this sort of journey arc. The reason the audience feel so pleased and relieved with the respective endings is because they vicariously lived the challenges faced by the characters they identified with.

photograph of steve's harry potter plot mapped against a story arc

Lots of companies have a very polished way of talking about their work. They broadcast how they’re getting better and better and more shiny and they never talk about their mistakes and what they’ve learnt from them. Steve’s sessions highlighted that there’s nothing likeable about a narrative like that – audiences can’t trust it, it’s just not relatable.

Now more than ever I’ll carefully consider how I speak internally about products, or how I playback our progress. I’m really aware of the importance of the ‘how we got here’ parts of the story. Letting people see a complete picture of the challenges we’ve come up against, struggled with, and overcome makes for a more honest story, and showing our vulnerability through our failures is (hopefully) more endearing.

Lucy Tallon, Principal designer

Stories are everywhere

The thing I took away from Steve was the idea that we are surrounded by stories.

We are the lead actor in our own story. Our stakeholders are the leads in theirs. The people who use our products are part of their own story.

At the point they interact with anything we’ve created, it’s interesting to consider what our users’ mindset might be. Where are they on their current story arc, and how can we try to ensure that our product plays a positive role within it?

Steve’s series of sessions seemed very well-timed in the word we currently live in. We learnt that stories can be powerful and can be used for good, for example, using them to bring people along with us on a journey; to anticipate their needs and goals, and to have greater empathy.

But powerful stories can also be used in negative ways too. That’s something we need to be mindful of when we are using them to achieve our goals.

Matt Tyas, Principal designer

You can read about Steve’s workshops on his website.

Why Co-op Digital writes a newsletter

The Co-op Digital newsletter recently turned 3 years old. This week we’re writing newsletter number 139.

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The newsletter is a weekly email that looks at what’s happening in the internet/digital world and how it’s relevant to the Co-op, to retail businesses, and most importantly to people, communities and society. You can:

“Poke the organisation”

In 2016, Co-op Digital was in its infancy and Deputy Group CEO Pippa Wicks and Russell Davies, then the Digital Strategy Director, asked me to put together a weekly newsletter. Pippa’s simple brief was to “poke the organisation!” Their plan was that it should challenge the Co-op Group to think about how ‘digital’ changes retail and how retail could use digital. The newsletter summarised what was happening on the internet, and explained how other retailers were using technology.

It also helped set a tone for Co-op Digital because it demonstrated to senior leaders, the wider Co-op, and to the rest of the world that we were watching the internet and that we understood it. All of this was important because the Co-op Group was in a period of reinvention after some difficult years.

Content and tone

Many of the early stories were “Amazon is cominggg!”, or this is what Tesco’s doing with AI, here’s a funeral startup, or an AI is surprisingly good at chess. We were explaining what was happening on the internet, and what some of the new technology weirdness promised.

We write it in fairly plain language, and in a way that readers don’t need to click the links unless they want to read about a story in more detail. Sometimes there are jokes. “They’re trying to make me ICO to rehab” was a story about hospitals helping cryptocurrency addicts (and yes let’s acknowledge here that explaining a poor joke makes it even weaker). But the humour can make the words more engaging and accessible, and can let us talk about things that aren’t the Co-op’s ‘official position’.

The importance of images

Each newsletter is published with an image which is there to catch the eye when the reader is scrolling through their Twitter timeline. Some studies say tweets with image links result in up to 200% more engagement so we always include one. Sometimes the image is just decorative, sometimes it relates to the newsletter’s content.

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How it’s made, and how it’s read

The newsletter is made by a team. Stories are found and then debated by Co-op colleagues in the #newsletter Slack channel – big salute to Richard Sullivan, Jack Fletcher, Linda Humphries, Gail Lyon and others who’ve found and written about many excellent stories. Suggestions also come from readers to me on Twitter.

It’s published as a public-facing email newsletter, and as an internal email, and to the web. Mailchimp (which handles the public email bit) reckons it has an open rate of 50%, compared to an industry average of 11% for other retail organisations.

Plus it’s been well-received internally too…

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Evolving with the organisation

The newsletter has evolved, mostly in response to feedback from readers, but also to the Co-op’s maturing digital capability. We don’t need to explain ‘digital’ in the same way these days because many teams and departments at the Co-op have transformed the business over the last 3 years. Where the Co-op was once an organisation of tradition, now it is also an organisation of the internet. This evolution has given the newsletter space to look at wider concerns, like privacy, ethics, climate change, and occasionally even Brexit.

External intelligence

It’s still valuable to keep track of what other organisations are trying and to think about whether what they’re doing could mean something new for us, our members, our colleagues, or for co-operativism. So the newsletter is both external intelligence for the Group and an informal channel to communicate with the public and members.

We’ve learned that newsletters are good at showing our thinking in public, exploring new ideas and clarifying them, speculating wildly about what’s next, and occasionally ‘poking the organisation’.

Still the same

There are still “Amazon is coming!” stories, and there are frequent “this seems like a problem for big tech companies” stories. Occasionally we add small bits of fiction if we think they might be a good way to explore an idea.

However the jokes are still terrible. “Do you want frAIes with that?” needs not an explanation (machine learning at McDonald’s) but apologies forever, sorry.

You can help

You can help make the newsletter better. Sign up to get the newsletter by email and participate by sending us ideas, questions, thoughts. And better puns.

Rod McLaren
Newsletter writer