5 techniques for uncovering terrific employee stories

Prepare questions, but stay curious and divert from your planned path. Ask about experiences. And always include the ‘why.’

How to uncover great stories

Sometimes the most compelling stories are just a few questions away.

I recently interviewed someone for a feature about their passion for aviation.

As we chatted, I could tell she loved being around aircraft in her job and in her personal time, but I couldn’t quite understand why. I asked if her love of aviation was instilled by her parents. No, not particularly. A teacher? No. I could have given up at this point and accepted that she simply just loves planes, but I had a gut feeling there was more to it.

So, then I said: “Tell me about the first time you flew on a plane; what was that experience like?” She then told me that her first time on a plane was when she was flown out of war-torn Afghanistan as a child refugee.

And there was my story.

Good stories can be hard to find, and they’re more important than ever as we focus on quality over quantity. Here are tips for finding vivid and even fascinating stories:

1. Use your feet.

Stories won’t come to you. Most people don’t even realize there is a story to tell, or they’re so busy that it hasn’t even crossed their mind that they should communicate it.

You have to be out and about in the organization meeting people, hearing what’s going on and recognizing when there might be a story to investigate.

Think about hot-desking in different parts of the business, joining employee networks, getting your coffee from a kitchen on a different floor. The more connected you are to the business, the more relevant and timely the stories will be.

2. Help people find their own stories.

A lot of your time can be taken up wading through content that just isn’t suitable or relevant to publish. Creating content processes and guidelines can help.

For example, you could create a briefing form that challenges them to think about what they’re proposing.

Ask questions such as: Why does this matter? Why should people care? How did it make you feel? What didn’t work so well and why? What would you do differently next time?

Often people will realize they’re not ready to communicate or it will help them identify and articulate the story behind the facts they want to share with the organization.

3. Follow your gut.

Most people will prepare questions before interviewing someone for a story. However, it’s also important to go into the interview prepared to deviate and be curious if something piques your interest.

Of course, sometimes people will hold back because they don’t want to share, so it’s important to draw the line between curiosity and intrusion. Make it clear that people can share as much as they want, and if the conversation has deviated, always check they’re happy for you to include it in the finished article.

4. Talk about experiences rather than stories.

At a webinar about storytelling a couple of years ago, Ally Bunin said that if you ask people to tell you a story, or even tell them you are going to write a story about them and their project, it can feel daunting and overwhelming. Where do you begin? Do you need a beginning, middle and end? Who is the protagonist?

Bunin said experiences are easier for people to talk about, so try saying, “Tell me about your experience of … ”  It’s great advice if you’re struggling to get people to open up.

5. Always ask ‘why?’

Internal content usually offers the what and the how, but rarely does it deliver the why—and that’s often where the story lies. For example, you’re launching a parental leave policy and your content can simply provide an overview of the policy, how it will affect people, etc.

Instead, you can share stories of people found parental leave challenging because the policy wasn’t comprehensive enough. The organization’s leaders listened and made changes, and that’s how the new policy came about. You not only raise awareness of the policy, but you’ll also show that your organization listens and cares.

Sometimes the most extraordinary stories are about ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. So, keep an open mind and be curious; you might be surprised at what you find.

Helen Deverell is a U.K.-based communication pro. A version of this post first appeared on Alive with ideas.


Ragan.com Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from Ragan.com directly in your inbox.