Are the most interesting work stories shared during smoke breaks?

You don’t have to hang out with the smokers to discover stories employees really want to hear.

I was interviewing the CEO of a Silicon Valley company as part of an internal communications audit. “How does knowledge move most effectively through your organization?” I asked.

He pondered the question for a minute, then said, “If you really want to know, step outside and hang out with the smokers.”

I haven’t had a cigarette in 20 years, but I remember well the outdoor smoking circle. Four or five times a day, I’d congregate with eight or 10 people, most of whom didn’t know each other, around the ashtray—and it was a different eight or 10 people every time. With only work in common, we wound up talking about work. Each of us learned what was going on in other departments.

As that CEO said, “Among frontline employees, they know more about the company’s overall operations than anybody else.”

What strikes me, in retrospect, about those in the smoking group is that they weren’t giving each other reports about their projects and departmental activities. They told stories. Today, if I were looking for content for the intranet or the Web, I’d ask myself every time one of those smokers told a story, “Is this a video? Is this a blog post? Is there an infographic in there?”

We all hear stories at work every day, but most communicators haven’t yet shifted their mindsets to wonder if anything they hear can be transformed into content that people will want to talk about and share.

But it’s not just communicators. We can’t uncover every story employees may tell by hanging out at the ashtray. It’s also a matter of tweaking the culture so employees who hear these stories think of sharing them.

At The Mayo Clinic, staff can share their stories through the blog Sharing Mayo Clinic. At another hospital I’ve worked with, the communications department has distributed Flip cameras to every department to make it easy for staff to record their stories for sharing via YouTube.

More and more organizations recognize the need to produce the content that will spark people’s interest because, ultimately, if people aren’t talking about the company, it may as well not exist in the minds of prospective customers, investors and employees.

Is your company’s culture encouraging staff to share their stories so you can turn them into sharable content? How?

A version of this post originally ran on Holtz Communication + Technology blog.

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