Game-based narratives: How to bring employees into your storytelling process

Tale’s David Landes reviews some of the most common roadblocks stopping companies from involving employees in corporate storytelling. He then shares some of his learnings from Google News Lab and his days as a journalist. It turns out, turning employees into correspondents may not be as hard as you might think.

Why are so many companies talking about storytelling? And what can you do to kickstart storytelling at your organization?

It should come as no surprise that storytelling is high on the agenda at a lot of companies and organizations. Stories are fundamental to the human experience. From cave paintings to the Bible to blogging – we’ve got a long history of sharing and telling stories to help make sense of the world around us.

Brand stories have been a fundamental part of corporate messaging for decades. But in today’s changing media landscape – where technology has democratized the power to publish – companies’ storytelling opportunities (and challenges) have grown.

In the hunt for engaging stories, companies’ own employees can be a great resource. After all, people (or characters) are often at the heart of the best stories. Through their actions and experiences, characters can make values and culture relatable in a way that bullet points and strategy documents can’t. They show, rather than tell. They make us feel as well as think.

And if you believe as I do that everyone has at least one story worth sharing, then every organization is sitting on a gold mine of storytelling potential.

Storytelling roadblocks 

However, leveraging this potential to help win the battle for talent and customers externally – or to help build a sense of community and belonging internally – isn’t always easy. It’s one thing to understand that stories are the best weapon for winning the battle for attention. But it’s quite another thing to carry it out in practice.  

Why? 

We hear lots of different reasons from our clients, and some are quite specific to a given organization. However, taken together, the lion’s share of pitfalls stopping companies from fully utilizing their organization’s own storytelling potential can be boiled down to the following five reasons:

  1.  Lack of time
    Believe it or not, your employees have work to do. They are busy. And if they aren’t in the communications department, chances are most of what they have to do isn’t related to storytelling. They simply don’t think they have time (or can’t make time) to be a part of the process.
  2. (Perceived) lack of ability
    Not everyone wants to or feels like they can be storytellers. They are programmers, managers, engineers, etc. and don’t think they have the skills to contribute. They’d rather leave the job to “professionals” and instead focus on what they are best at.
  3. Lack of structure
    Old corporate silos and lines of responsibility can make it hard to figure out who’s managing the process, or which resources should be used. Marketing? HR? Communications? A particular business unit? Existing structures can also result in complex production processes and a lack of coordination. It can feel like you are reinventing the wheel or working at cross purposes, resulting in inaction.
  4. Lack of authenticity
    Traditional corporate storytelling can often be more top-down than bottom-up. This can result in messages and stories that forced and unnatural. And if the stories you’re telling on your corporate website don’t line up with reality being shared by employees on social media, that can be a real problem. Especially among younger audiences that are increasingly savvy at detecting and calling out corporate BS.
  5. Lack of control
    There is a default assumption that engaging too many in the process will result in a loss of control. There will simply be too many cooks in the kitchen, leading to a product that may stray from core messages. Or even worse, that communications will be hijacked by a rogue employee with a big following on social media.

So – how to overcome these hurdles and harness the storytelling power sitting beneath your nose? How best to engage employees outside the communications department in the mission of communication? And how can you to enlist employees to help communicate your company’s culture and key messages to both potential customers and employees?

Company as local newspaper; employee as correspondent

Pondering these challenges, I went back to my roots as a journalist hoping to find some inspiration. Why? Because news operations are effective and efficient storytelling machines. They have methods and structures to find, create, and distribute stories.

And these days, there is a lot of innovation taking place in news organizations as they also adapt to the new media landscape and redefine the relationship between publisher and audience.

Imagine then, your communications function as a local newspaper. Your company is the small town served by this local newspaper. Your core readers are your employees and stakeholders, and your job is to keep the “town” informed about that going on within the community. 

And that job of keeping your town informed is a lot easier if your audience is also providing you tips and ideas; if they are serving as your eyes and ears within the community and helping you keep your finger on the pulse.

So why can’t employees also play the role that the engaged citizen journalist does for the local paper? What would it take to turn employees into correspondents?

Game-based narratives

To begin with, it’s important to remember that having employee-correspondents doesn’t necessarily mean training employees how to be storytellers; rather, it’s about leveraging their experiences and observations in the process of sourcing stories. It’s about giving them a way to actively participate in and shape decisions about the stories your company chooses to tell. 

And a great mechanism for doing this is through game-based narratives, an approach I learned about and was able to implement through my participation in workshops sponsored by Google News Labs.

So, what are game-based narratives anyway?

Basically, they are stories created based on audience input that is gathered using the logic and incentives of a game. Think of it as a structured way for involving your employees in a storytelling journey by turning the creation of the story into a game.

There are three basic steps involved in the process:

  1. Explain the rules
    Let the audience know what they need to do to participate, what’s expected of them, and what their reward for playing will be.
  2. Present a challenge
    These challenges normally take the form of questions that need to be answered and they represent the participant’s pathway to the reward.
  3. Share the reward
    When it comes to game-based narratives the reward is the story that’s created as a result of the audience’s input.

Audience members – employees in the case of internal communications, customers in the case of external communication – play the game by answering questions. Their answers then affect the direction of the story. Their reward for playing is a story they helped shape and create.

Case: The Local Voices

As a part of my participation in the Google News Lab workshop, I also had the opportunity to test a game-based narrative approach to storytelling by running a simple experiment. At the time I was working at The Local Europe, a Stockholm-based digital news publisher that operates a network of local news sites across Europe.

We ran the experiment on The Local Voices, a channel dedicated to giving a voice to newcomers in Sweden. We are already looking at different types of audience engagement, so testing game-based narratives seemed like a good fit.

The goal (reward) was to publish a holiday feature story in December. But rather than picking the theme and storyline ourselves, we invited readers to play a game that allowed them to help us write a story based on their wishes.

We announced the experiment, explaining how readers could get involved and what was expected of them. We then posed questions using social media to engage readers and get their input.

Based on input from readers, we then created the story – taking care to keep the audience informed of our progress along the way. This helped maintain interest in the project and build expectations up until the time of publishing. (You can read more about the experiment by clicking here.)

 So, what did we learn? We discovered that using game-based narratives boosted engagement on social media and drove more readers to the story than we had expected. Basically, our readers had a more positive response to the story – which makes sense considering they had a role in creating it.

This proved to us not only that readers liked playing the game, but that engaging them in the process meant we knew our story had an audience that was already invested (and eager to read it) even before it was published. We also felt that the story itself (which had a great headline) was more interesting and creative than what we would have come up with on our own.

We discovered as well the readers who had participated in the game also played an outsized role in sharing the reward. Even though the story wasn’t about them specifically, their choices helped create it, giving them a sense of ownership and making them more likely to share it on social media.

 Takeaways

The Local Voices experiment was simple in nature and small in scale, but it nevertheless holds some useful learnings for organizations struggling to engage employees in their own storytelling efforts. 

Recall those hurdles I outlined above? Well, game-based narratives basically flip them all on their heads, showing how they can be catalysts for harnessing all the storytelling potential in your organization.

With game-based narratives, getting started with corporate storytelling looks like this:

  1. Plenty of time
    Now the first step of engaging in the storytelling process is reduced to a few clicks – a very low threshold for participation. You don’t have to start by asking people to tell their whole story. Instead, game-based narratives allow employees the opportunity to provide input on the editorial choices by simply expressing their preference from a pre-determined set of choices.
  2. For all abilities
    Anyone can have an opinion and click a mouse, which is all that’s needed to participate in a game-based narrative approach. This nullifies concerns from employees or the communications department about whether or not someone is “good enough”. The threshold for making a meaning contribution is reduced significantly.
  3. Simple structure
    Game-based narratives may not solve your company’s silo problem completely, but the approach offers a way around it. They provide a simple, scalable, and repeatable structure for organizations to use when sourcing stories. The fact that the investment to participate is so low, makes it easier to avoid arguments about resource allocation.
  4. Authentic stories
    By democratizing the story sourcing process and giving employees a vote, the stories that result from game-based narratives will always be rooted in your employees’ wishes. They will be genuine and accurately reflect the employee sentiments.
  5. Controlled
    The game-based logic of posing questions with a set number of possible responses means you don’t lose control. Since you decide what questions to ask as well as possible answers, there is very little risk of the process spiraling out of control.

 Next steps

Thanks to game-based narratives, involving employees in corporate storytelling doesn’t have to be such a daunting task. Testing the approach can be a great first step in the process of turning your employees into correspondents and getting them involved in your storytelling efforts.

It allows employees to become a part of the story without having to bear the entire storytelling burden and results in stories that accurately reflect the values and culture of your team or organization.

The best approach to begin with is to start small, and start simple – but make sure you start!

The sooner you do so, the sooner you and your employees will start learning how to “play the game”. Each round is a learning experience that helps “train” participants and also provides you with insights about which sorts of questions and answers generate the best responses – and hence the best stories.

Running the game over and over will help you nurture and identify potential brand ambassadors who are eager to answer your questions and may eventually be ready to contribute in other ways, such as submitting their own content or volunteering to tell their own stories. Or better yet, those of their colleagues.

 The sky’s the limit.

If you want to learn more about game-based narratives and employer branding, feel free to get in touch at david.landes@talecontent.se.