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Episode 5: The science of effective change storytelling with Tom Dunmore

Diary of a change manager podcast

It’s simple really. People listen better when you tell a story. But how do you make that story a good one?

In this episode, join our specialist Communications Consultant, Tom Dunmore, as he shares storytelling strategies and ways to engage your people throughout a change programme.

Communications consultant Tom Dunmore recording the podcast. A quote reads "storytelling is as old as the hills!"

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Episode 6: The people side of change
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Episode 6: The people side of change

Stories of change communication

Episode highlights

Welcome to Diary of a Change Manager. The podcast that makes change management easy. In this episode, your host Samantha Kinstrey chats with storytelling specialist and communications consultant, Tom Dunmore.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

The origin story

Sam: So, Tom, you were described to me as a comms god Before the very first time I met you, by Michele. So do you want to give us a little bit of a background about who you are?

Tom: I’m not sure I’d describe myself as a Comms God, but I am a former magazine editor, and I also set up and run my own digital agency before going into the world of consultancy and working with the fabulous Inform Team.

Stories create connection. Jargon creates confusion.

Sam: Okay, so we’re here today, aren’t we Tom, to talk about storytelling. So do you want to just give us an introduction and maybe perhaps give us an overview of what storytelling means to you?

Tom: Yeah, sure. I mean, it’s a funny term really isn’t it, storytelling because really it’s kind of as old as the hills. People have been telling stories since we’ve been people, really.

In some way, the really important information gets transferred not just between people, between generations. So when you think about things like fables and fairy tales and allegories, these are all kind of ways that we’re communicating how society works. And we’re doing it in a way that’s relevant to the people that are listening to them. So they get an emotional connection with it, they remember it and they pass it on. And that’s the basics of how storytelling works now.

In my background, in terms of editorial, in terms of marketing, but you know, also in terms of internal communications is just about telling something that people actually emotionally respond to.

I think that throughout the year, it’s important to tell stories. And we do. We naturally do. It comes very naturally to us. But there’s this funny thing with communications in a corporate environment is that suddenly this story starts to kind of seep away and people communicate in very functional language, technical language, jargon. And all of a sudden you kind of lose that important thread that connects you as the storyteller, the information giver, to your audience.

Defining your brand is like crafting a story

Sam: Can you give some examples of your experiences, Tom?

Tom: So as I say, I started in life as a as a journalist and a magazine editor, and I had the fortune to edit a magazine called Stuff, which is a consumer electronics magazine still running, actually. But back in the late nineties, early noughties when I joined, it was just on the cusp of the digital revolution where everything from cameras and music, everything was going digital and Stuff was really the bible of that digital revolution.

While I was there, I got my first experience of how understanding a brand proposition is crucial to effective storytelling. So we went through a process, a brand process there where based on our research and our audience, we came up with a new proposition to relaunch this magazine from what was a very kind of bizarre sort of lifestyley lads mag to this gadget magazine.

We went through a big process, but we ended up with a really simple way of expressing what it was all about, which was gadget joy, you know? It was just bringing the kind of Christmas joy of opening a box and seeing something shiny inside it. So we ditched all of the kind of negative reviews and anything that was kind of about the deep tech inside it. And it was all about the experience, the design, and the joy of it all.

That was the foundation of how I sort of worked out, started to take a more strategic approach to storytelling, which then formed the basis of this idea of setting up our own digital content agency.

Rather than brands having to advertise in magazines or on television programmes and leave the actual storytelling to those people. Brands could start storytelling themselves and start to really think about how they create content that resonates with an audience, with their with their needs, but also with their interest, their passions. That was the foundation of, of Mediablaze. Which I ran for ten years before selling it and moving on to Inform.

When we were there, we were doing sort of fantastic projects with big brands like Timberland, for example where we did a global content strategy. They had a new audience they wanted to target a millennial urban sort of hipster audience. And our job was to say, okay, what do these people want to know about? and try and find the right influencers, the right ambassadors, crafts people, trying to look at kind of what cool markets are going on in different cities. you know bringing all of this lifestyle to life in content, and we did that across a number of brands.

It was a really fun and exciting thing to do and a step on from kind of standard avatar broadcast advertising.

The story of iPhone

Sam: I suppose some of the brands that people might recognise that would be things like Apple. I mean, is that a bit early for Apple?

Tom: Yeah, I mean Apple have always been I mean I think they, they have an incredibly strong brand story that they tell all the time. They don’t necessarily do a huge amount of this kind of content marketing. But boy are they good at kind of expressing what a product, what the benefit is to you why you should really want that product.

I had the amazing experience of seeing the iPhone unveiled in in San Francisco by Steve Jobs. Wow. And then going and this was kind of six months before it even came out. And then going backstage and getting the hands on it and experiencing it.

Steve Jobs was talked about a lot by people As you know, an exceptional salesman. He had what people call a reality distortion field, right? Which meant he kind of he was so good at selling he was like a snake oil salesman that actually people didn’t really necessarily get what they he was telling them they were going to get.

But the reality of the iPhone was that it was truly groundbreaking and a massive lean forward. And he managed to tell that story to the journalists that were gathered there so brilliantly. And then, you know, that story was then told onto the public and y’know the rest is history, isn’t it with Apple?

Sam: Talking about joy and products and that kind of thing. My children absolutely adore their iPhones. They would never, ever change.

Tom: It’s an incredibly powerful brand and, and yeah, one that I think does genuinely connect with people and they kind of aspire to it. And you know, they’re definitely using, using storytelling in an interesting way.

Storytelling in change management

Sam: So, Tom, we’re here to talk about the Diary of a Change Manager. So can you give us some examples of how we can apply storytelling in the, if you like, in the in the world of change management and why it’s important in that space?

Tom: As I mentioned earlier, I think that there is a tendency within a corporate environment to rely on jargon and technical language anyway. Yeah, so you’re already struggling. And then when you layer on top something like technology based change, there’s even more of a problem because rather than speaking a jargon that everybody within that company speaks, you’re suddenly bringing this whole new lexicon with you and speaking in this new way.

People naturally have a fear factor that builds up when new things are coming to them. And so actually being able to communicate to people that are affected by change in a way that they really relate to, they emotionally connect with that feels relevant to them. You know, you’re doing you’re doing a lot to help overcome the barriers.

Storytelling is crucial in terms of change communications.

Sam: Yeah, it’s one of those things isn’t it, it’s just about making it consumable for people so that they can just understand what on earth is going on.

Tom: I’ve spent so much of my career just trying to make things as simple and clear as possible. Which is it’s really you know, it sounds like an easy thing to do, but it’s not necessarily.

It’s really exciting working with technical minded people, engineers who’ve got this kind of real deep understanding and to work with those in trying to extract what they’re saying and translate it without losing the nuance, without dumbing down. But say it in a language that normal everyday people would understand.

Start with your audience

Sam: Have you got any top tips, Tom?

Tom: Here’s three key parts of it really. One is audience. It always has to start with understanding who you’re speaking to. So yeah, the more you can do there, create segments, use any data that you have to create segments, build personas, so actually personify, turn them into a person with a name, just helps you to think about it and that person understand their needs and their passion and interest.

Sam: So how do you do that? You get out and talk to the business how you do it?

Tom: So it’s about understanding as much as possible. And a lot of people have, you know, lots of information. A lot of organisations will have information already about sort of different segments within them. And there’s also the, you know, the ability to go out and actually talk to people, which is part of the change manager’s job anyway.

Using those kind of things like change impact assessments as conversations where you can start to really nuance your sense of who those personas are and what sort of challenges they might have. And then you can build and also understand where, where they’re consuming their information because within big organisations there can be lots of different channels, be they standups, teams, email, newsletters, all of this kind of stuff and understanding how they’re getting there so you can make sure that you reach them in the right place.

So that’s the first thing, it’s audience. The second thing is your narrative.

Building a narrative for change

It’s so important to have a consistent narrative across what you’re doing, across the length to the project, the change project. And that really is about getting stakeholders in a room and getting them to agree that two sentence, yeah, this is, this is what we’re trying to do.

One tool that I found really useful for this is the, the messaging house where you have the roof of the house is that, you know, one or two sentences saying what your your aim is. And down at the bottom the foundations are your audience segments. And then the thing that holds up the roof are these pillars of communication. So you’ve got specific ones to specific audiences or people that are in a certain mindset. but they all, you know, are holding up this, this main message.

Consistency and alignment is really, really important, I think.

Sam: So how do you get those stakeholders to agree Tom? Because I’ve tried this in the past and this is this is no easy feat. How do you do that?

Tom: No it’s not easy. I think it’s about getting them into a room, virtual or physical, ideally physical and going through, you know, a couple of exercises, with a whiteboard, post-its

Sam: Love a post-it.

Tom: You know, really game people to be a part of the creation process. And through that process of co-creation you get a buy-in that you won’t otherwise get. If you’re just coming up with something and going around people in different meetings, that’s not going to work. The more people you can get who feel they have ownership of what you’re doing, the better.

What I would say is when people see things simplified to the point of, you know, that, to that level, generally the response is incredibly positive.

That’s such a relief to actually see it there”

Sam: I bet you can see the shoulders just literally coming down as you as you’re agreeing it.

Bringing your story to life

Tom: And so you’ve got your your audiences, you’ve got your narrative. And then the final thing is really about the implementation of that.

Using your knowledge about channels, but also thinking about how you can measure the success of what you’re doing and what sort of analytics you can pick up, focus groups any kind of forms, Microsoft Forms that you can send out. All of these things so that you are constantly challenging yourself to optimise and improve the message, the performance of the messaging.

In that way you’re moving people on a journey which is just like a customer journey. When I was doing marketing between awareness to consideration conversion, you know. Similar journey that you’re going through. And that’s what are trying to do. Every bit of content you produce, every story should be about driving an action that’s going to move people along that journey.

Storytime: Change communications in action

Sam: Have you got any examples of where you’ve had to apply all of those principles with a particularly challenging customer?

Tom: When I first joined The Inform Team, actually the first project that I did with The Inform Team was with Ordnance Survey who are essentially a mapping company. But their core product is really selling maps to or providing maps to the public sector, to government. And they were doing this in a in a very kind of legacy publisher type way. They were giving them essentially all of the information and doing it on a sort of annual basis or, you know, essentially they were giving them a big book with all their maps.

That was changing to a much more digital approach where people would be able to go in, choose the data that they wanted and download it, download their own recipe of that data. So quite a fundamental shift.

That came with a lot of challenges. I mean, there were lots of challenges technically in doing it. but from a, from an internal change point of view, there were lots of specialists who were based in this old way of doing things and talked a specific language.

They didn’t necessarily have the agreement on the language that they would use to talk about this new download service.

That project started with quite a few one on one stakeholder interviews and from that created a structure of a workshop. In fact, we ran it a few times with a different variety of people from their subject matter experts through to their C-suite, you know, their marketing people and sitting down and coming up with a messaging that people would agree on, a really simple narrative that we are going from this to to this and we’re calling it this.

Sam: How long did that take, Tom?

Tom: Well, actually, not a not a long time. Okay. So there were a couple of weeks of interviews, a couple of weeks of doing those workshops, and then the output was created in those workshops.

The other thing I did was a survey in a pre and post workshop, which was massively helpful in then refining it. I got to the output was pretty much a short set of PowerPoint slides that said, you know, “Hey, this is what we’re doing, here’s what it looks like now, here’s what it will look like in the future.” It is really kind of, you know, simplified to that level.

The great thing is that you know, people you know, really were positive about the result it was signed off at the board level and it was really quick to transfer that into a explainer video because it was already all made. You just had to animate the pages.

But then that also served as a foundation for work that went on over, and is still ongoing over the next couple of years, which, you know, include big organisational change, organisational redesign and that includes marketing of the product externally.

I’ve been involved in both of those things, quite different things to be doing, but really, really exciting and interesting and with this one roof over them.

Sam: Yeah. And, and it still stands that one roof. It’s amazing isn’t it.

Tom: You asked about challenging ones, it did have its challenges but it was a it was a fantastic project to work on and a really great bunch of people.

I mean I found more recently working with public sector you know, large government departments that there’s real challenges in terms of, you know, it’s not about necessarily challenges in getting that messaging framework agreed. But then in getting agreement on kind of how you move forward from there, the huge number of different channels. Vast numbers of different audiences.

There’s so many variables. And so trying to get that right is, you know, that is really challenging. And again, it does come back to being as strategic, as you possibly can, trying to find those things that you can measure even when your analytics are, you know, fairly poor because the, you know, the tech isn’t isn’t necessarily there. And, you know, just delivering stuff that is authentic and, you know, works for people. And when you do all of a sudden there’s there’s really good feedback. You get there in the end.

Measuring a successful story

Sam: Let’s talk about pitfalls then. So what should people avoid if they’re going to start thinking about using storytelling?

Tom: I think that not doing some of the basics is, is the worst part.

So, you know, this is why you can definitely use the storytelling to just spruce up a bit of internal comms and make it relevant to people. But taking a strategic approach to it and having that kind of ongoing consistency is much more effective because people are seeing the same thing again and again. They’re getting the message, they’re getting the language.

If you don’t do that process first, you can start to create quite different messages for different audiences that don’t link up. And all of a sudden that creates more fear. Because people are hearing different things from different people. So that’s a really critical one.

The other one is, you know, as I alluded to measurement, you know, it’s really hard to get decent measurement. You know, it is. It always is. It is a whole competency in itself.

Sam: Yes. It’s a science almost, isn’t it?

Tom: Absolutely. But it’s really worth the effort. And I think that, you know, too often I see people doing great work, not being able to make it any better because they’re not able to measure its success.

There’s not one number, it’s like “Okay, we’re doing a video. Yes we want to see how many view it, but also we need to see how many people view it to the end.” You know, and if people aren’t getting to the end. There’s may the next one a bit shorter. Do you know what I mean?

It’s just trying to understand how people are consuming the, the messaging you’re putting out.

Sam: it’s just helping you make those small iterative changes that are just going to have a greater impact. So any examples of a project that you’ve worked on where we’ve got really great measurement?

Tom: Well, I think I don’t actually have to go back into this sort of time of doing marketing to say, because there are so many great analytics tools that brands use. Yeah. And you know, they don’t know their audience by name usually.

They’re using everything from the, the social analytics on Facebook and Twitter etc through to the Google Analytics or even more sophisticated analytics packages on the web. You can really start to map out journeys.

We did this with a brand, a retail brand who was finding, you know, spending a lot of money on digital advertising, but getting most people bouncing off their website. We found out just by looking at what people were searching for and where they were bouncing off, we could create a softer landing for them.

So a landing page that had actual editorial content on it, beautiful pictures that matched their, you know, if they wanted a blue sofa, You know, then you take them into a landing page that was about sofas and had stuff that was in blue on it. Rather than slap bang into a sales page, people might worry that you’re interrupting a journey, but actually you’re not. You’re softening it. You’re making it more sticky. And you’re making people more light and you can watch it and you can adjust things. Yeah. You know, move the picture up or down. Make it bigger or smaller and watch what happens to the traffic.

Sam: I can see just from your face that you absolutely love doing that.

Tom: I love the art of creativity, of storytelling. Yeah. But I also love the science of being able to prove effectiveness. Yeah. And I think that if you don’t do the two together, you’re definitely going to miss out.

The brand storytelling hall of fame

Sam: Yeah. So come on then. What are your favourite brands? Who does this the best?

Tom: Well, we’ve talked about Apple haven’t we? Yeah. You know, I think that there are, you know, people will point at brands that have purpose as being ones that have great storytelling. So if you look at brands like Patagonia, like Ecotricity, they have a brilliant tone, really consistent, and they create content that reflects that, whether it’s kind of, you know, shots of mountains and stories about going mountaineering or whether it’s, you know, how wind farms work and all of those sort of things.

On the other side, you’ve got a brand like Red Bull, which is essentially became more of a publisher than it did a drinks maker, because you’ve got this, in my view, quite vile drink. But they have associated it with so many kind of aspirational lifestyle elements and actually created those. So it’s not just about sponsoring F1 it’s about doing this parachuting from space.

People are told these stories by this brand and then you know that, okay, their product is just fizzy water with a bit of sugar. But actually the way that they’ve story told is what’s made them be able to kind of break through this lock of Coca-Cola and Pepsi that they had on the on the world. So, yeah, those are those are good examples, I think.

Sam: Thanks, Tom. That’s great. Thank you so much for your for your insights. It’s been an absolutely lovely chat. Thank you very much.