What Owners Need to Know About Storytelling to Attract A-List Talent – David Lee

What Owners Need to Know About Storytelling to Attract A-List Talent - David Lee

You hear a lot about storytelling these days, and how businesses can use stories to attract customers and employees alike. But how do you craft a compelling story? What are the components? And where do you share it?

David Lee of HumanNature@Work has been teaching storytelling to leaders and owners for over 20 years, and he shares with us how to craft the story that will attract that A-List employee to your team.


Rich:  Our next guest is the founder of Human Nature @Work, a consulting executive coaching and training firm that helps employers attract, retain, and engage A-list talent. He has been using and teaching storytelling as a communication modality to leaders, coaches, and employers for over 20 years. 

He’s written extensively on how to use employee and customer stories to create a more compelling and believable employer brand and to increase employee engagement. His work on storytelling to make new hire orientation programs more effective was featured in the most recent edition of the Talent Management Handbook published by McGraw Hill. We’re excited to discover how to tell better stories at work with David Lee. David, welcome to the podcast.

David: Thanks. Great to be here.

Yury: We are excited to have you. So David, can you tell us a little bit about your story of getting into the storytelling business?

David: Yeah, absolutely. So I think my first fascination with stories just as a kid – I come from a real reading family – and just so struck by how a story can transport you into another world. But my interest as a professional actually came from my first career as an addictions counselor where, when I would try to convince people that they had a drinking or drug problem as a new counselor out of college, I naively thought they would thank me for potentially saving their lives. Not only did they not thank me, but they just never showed up again. 

And so I like oftentimes, whether it’s a supervisor, a leader, or just us in regular life, when somebody doesn’t take our advice, we see it as something wrong with them and it feels good, but it wasn’t helping me cause I had a wide open calendar. And that’s when I learned about therapeutic storytelling and how using stories is sort of like if you have to give medicine to your dog, you put it in peanut butter. It encompasses that message in a palatable way. And by using storytelling instead of provoking denial or defensiveness, my clients started wanting to hear what I had to say. 

And when I left that field and entered the world of corporate training and consulting, I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to use storytelling again. But when I started watching leaders trying to inspire their people, but just doing it in terms of abstract mission statements, you know, the plaque on the wall values, et cetera, I’m thinking oh my God, there’s this whole opportunity to tell stories which inspire people. And then when I got started focusing more in attracting talent, again, seeing how employers could benefit from using stories to communicate their message. 

Yury: That is fantastic. Thank you.

Rich: You talked about the mission statement being vague and stuff like that. So what exactly are the people you’re working with struggling with when it comes to storytelling, and how do you help them overcome that? 

David: Yeah, I think it’s interesting, one of the biggest challenges I find for people is how to go from the abstract to the concrete. And so whether it’s working with a supervisor, like in the trenches who let’s say they want to get their frontline employees to be more customer centric, and they’ll say, “You know, okay, so one of our values here is being welcoming and friendly. So I want you to be welcoming and friendly and thoughtful. Okay, go!”  And employee’s like, “All right boss.” But that doesn’t give them an idea of what that looks and sounds like. Whereas I loved Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick.


Yury: Awesome. Isn’t that a great book? 


David: It’s so funny that you people actually read the book, 99% of my audiences haven’t. And I love what they said about stories because they said stories provide inspiration and simulation. So they inspire. 


So let’s say we use the customer surface example. When you tell stories to employees of other employees rocking it, it’s inspiring to raise the bar for themselves, but it’s also simulation. It’s like a virtual reality training video. 


So actually, let me give you an example because I want to practice what I preach. So let’s say a supervisor or a leader could say that… or let me share with you an example of a story from one of my favorite Maine employers, the Holy Donut. And just a little quick backstory about why I’m so into them. Okay. The fanboy of them.


I actually had interviewed Jeff Buck Walter, one of the co-founders, and now he’s a CEO, for an article I was doing for a magazine on their culture. And I was just so impressed with their culture and also him as a leader. I’ve been doing some follow-up interviews with him and some of their employees, and their head of HR, Jen Horton, who’s a great storytelling teller, was telling me this story. So imagine what I’m about to hear now as a leader telling you this versus we’re going to be really customer centric. She was telling me about how one of their core values is thoughtfulness and the mission is – this is not exactly verbatim – but it’s like how do you create customer experiences that surprise and delight them and make them want to tell other people? 


And she said, so for instance, we have a rock star supervisor in one of our stores, Melissa, where it was like rush hour before work and there was a line out the door. And she sees way in the back this regular customer of hers who clearly is not going to make it to work on time. And because of their culture of getting to know customers, she knew exactly what this lady’s order was. She made it, walked out the door to her and said, “Here’s your coffee, it’s on us. Have a great day”.  So you can picture that in your mind like it’s a little movie playing now. So it’s a way to make your values and your mission concrete and understandable. 


Rich: That makes a lot of sense. Do you always have to pull a story that is either real from your own experience, or can you ever use parables? Does it always have to be based in reality? I mean that situation obviously is a story that happened to Holy Donuts in their situation, but does it always have to be that way? 


David: Yeah, great question. I personally am not a big fan of parables. What I do say to people is you can draw inspiration from stories from outside your organization. In fact, when I teach storytelling or customer service, I love to use one of my all-time favorite customer service stories from a company that I see as the gold standard for using stories to inspire employees and embed their values, which is Ritz Carlton. 


And so I, I heard this story from the former senior leader of leadership development at Ritz Carlton, we had spoken to an onboarding conference together. I was blown away by her presentation and asked her to speak with me at another conference, and she shared this story about this little girl at one of their properties and she lost her tooth and she freaked out because she’s on vacation and how’s the tooth fairy going to find her and get the tooth fairy swag or money.


And so she’s crying and she’s complaining to her parents – and they’re at the Ritz Carlton pool – and the parents finally calm her down and everything’s fine. They go into the hotel, get dressed to go out to visit the city that they’re in, and when they come back they walk into the lobby. The little girl stops and she stares and there right in front of her in the lobby is the tooth fairy.  And she runs over and gives the tooth fairy a big hug and has like a mega awesome Ritz Carlton swag bag. 


And you think about that. Those are the types of stories, the wow stories, the Ritz Carlton tells their employees on a regular basis. Again, inspiration simulation. But I also want to add to that, celebration, like celebrating the awesome. And so not only does it keep employees connected with the vision and be inspired, but it’s also you think about when you’re talking with a prospective employee and they’re looking at Ritz Carlton versus another place, and you’re saying this is the kind of environment you get to work in where you get to make a difference, where you get to play with the A-team, how much more compelling it is.


So I feel like I went a little bit away from your question, Rich, but it’s like drawing from stories from other organizations that are rocking it.


Yury: So you know, if we’re thinking about presenting a story and in kind of like a, I don’t want to say a formal, but a more or less like a structured way, are there any specific elements that we need to consider if we’re talking about look like a hero of this story, it’s not us, it’s the customer? You know, if we’re talking about the context of the story, we need to consider X , Y, and Z. Are there any certain things that we should mention on the show to make it a little bit easier for our guests to put it all together?

David: Yeah. So there’s a couple thoughts that I have in mind related to that. One is, and this is where I think a lot of people have really room for improvement. So the first is being really clear and intentional about why am I telling this story. So that’s number one. So is it a story that communicates why you can be proud to be here story? So that’s a particular genre. Is it a story that most people know, at least in the marketing field, an origin story? Is it a story that communicates how we deliver in our work experience this particular driver of talent, attraction and engagement? 


So for instance, the need for meaning and purpose or the need for professional development, the need for career development. And so that’s one of the lenses, if you will, to look at what makes a good story. So is it addressing what your audience cares about, in this case, attracting talent? 


Now in terms of details, I find sometimes that’s hard to describe without actually coaching somebody through a story. So actually if either of you want to just plant this seed and come up with it later, if either of you have a story that you’d like to tell about what it’s like working in your organization – and we can like do some live coaching related to it – we can do that. But related to the detail, what I try to think about is what amount of specificity and detail moves the story forward and what is extraneous. 


So we’ve all had the experience of hanging out with a couple, let’s say, Fred and Martha. And Fred’s like, “Yeah, that happened, I think it was like last Saturday or was that Friday or, or…”  And Martha is like, “Fred, it doesn’t matter”. You know, people are adding all these details that don’t matter. But there needs to be enough detail so you can create an immersive experience. Like again, virtual reality. The analogy that I like to use is – and this is sort of dated now – but listening to any kind of sporting event on the radio.

Yury:  Like the theater of imagination. 


David: Exactly. Exactly. Because let’s say it’s a hockey game and the person says, “Oh wow, he just hit the puck. That was amazing. And what Joe did was fantastic too. And that’s Sam. He skated so great!” You’re like, “Oh, like there’s no theater. All right, I’ll take your word for it.” You’ve got to paint a picture. 


Now, there’s also one of the distinctions, and I hope I’ll be able to make this clear, that I think of is there’s a difference between an example and a story. So let me give you an example of that. So I was interviewing this employee from this really cool company called Steam Whistle Brewery in Toronto. I feel kind of bad since we’re in Portland. 


Rich: If only there was a brewery in Portland. 


David: I know! Oops. And so I had heard about this brewery from a colleague who is in branding and he was raving about them. So I interviewed one of their employees who was probably about 25, and I asked her what makes this such a great place to work? And her name is Nicole. And Nicole said, “One of the things I love about this place is it doesn’t matter how young you are, how new you are in the organization, your voice matters. So I can be in a meeting with people in marketing who are 20 plus year pros and feeling really intimidated. You know, I’m fresh out of college, I’m a newbie. And then Greg, the cofounder will say, ‘Hey Nicole, what’s your take on this?’ And so I feel welcomed into the conversation and I’m like, cool, my ideas matter.”


So I want to stop for a second. So you think about, let’s say if you’re a recruiter and you say, “Hey, here..” to a really talented person,  “Hey, if you come to work here, it doesn’t matter how many years in the field or how young you are, your voice matters.” And the person’s like, “Okay.” But that doesn’t, like anybody could say that. But then you use the example that Nicole gave me, then it makes it come to life. Well that’s an example. 


What would be even cooler – and I didn’t delve into, I think I asked her for specific and she wasn’t able to tell me a story – but if we were doing this for her career portal or for stories for employees to tell when there are barbecues and networking or recruiters, I would have asked her for a specific example. So an actual story would be, “So one of the times the marketing team was trying to think about how can we create a more community friendly image in Toronto? (so I’m Nicole) And I’m thinking it would be super cool if we partnered with a college that did a blah, blah, blah,” but I’m thinking, “Oh, they’re gonna think what do I know?” Do you see what I’m saying? So I’m sort of like walking you through the drama. That’s the key of a good story. So it’s not just an overview.


Rich: So you’re putting some details to it so it feels immersive as we were saying before. 


David: Yes. 


Yury: So, you know, we talked a little bit about using stories for highlighting the culture, and put some kind of a focus on customer experience or customer centricity. But have you seen examples of using stories for organizations during the time of change or the transformation when you have to rally the troops and show them the greater brighter future? How do we do that?

David: Yes. Yes. So it reminds me, I did some work with a healthcare organization out west and they were in the process of rolling out electronic medical records, which any organization that’s done that knows how horrific that is. And one of the things that we know from the research on trauma is that one of the biggest factors that determines whether somebody is traumatized by a horrific event is if they have a sense of why, a sense of meaning and purpose, And organizations can use that same principle in terms of times of change. The more people have a connection with the why, why it’s important for us to do this whatever the change is, the more they’re able to handle the grueling how. It’s sort of like, I like to think of it as some takeoff on one of Nietzsche’s quotes, which is when employees have a why and understand the why, they can handle almost any what. 

And so with this organization, one of the things that we did, and actually to be honest they had already thought about it before I got there and we just accentuated it, was each physician who was part of this team leading it had their own story about either themselves or somebody they loved who their care was compromised or they almost died because of old fashioned paper records and like record not getting to the doctor in time. And so they kept those stories alive as they went through that process.

Yury: As a guiding principle, a true North star. 

David: Exactly. And there’s also another really cool story related to helping people navigate change, which is what I think of as the, “if I can handle this, I can handle that” story. Or if we could handle that, which we did, we can handle this. 

And so by sharing stories of obstacles, let’s say you’re a leader and you want people to get on board, sharing stories of obstacles that you’ve overcome, that people in your organization and the organization as a whole has overcome, and then asking people to think of their own examples in their lives of things that they’ve overcome. What that does – and this is one of the other reasons why I’m such a fan of storytelling – it’s like watching a Rocky movie or something. It shifts the physiological state to one of empowerment. And you think about it, when you’re feeling strong and confident, you literally see things differently.  And so our emotional state changes our perceptions of the world. So those are also stories that can shift people from feeling like small and overwhelmed to like, we can do this. 

Rich: So I thought you’re going to go in a different direction because I thought you were going to tell Yuri here’s how you paint a picture of what will be. But you’re instead going back to stories that have happened – in these cases they seem to have happened to the people in the room – but here’s how you can overcome this challenge to get there. But are you also trying to paint a picture of here’s what the world will look like when we’ve done these changes? 

David: Absolutely. So thanks for saying that. That’s another important point. And I don’t know if he made this term up, but Ari Weisberg I think it is from a Zingerman’s, they were a deli in the Midwest that are just world famous for their customer service. They’re so good at customer service they teach customer service. And he, and again I don’t know if he made up the term, but he calls it ‘future story’. And so telling a story from the future of what it will look like when we make this change. 

And actually fun fact – or maybe not fun fact – but fun fact, I used to practice and teach hypnosis and the person whose methodology I studied under was a man named Milton Erickson. He would actually have people in a hypnotic trance tell a future story. He called it ‘pseudo orientation in time’. So imagine it was like six months to a year from now, tell me how your life was different. And they would talk about it. He would write it out, put it in an envelope, and then six months or a year later he’d show it to them. And so often they had lived into that story. So creating that future story is really powerful. 

Yury: So, you know, we talk about the importance of why and how to project yourself into the future under the hypnotic state. But can you talk a little bit about what the people you’re working with struggle with,  like the ‘what”, when it comes to storytelling and how do you help them to overcome it? 

David: Yeah, so I see one of the biggest challenges is translating strategy into boots on the ground actions. And so one of the things that I say is that your strategy or strategic vision is fantasy until people actually do something to make it happen. And so how I think of it is you’ve got your strategic vision and whatever your key initiatives, et cetera are, or what your brand promise is. And then there’s what I call your behavioral vision. What are the behaviors that employees need to do to make that strategic vision happen? And I tell you, regardless of the level in the hierarchy, and doesn’t matter how smart the person is, I find that it’s really challenging for people to speak in terms of videotape descriptions about what those high value behaviors are. So employees know how they can make the biggest contribution in general and how they can help make that vision a reality.

Does that make sense? Do you know what I’m saying? No, not yet? 

Yury: Not yet. 

David: Okay. So let me give you an example back to the Whole Foods example. Well, let’s say it’s the bank and let’s say the leadership of the bank saying to all people who interact with your customers, “We want to deliver best-in-class customer service for them to feel not just warm and welcomed, but we are like experts at what we do”. Okay. All right, let’s do it. You know, what does that actually mean in real life? 

That’s where back to the future story you’re asking about, Rich. So one is creating scenarios. So for instance, if somebody comes up and says this and this, here’s an example of showing you’re an expert, showing you care, showing you really want to know how to provide them the most value, and then you tell them, you walk them through the scenario. 

Even better is asking employees to come up with examples either that they’ve done, they’ve participated in or they’ve witnessed their peers doing, that demonstrate that those qualities of warm, welcoming, we know our stuff, we care about you.  

Yury: Gotcha. That is a lot better. I appreciate that. Thank you. 

Rich: So David, you kind of teased this a little bit earlier when we talked about employees maybe telling these stories at barbecues. So let’s say that we figure out what the stories are that we want our employees going out there and telling people,  how do we actually get them to do that? Do we corporate mandate, “You will tell the story five times at three seperate social settings”. You know obviously that’s an exaggeration, but again, how do we get our employees wanting to talk about how great it is to work here in a tight labor market like we currently have?

David: So number one is get real about whether you really have a story worthy work experience. So I think a lot of employers aren’t delivering a work experience that lends itself to employees telling stories and certainly telling stories that will go viral. So that’s number one is finding out from employees that I’m not talking about surveys, I’m talking about in depth interviews about what do you love working about here? What could we do better to make it more a better place to work here? What are some examples of experiences you’ve had that make you love to come to work? What are examples of our values in action? So that’s one thing is to make sure you’re actually delivering that. 

And number two is starting to gather and curate stories. And what I found over the years except for the really amazing stories, it’s really hard for people to think of stories that are really useful retrospectively. Like looking back, it’s a lot easier if you prime them. Like moving forward, can you be on the lookout for like a little moment of truth that communicates what it’s like to work here.  So I’m working with Yury and he noticed that I was struggling with something and he didn’t just keep head down doing his own work. He came over and showed me how to do this piece of technology. 

Yury: Sounds like a very helpful guy. 

David: And due for a raise. So let’s say something like that. Now that’s not this big epic story, but not all stories have to be epic. It’s a little slice of life. So find out if you’re really delivering a work experience that lends itself, number one. 

Number two, really involve your employees capturing and then you curate these stories. 

Number three, it’s making it so clear to employees. You’re all part of the recruiting department, the talent acquisition department. We need you. Here’s how we think we can help you help us by sharing these stories. Here are what we see as our archetypal awesome stories. What are some that you think would be good for everybody to know and share? 

Can I give you an example? 

Rich: Please. 

David: So let me give you this example. I love this example and this is actually more of an overarching story than like a little mini drama. So I was interviewing Josh Broder from Tilson for an article, first on stories and employer branding. And then I was so struck by some of the stuff that he said that for a series of articles I’m doing on psychological safety.

So actually I’m going to do two, hopefully I’ll make them quick two stories, because they’re both awesome. So when I was asking him what do you do to have a culture that is psychologically safe. So in other words, people feel comfortable enough to bring up ideas, to be vulnerable, not do all the CYA activity that so many people feel like they have to do, not worried that people are going to make fun of them, et cetera. And he said, well, we take this really seriously. And he said, there were several years ago that we got word from some members of a team that the manager of that team was really, really rough on them, like emotionally beating up on them. And he said it wasn’t anything that was potentially legal, it wasn’t like a hostile workplace, but he was just really harsh and doing some demeaning things. 

And he said, we send out the message to everybody that we’re open door leadership, open door management. We really wanna make this a great place, if something’s going on speak up. And so they spoke up and we interviewed the members of the team. We talked to the manager and within 48 hours he was out the door. And also, our customers loved him because he produced results. But that’s not who we are. We’re not going to sacrifice our employees because of that. And check this out, he said, we let the customers know why we let him go. We let employees know why we let him go. And he said we took a hit, but we knew that was the right thing. A short term hit. And he said, how can we expect our employees to speak up if they don’t feel like we’re going to listen and have their back. And this what you want in a story. 

I remember sharing that story with a friend and she goes, “That just sent chills down my spine”. I shared it with another person, a client that I’m working with in a career coach, and he goes, “Are they hiring?” Those are the kinds of stories that just lend themselves to people like, damn, this is a different place.  

Yury: So, you know, what I wanted to know is how do we actually encourage or help our employees to tell this kind of stories? Because it’s one thing that, you know, to have it as some kind of like a legend or a myth that lives inside the organization. But then, you know, how do we encourage our people to spread the word? 

Rich: Yeah, and is encouragement enough? Or do you need to spell it out for them and say, “Hey, listen, so we need some more employees in the warehouse or in upper management. Here’s one thing that you can do to help.” Like, how clear should we be? 

Yury: Right. Do we need to incentivize this kind of behavior or is it kind of like under the rock type of thing we just expect but we don’t really tell you? LIke, how do we go about it?

David: Yeah, so a couple thoughts. Number one, employers need to be crystal clear. A lot of times  a lot of employers will have employee referral programs and they will incentivize it, but they don’t do a great job of communicating that they’ve got one or how critically important it is. And they probably don’t do a great job celebrating when people actually do that. So number one is being really clear on the importance of it. 

Number two, one of the things I’ve found is that people often times they think of storytelling as this sort of like, I don’t know, Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor, long winded thing, and people don’t think of themselves as a storyteller. And it doesn’t have to be like a performing art. Like you went to a concert and something awesome happened or you had a cool vacation, you tell your friends what happened.

So most people can tell a pretty decent story. So part of it is helping people overcome this. Again, this is a performing art, it’s just like, tell your bros about how awesome this place is. And like, is it awesome? I want to make sure it is. 

Yury: Best wings in town. 

David: There you go. And actually you’re saying the best wings in town, the best stories are from the heart. It’s like the more passionate the people, stories are believable. A lot of it is through the energy, the delivery. So if your employees are truly working there, that’s going to come through. It can’t be like what you were saying, Rich, before. Like you must tell these stories. Because there’s no passion. 

And so that’s where I encourage people to think of both of your own personal stories, because it’s really easy to tell those because you experienced them as well as those bigger like sort of archetypal stories that everybody in the organization should know.

Rich: Absolutely. And the best dirty wings in town are at Samuel’s, by the way. And I tell the story all the time because every snow day we always walk there and it’s always like we get there right at 12, doors open, we sit and within moments the entire place is full. So now every time I tell that story, it’s not just like, “Oh, there’s good wings there”.  It’s like I have to go there and I’m going there on a snow day. So a free shout out to Samuel’s. 

So I’m going to ask the question that we love asking here. David, if you could change one thing to improve the business ecosystem in the state of Maine, what would it be?

David: I see it as two sides of the coin, so forgive me if it’s not one thing. It’s get way, way better at creating a story worthy workplace. Don’t spend all your money trying to say you’re a great place to work. Invest your money in actually being a great place to work. I think that’s universally an issue. 

And then two, get better at telling stories. Don’t just use platitudes and taglines to try to convince people because you get lost in a sea of sameness. 

Rich: And I would guess that the state of Maine could be doing that as well. Making sure that it’s a good place to grow a business and then do a better job of telling stories to attract people to the state, and then also to keep people in state. 

David: Absolutely. I still think there’s such a huge opportunity to tell a way better story about Maine being like a lifestyle professional dream location. Absolutely. To combine that, not just what makes this a great particular company, but here are cool, amazingly fascinating, cool people just in this area alone.

Rich: Just in this room!

David: I love it. That’s awesome. And I think there’s so much opportunity to feature that as well as like, you think about the super smart 20 -something in Silicon Valley stuck in gridlock and seeing some of the cool people in Maine snowboarding and doing all sorts of awesome stuff.  And yeah, I would like to have more work/life balance than what I’ve got. So just a huge need for that. 

Yury: So David, for those who want to practice the art of storytelling and get in touch with you or learn a little bit more about the work that you do and the ways you help other businesses to grow through storytelling, where should our listeners find you or how can they connect with you? 

David: Two places. Well they can obviously connect with on LinkedIn, David Lee and man, there’s obviously a lot of David Lee’s. My website is humannature@work and I’ll put a Fast Forward Maine blind page. So I’ll just do /fastforward. I also have a website specifically on storytelling, storiesthatchange.com. And that’s not just for businesses, but solopreneurs and coaches. 

Rich: And we’ll make sure those links go up on the show notes. David, thank you so much for stopping by today. 

David: Thanks. It’s great to share with you guys. Yeah.