Theme 3 – Disbenefits of a storytelling approach

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It shouldn’t be a surprise given the method for selecting participants that no one said that the disbenefits of storytelling meant that it should be avoided. However, all respondents identified reasons to approach storytelling with an open and critical mind. Concerns tended to focus on issues of resource, threats to reputation and the need for integrity.

Resources

It was recognised that the time required to use digital storytelling effectively was significant. Physical and software resources were also mentioned but it was limited time resource that was seen to have the greatest potential impact. TG noted time as being a scarce resource. “It all sounds good but then setting aside the time to do it…” For KV, it was a question of quality control. Time to allow for skills development was essential; “Doing it badly is worse than not doing it!”

Time spent on storytelling activity meant time not spent on the core functions of Netskills.

“What happens to “business as usual”? There’s a finite pot of resources. What suffers? What drops?” KV

Both KV and RY noted that this sort of activity was not directly income-generating, an important issue for Netskills given its need to provide much of its funding itself. KV perceived a difficulty with measuring the effectiveness of storytelling in that context: “What’s the return on investment for that time?” He noted that that was an important issue internally but was also of interest to external stakeholders. RY also saw a potential threat to developing storytelling into the future if it was seen as “time-wasting” compared to income-generating activity.

For BD the risk to managing the time around these activities was linked to a wider “cultural” feature of Netskills. After reflecting on the time taken for a video production workshop undertaken by three Netskills staff he noted an “enthusiasm to dive in” questioning whether this sort of activity could be done more effectively by outside specialists, adding shortly after:

“[It’s] not limited to this topic at all. There’s a cultural problem with wanting to do things ourselves. It’s very easy to fall into. I’m a bit worried about it.” BD

Reputation and vulnerability

What appeared to concern the whole group more was the risks around personal exposure and the possible impacts on the reputation of an organisation. Storytelling involves a degree of personal emotional honesty and both SH and CF commented how that may make some people “uncomfortable” with taking part. SH likened it to “sticking your neck out” and CF alluded to “the dangers of revealing your true feelings.” For TG those “dangers” included the impact of negative feedback for something so personal:

“One drawback is how people might perceive your story. You’re putting yourself on a pedestal. You might get negative comments and that can be detrimental to the person telling the story.” TG

There was also the question of balancing the personal nature of digital storytelling with the fact that it is being done on behalf of an organisation that has its own reputation to consider. KV considered the impact on Netskills of telling stories that were honest about a lack of knowledge on a topic.

“…It shows the human side of an organisation. The point of social media and storytelling is that it’s personal. [People] have flaws but also admit that they want to improve. If you’re setting yourself up as an consultant/expert on a topic then reveal you’re not…[pause] You’ve got to do it carefully” KV

Integrity

The final major risk the participants associated with storytelling was on issues relating to the integrity and trustworthiness of an organisation that actively uses storytelling to communicate. For some this lined back to the feelings of vulnerability that some may experience. RY pointed out:

“You have to be confident in your own skin, not be afraid to speak up. If people aren’t like that they might feel alienated.” RY

A similar position led KV to foresee a core of employees actually doing the storytelling on behalf of the team. SH pointed out a potential tension with the fact that storytelling is personal and subjective and having a limited number of people involved might lead to a misrepresentation of the wider team.

“It may not represent other people’s views. It could create an impression that is skewed by one personal experience. Like a meeting where only one person speaks. It may not be balanced.” SH

For KV there was a risk that the emotional content of stories being seen as manipulative. The persuasive power of stories was a “double-edged sword if over-used or used for purposes that are a bit surreptitious” leading people to question “what’s the hidden agenda”. He compared this to his reactions to a marketing campaign for the launch of Microsoft’s Windows 7 product that he said “felt fraudulent, deceptive.” It was a point he reiterated following the particpant checking exercise saying in an email:

“Stories can’t have a neutral point of view. Someone interprets the data and decides what story to tell. That still happens in other forms of comms [communications], but is perhaps more explicit in a story.” RY

RY was concerned about how an organisation might try to deal with the tensions between personal voice and corporate reputation.

“Having a corporate shield, it appeals because you can control it more…How would you as a company rein in personalities? If you do it’s not genuine any more. You need to trust them and stand by them when they make mistakes…If you censor or ban things there’s no point doing the whole thing.” RY

During participant checking, SH came back to this issue to stress that the tension between corporate and personal was worth overcoming. For him:

“…using a more personal style in this context is much more difficult, but could still be achieved and should be encouraged. The key would be to try and address the concerns around reputation and vulnerability and find an approach that sits comfortably for both the corporate and personal agendas.” SH

He went on to say in his email that:

“A message of value/impact flows naturally from an effective story so should need little extra emphasis, conversely, a message that is sufficiently personal dilutes the corporate implications.” SH

In other words a story telling a story in the personal voice is the best way of demonstrating benefit and impact on behalf of the business.

As a final note, during participant checking CF expressed surprise that the document in Appendix 2 seemed to cover the benefits of storytelling (Theme 2) quite lightly perhaps giving the impression that the disbenefits outweighed the positives and expressed concern about this:

“Surely there are more benefits than disbenefits?!” CF

This was backed up by KV in his email when he said that since the research had been undertakenthings had moved on in Netskills such that he saw “…much more potential than I used to and see role for aspects of storytelling in many things we do, not just specific stories.”

Next page: Theme 4 – Development and Change

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