Storytelling — it’s just one side of the story.
Creative, intriguing plotlines are hailed as an ideal way to communicate complex information, but there’s more to the process. We learn and grow as story listeners; we experience joy and connection through immersion. Mix and match all 3 dimensions to add value as well as purpose to your daily work and wellness programs.
In professional work, we typically think of storytelling as narrative and/or graphics that make complex information more digestible. Persuasive anecdotes — true or made-up — also are common formats.
HES’s Intrinsic Motivation white paper features multiple levels of storytelling, closing with a charming account of a program participant’s wellness journey. The main character, Linda, nurtures her grandchildren’s enthusiasm for outdoor physical activity during a program offered by her employer:
“To capture the beauty of her walks,” the story goes, “Linda shot bright green moss clinging to rocks, a shaft of golden light piercing through the pines, a video of a little waterfall churning up foam. ‘Look how beautiful this is! You should come out with me and see it.’ But of course this didn’t convince the grandkids.” Learn what finally worked in this story within a story. It starts on page 9 of the white paper.
Our interactions are largely made up of stories — the media we consume and in others’ personal narratives. Listening purposefully, these expand our empathy while shaping our social and professional expectations.
Literary fiction is an obvious source of meaningful stories we can “listen” to, but it’s not the only place. Consider, for example, the TV show The Office, an enduring favorite across age groups. In 2008, so-called “biggest loser” contests were cresting in popularity when the series aired a 2-part episode with lessons for wellness leaders on the fence about weight loss competitions. The office team joins a company-wide weight loss contest, motivated by the prize of extra vacation days. Participants sacrifice their health to earn the incentive; one experiments with starvation diets, causing her to faint during a weigh-in.
In an episode called Fun Run, branch manager Michael organizes a 5K to raise awareness of rabies. Employees’ efforts to sidestep the race and Michael’s catastrophic choice of a pre-race meal, though satirical, remind us to identify an event’s purpose, communicate effectively, and avoid assumptions about participants’ health literacy.
Other media appear to poke fun at well-being programs. In one popular strip the boss announces, “We’re launching a health and wellness initiative for employees this week. In other news, we have cake in the break room to celebrate all of the birthdays this month.”
It’s amusing, but many of us would prefer not to have experienced another department announcing their festive food event at the same time we’re launching a wellness initiative. Ultimately, this spotlights the importance of collaboration and aligning wellness with organization culture.
The stories we listen to needn’t be satirical or drawn from pop culture. Any true insight into daily lives can improve our ability to deliver meaningful well-being offerings and messages.
You can, for example, respectfully solicit stories in focus groups and program evaluation questionnaires to get the full-color picture of why employees do or don’t engage. And keep your radar up for narratives coworkers share in casual conversation. You may identify circumstances and feelings that lead them to participate or bow out, to achieve their wellness goals or fall short. These clues help you expand and improve services in a way that increasingly responds to employee needs.
In this era when human connection seems to be fading, stories fill a fundamental need. Writer Christine Hennebury explains:
“Because stories create an emotional connection, we can gain a deeper understanding of other people’s experiences. That not only helps us to understand their lives but allows us to take the lessons they have learned and apply it to our own.”
To leverage immersion for well-being programs, HES, for example, offers wraparound challenges: online experiences that hold participants in a warm embrace while prompting them to exchange their own wellness success stories.
With themes like world travel, a pirate adventure, winter holiday scene-building, cross-country trips, and more, these programs successfully rally participants — the narrative makes it fun. Story elements like mystery destinations, earned access to locked attractions, and scenes or plotlines that unfold as they track activity breathe life into their progress… pulling participants into their experience.
I love this challenge! I have learned so much about Hawaii. The pictures and the descriptions are incredible. I find myself hurrying up to the next stop so I can read about that place. — Ola Ala participant
The 3 story dimensions are interwoven. Listening or immersion, for example, can’t exist without storytelling.
The point is simply to take a deeper dive: Understand the potential of story beyond the testimonials and infographics that come to mind when we think of storytelling in the context of our work.
Start wherever you can and go as far as you want with ideas like these:
- Listening. Pay close attention to stories that keep you engaged in books, videos, or podcasts. Be mindful of elements such as bold openings, level of detail, relatable characters, pace, and plot twists.
- Telling. You already are a storyteller — everyone is. Now, try to work the elements you identified in step 1 into the stories you tell, whether in program materials, public speaking, or one-to-one interactions.
- Immersion. Build stories into your wellness offerings with popular themes like travel, gardening, and nostalgia. Check out HES Challenges for more ideas.
I loved that we traveled around the world (virtually) and learned about the history and culture of places I would have never come across… I am so thankful I had the opportunity to connect with my Travel Companion and learn about her life. I think we supported each other very well throughout this program, and I know the connection we made will always be there. — Passport participant
Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.