How Telling the Right Story Can Give You a Recruiting Edge in a Tight Labor Market

Photo by  Clem Onojeghuo  on  Unsplash

Editor’s note: This article originally published in the October 2019 issue of Utility Fleet Professional.

I wrote this Q&A piece for fleet managers, but the communication principles that Paul Smith teaches in his new book, “The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell,” can also be valuable to CEOs, entrepreneurs and anyone responsible for the talent recruitment process. 


Ask utility fleet professionals about their biggest challenge, and many will say that it’s recruiting – and keeping – good, young mechanics. 

That's because you have to compete with OEMs, local truck centers and other types of fleets for access to a shrinking pool of highly skilled mechanics. 

So, how do you gain an edge in attracting top talent in a tight labor market? 

Tell the best story.

That’s the advice from Paul Smith , the bestselling author of several books on business storytelling, including his latest, “The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell.” The 10th story deals specifically with recruiting.

I recently caught up with Smith to get his take on how fleet managers can use stories to attract the best technicians. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Why use stories for recruiting?

Paul Smith: For the same reason, I think, that you use storytelling in just about every other area of leadership – it's just more effective. And there are many reasons why. The biggest one is that human beings tend to make decisions in the emotional processing part of the brain and then rationalize those decisions a few nanoseconds later in the more conscious, logical thinking part of the brain. 

So, the decision about where to work – it's almost like deciding who to marry. If you just left it to numbers and logic, without speaking to the emotional aspect of the decision, you're missing a big part of the equation about why people choose a career and an employer. Most people don't just want to draw a paycheck.

This is where stories come in – to connect with the emotional processing part of the brain. These could be stories about someone feeling challenged, getting promoted faster, getting to do this job they love or whatever you think would best relate to the candidate’s career aspirations.

If you want to influence what people think, feel and do – in other words, leadership – it turns out you need to influence both parts of the brain. And stories are uniquely qualified vehicles to reach the subconscious emotional processing part of the brain.

Where does storytelling fit in the recruiting process?

The time to tell a differentiating story is usually when you’re face to face with the candidate, such as during the interview or at a job fair. They want to know, "Why should I work here?" 

If you say, "We offer challenging careers with competitive pay and benefits, and opportunities for advancement," keep in mind that every employer says that. Those are the facts and data, which are essential to help candidates determine whether they want to learn more.

But telling a good recruiting story takes the next step – to show why your organization is different from all the other opportunities. The story gets that person to think, “I want to work at that company because I heard about somebody who was like me, who went there and did really well." 

Put yourself in a fleet manager’s shoes. You're competing for highly skilled technicians to join your team. How do you determine what stories to tell for maximum impact?

Talk to your team. Find out why they decided to work for you – and why they stay. Why haven't they quit after, say, 20 years? 

Now, some of the answers are going to be boring, like, "Oh, I don't know. I like living here and my wife's from here," or whatever. But if you ask enough people, you're going to get some interesting stories.

What questions should fleet managers ask to uncover good recruiting stories?

Ask questions like, "Have you ever considered leaving this company but changed your mind and decided to stay? What made you think about leaving? What made you change your mind and decide to stay?" 

And whatever they say, that becomes the story – one of the stories that you're going to want to tell people when recruiting.

You need to find out what the barriers are to getting people in and what could drive them away once they get there. Then craft your stories to alleviate those concerns.

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting company that helps businesses tap into the science of storytelling to unlock sales growth. Sean is also the founder and executive editor of Strategy & Storytelling, a blog that serves as the CEO's definitive guide to becoming a more effective and persuasive communicator.

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