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February 18, 2020

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A Halloween Season Redux: The Power of Storytelling


The real legend of Sleepy Hollow

“In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson,” wrote famed American storyteller Washington Irving in 1820, “there lies a small market town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town … From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by name of Sleepy Hollow ... A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.”

And so begins one of the most fabled Halloween tales in American history, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” What some may not realize, however, is that Sleepy Hollow is a real locale. Birthplace of Caitlyn Jenner. Home to Irving’s remains. Up until 1996, North Tarrytown was a quiet industrial village just north of New York. That year, General Motors shuttered its Hudson River factory, leaving 4,000 locals without work and the town stripped of its primary source of tax revenue. So what did the village do? It officially rebranded itself as Sleepy Hollow and capitalized on the power of storytelling. The image of the Headless Horseman now haunts the town for real. It’s everywhere. In fact, Sleepy Hollow’s spooky fall festivities have made it a thriving tourist destination.


Stories capture our imaginations and can define a more compelling brand for our offerings. For MSPs and staffing curators preparing their 2016 strategies, it’s a perfect lesson to follow Halloween -- a season of tales.

The power of storytelling

Our societies, regardless of culture or location, have flourished as a result of stories. History itself is a system of tales -- chronicles of events, parables, myths and beliefs told to localized groups of people who then venture to spread them through an evolving process of oral, written and digital media.

As Forbes’ Henry DeVries writes of Jeremy Hsu’s intriguing 2008 Scientific American article about the tremendous sway and influence of a good yarn, “storytelling is a human universal, and common themes appear in tales throughout history and all over the world. The greatest stories -- those retold through generations and translated into other languages -- do more than simply present a believable picture. These tales captivate their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied to those of the story’s characters.”

Shortly after Hsu’s piece was published, marketing researchers at Vanderbilt University discovered that test audiences in an advertising study responded more favorably to ads conveyed in a narrative format rather than just those listing the comparative benefits of a product or service. “Studies such as these,” DeVries observes, “suggest people accept ideas more readily when their minds are in story mode as opposed to when they are in an analytical mind-set.”

It’s true, data now drives the focus of organizational leaders in the staffing industry. We concentrate on metrics, key performance indicators, Big Data and people analytics. And that information is instrumental behind the scenes. Our recruiting strategies, however, must still sell our client’s employment brand. It’s not enough to provide candidates with compensation figures, numbers about the company’s growth or competitive rankings. We have to engage them, entice them and inspire them. That means detailing corporate culture, opportunity, vision, mission and development. In short, our success often hinges on our ability to tell a captivating story.

Crisp recruitment storytelling in three acts

MSPs and their staffing partners don’t need to head back to school and study up on the elements of fiction or the complex mechanics of literary analysis. Stories that resonate come from the heart and speak to the motivations and aspirations of an intended audience. Anyone can spin a majestic yarn by following three fundamental rules for constructing a good plot.

In mythologist Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he introduced us to the concept of the monomyth -- the hero’s journey. It’s the very template on which most great tales are based. To summarize, using Campbell’s own words: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Our stories to candidates can easily conform to these ideals. There’s a villain, a hero and a mentor. There’s a journey that must take place across paths fraught with obstacles. There’s a wise and experienced leader to help guide the young hero. There are magnificent opportunities that await, which can better the situation of every stakeholder at the successful conclusion of the adventure. This is the employment story for candidates -- their heroic journey. And because contingent talent are usually brought aboard to tackle projects or conquer specific challenges, the concept of a quest seems fitting.

The villain. In this instance, the villain isn’t an individual or supernatural presence. It’s a situation, an obstacle, a greater problem that must be overcome. Introduce your prospective hero to the client’s villain. It could take the form of skills deficits, stalled innovation, a lack of diversity, the status quo, the need for fresh perspectives, an aggressive competitor or other obstacles on the road to progress. Paint a vivid portrait of the issues facing the client and the rewards to be gained by solving them. Give your talent something to champion, a shared mission they can rally behind as vital contributors who will learn new skills and refine their abilities along the way.

The mentor. Every memorable hero’s tale involves a mentor. This role belongs to a learned and experienced veteran who will provide guidance, inspiration, training and direction. The Hobbits had Gandalf, who himself relied on the insights of Galadriel, a mighty elven queen. King Arthur sought counsel from the wizard Merlin. Buffy the Vampire Slayer learned from Giles. Luke Skywalker became the most powerful Jedi thanks to the lessons bestowed on him by Obi-Wan Kenobi.

MSPs and their staffing partners are ideal mentors. They possess the tools, the acumen, the experience and the people skills to fit top talent to highly engaging assignments. MSPs are not gatekeepers hoarding information or dictators pushing down orders to the frontlines. They lead with empathy. They serve as advocates, mentors, facilitators and negotiators. They give talent a voice and lend talent an ear:

  • The best MSPs and staffing curators take a genuine interest in the personal and professional aspirations of their people, and help steer them toward paths that lead to attaining those goals.
  • They recognize the efforts, contributions and achievements of their talent.
  • They schedule time to meet with talent and talk.
  • They have meaningful interactions -- they ask workers open-ended questions about their projects, their challenges, their ideas and recommendations, and actively listen to their responses.

Other team members who are already working the job on behalf of the staffing partner are equally strong sources of knowledge, comfort and creating welcoming climates for their new colleagues.

At Zenith Talent, we listen to our workers and provide feedback about their performance, areas for continuous improvement, and offer mentoring from qualified internal coaches with related skills and experiences. This is a practice that translates well to the onboarding experience. Bringing in peers with experience at the client organization and knowledge of the MSP creates a safe and supportive coaching outlet where new workers can ask all their questions upfront, without worrying about the reception.

The heroes. And finally, introduce the heroes. Your top candidates don’t want to battle villains alone. Show them the strength of the team members who will support them through the quest. Think of the rebels in Star Wars, Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings, the crew of the Starship Enterprise and the band of friends who worked alongside Buffy to slay all those undead monsters. Victories are achieved by teams of heroes. Also consider how diverse those teams tend to be. In the stories we cherish, we often find that our valiant groups include a broad swath of society -- members who represent different genders, races, ethnicities, cultures and experiences. Together, their diversity brings greater strength and value to the mission.

The best way to highlight the exceptional workplace culture and employment brand of your clients is to tell the stories of their talent to your new heroes. Even better, encourage a social media campaign -- driven by other workers -- that allow them to tell their stories directly.

The telling and the tale

Nearly everyone is familiar with Irving’s 19th century romp through the woods of Sleepy Hollow -- an epic chase through the supernatural wilds of the Hudson Valley, where a galloping Hessian ghoul expels a superstitious, supercilious and opportunistic schoolmaster from the quaint community he’s attempting to exploit. Although the story makes clear that a local rowdy in disguise did the deed, the ghostly legend endures because everyone loves a good tale.

It’s the same reason we cling to old myths, comic books, space operas, fables and folklore. When crafted well, there’s a truth being revealed in these stories that reaches out to us in a more visceral way, without obscuring the real message. It draws us in and inspires us. Why, as children, do we dress up on Halloween as the heroes of stories we love? Because they embody the challenges we want to overcome, the contributions we want to make and the heroes we one day hope to be. For MSPs and their staffing partners, consider treating your candidates to a meaningful story during the recruitment process, not just a list of numbers and duties.

Sunil Bagai
Sunil Bagai
Sunil is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, thought leader and influencer who is transforming the way companies think about and acquire talent. Blending vision, technology and business skills honed in the most innovative corporate environments, he has launched a new model for recruitment called Crowdstaffing which is being tapped successfully top global brands. Sunil is passionate about building a company that provides value to the complete staffing ecosystem including clients, candidates and recruiters.
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