Creating animated stories to communicate change – here’s what we’ve learned

Stickystories.co Co-Director Leisha Boyle shares learnings gathered from developing custom Sticky Stories for clients who brought storytelling to their corporate change programs.

After living through decades of change programs I’ve seen many fresh, creative approaches to change communications. The most powerful are always story-driven. They are simple and personal communications crafted from an understanding of change impacts on real people, reflecting their perspective and priorities, and empathising with the challenges that workplace changes will bring for these people. Now, going into a third year of telling such stories through animations, to drive change and learning, I would like to share some of the knowledge so that you can set yourself up to create your own.

Find the right stories

A story is not a content-rich method of communication, instead it is an insight-rich method, so choose one key ‘realisation’ you want people to have when they view the story, then build your story around this. What will it be like in future? Why will it be better? Who will it be better for? What will it feel like for them, what will surprise them about the changes? What new understanding will people come to?

Maybe your one key insight is the fact that customers will do so much more for themselves once the new portal is implemented. Maybe it’s the new way that people across the organisation will be able to collaborate. Decide on this one key ‘aha’ moment and go from there.

Choose characters that your audience want to hear about

Stories have to have characters. Maybe some people would disagree, and say you can tell the story of your company from the beginning to now and there are no real characters. I would say that unless there are characters to identify with and empathise with, it’s not a story, it’s a history lesson.

There’s a lot of work going on in the business storytelling world, to support leaders in telling stories so that they can connect with people and lead better. In this situation it’s good if they often share stories about themselves, to help people see them as people and create an empathic connection.

But if you are telling a story to communicate change, in the main you will want your characters to be people your audience can identify with as change-affected. Maybe employees like them, or maybe customers, for example.

Give your characters a problem to solve or a transition to go through

Stories thrive on tension and they engage audiences in this way. Even a minor problem like day to day work backlog, confusion over a process, doubts about a career move, are all useful problems to give your character, to engage your audience in the character’s journey and decisions.

Voiceover quality matters

This applies to the voiceover talent as well as the sound quality. A poor voiceover track hits the audience straight away and tells them the entire product is low quality. This will distract them from your message.

Don’t be too serious

If you’ve decided to convey the change story with animation, it’s ok to be a little light hearted. People expect that when they are watching cartoons, and it needn’t take anything away from your main message.

Leave something up to your audience

Stories are to be interpreted by the audience, and are more powerful if the audience plays a role in unravelling the message for themselves. So resist the temptation to put your key message across the screen in capitals. Instead, let the story resolution be a question in itself for the audience, that gently asks them ‘what does that mean?’ and lets them answer for themselves.

‘Telling’ – be sensitive to politics and cynicism

One of the biggest challenges we face with clients who engage us to tell change stories to staff, lies in the word ‘tell’. Stories that are clearly a didactic message from leadership to staff about what they should be doing can be (at best) subtly disrespectful and (at worst) cheesy and eye-rollingly irrelevant. 

In our story scripts where employee characters are having natural conversations with each other, client leadership are often tempted to insert strategic terminology, unnaturally sugary statements emphasising benefits and learnings, and extra messaging to address perceived behaviour issues. For example, having two people at coffee saying “I’m so pleased I’m a part of our new procurement framework implementation, I can see how it’s saving the company money and saves us time too!” is just a recipe to disengage. It’s not a story if it’s just a management message imposed on a character.

Another sensitivity is the negative portrayal of current issues. Stories that attempt to highlight the benefits of change by exaggerating how poorly things are working in teams right now can be downright insulting, and get people asking defensively ‘was that story meant to be about our team?’

Think through your distribution approach

There’s no point producing a 5 minute animation with the really important messaging in the final minute, and putting it on the intranet for your change affected workforce to watch in their own time. Many won’t watch it, and the majority won’t watch the whole 5 minutes. Here are my tips for thinking about how you will get value from your animated story when you roll it out:

  1. Design the broader change communications approach: What would you like people to do, read, see, understand before and after seeing this story? What other materials need to be ready so they can progress their understanding afterwards? What messaging will reach them in different ways? Decide what role you want the animated story to play in your broader change communications & engagement approach. Give it a specific objective and a simple scope of messaging.
  2. Accessibility: does your video need to have subtitles added to ensure it meets requirements? There are very affordable services and cheap/free apps you can use to add subtitles to your video after you export it from the animation tool.
  3. Tracking views: if it’s essential for everyone to have seen the animated story, think about how you will achieve this certainty.
  4. Technology: Make sure you engage with the IT function to discuss any distribution approach that will rely on staff being able to launch and play the story on internal networks. Not all default media players will play all types of video files. Also, not all corporate workforces have speakers/audio activated on their computers. Test!
  5. Confidentiality: If you decide to put your story on a public platform like Vimeo or Youtube for staff to play on their own devices, get the right risk assessment and decisions around this before you accidentally expose a cute animated story about your organisation’s future customer service model to the press and competitors.
  6. Opt-in viewing or closed sessions: In our experience, the best outcomes from our animated change stories (Sticky Stories) have been when they are played in roadshows, briefings or workshops with the audience, or in team meetings, as ‘discussion starters’. Engagement is the gold currency of change, so this is a high-value approach, if numbers and logistics make this type of interaction possible. The fact that they are animations tends to lower barriers to engagement and keep things ‘light’. Because they are stories, they are particularly useful to prompt people to tell their own stories and discuss how their own experience is similar or different to the animated story.

It’s not about fancy animation – so use a simple cheap tool

If you are in the midst of a change implementation then you don’t have time and money for Pixar-trained animators to tweak the sparkles on your exploding icons for 8 weeks, you want to get your story out there pronto and avoid asking for extra project dollars. There are a number of cloud based animation tools you should consider that are much more affordable than printing flyers or postcards for your change audience, and will take someone on your team less than a day to learn the basics, by going through short video tutorials and having a play. Some of the tools have a free membership to get started, and are all fairly affordable in a business context. They all let you upload your own images to include in the product, like logos, screen shots, photos etc – this may be important when it comes to telling your change story.

We generally use a simple, well-established tool called Goanimate. It has limitations. It doesn’t win us any kudos as animators, and we don’t get caught up in that, as the main game is to tell a story. We tend to use this tool because it is fast to produce the stories and it has automatic lip-sync, which suits our stories as they are typically conversational/dialogue-driven.

If you are embarking on your first animated change story, I suggest you try one of these:

  • Powtoon – this is a great place to start if this is your first dabble into animation tools, and you are really just looking to add a voiceover, cute characters and some entertaining colour and movement to your message. Here’s an example of a video we prepared about three years ago for a client’s change program using this tool. There is a free membership but you won’t be able to remove watermarks and download it, and the paid memberships are very affordable.
  • Goanimate – more sophisticated than Powtoon by a fair whack, this tool offers lots of scenery and props, and endless characters doing literally hundreds of actions, and they can automatically lip-sync to the voiceover soundtrack you add. There’s no free version and it’s pricier than Powtoon but still very affordable at the base membership level. Here’s an example of one of our Goanimate videos.
  • Animaker – another great option with very cute and contemporary styles of animation & characters. No lip sync but that’s not an issue for all stories. Base level membership is free.
  • Moovly – another animation tool that offers some different looks and capabilities, this is definitely worth a look as recent changes have given Moovly an edge – they are now integrated with Shutterstock as part of the their base membership, which means you can choose from and include images from the massive Shutterstock library as you develop your animation.

Leisha Boyle is the Founder and Co-Director of Stickystories.co, a business that creates short animated stories to start learning conversations and drive change. Stickystories.co offers a collection of downloadable stories for professionals across the globe, to grab that quick video that will engage and inspire in their next workshop. Leisha’s business also works with Australian clients to design custom Sticky Stories for their corporate change programs and leadership development needs.