It was just another day online when Emma Coats catapulted one, sparkly gem of wisdom into the world.
Story basics #1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
— Emma Coats (@lawnrocket) March 26, 2011
Then, another one appeared. Then, another. In the end, Coats tweeted 22 insights steeped in her experience as a storyboard artist at one of the most pro-story workplaces ever: Pixar. But what do emo toys, cars, and monsters have to do with HR? Even though Coats wrote these tweets almost six years ago, the smarts in each batch of 140 characters ring true no matter the industry, company, or era. And yes, even for something as far as possible from the world of storytelling: HR.
We’ve unpacked each nugget to show how they can help HR folks tackle one seemingly un-storylike project: The employee handbook. Hang with us for a sec. A successful handbook is one that employees will not only read, but understand. To ensure that happens, you have to craft a compelling story. Read through each lesson below, and see how they can apply to all the ups and downs as you trek through employee handbook world.
Emma Coats’ 22 rules of storytelling: The employee handbook edition
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
Most likely, your team is riddled with nerves during their first couple of days. They’re the ones you’re writing for, so do what you can to accept them in all their vulnerable glory. Plus, the only way you can help your team grow is to see where they are and then give them opportunities to be successful. The policies and guidelines in your handbook are there to do just that.
#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
Remember that you’re penning this magnum opus for your team. Therefore, everything in your handbook should be useful and entertaining to them first and foremost. But finding what’s enjoyable to you as a reader can be your litmus test. Make sure you’re always coming back to the goal of the project: Providing helpful information in a way that your team will understand and retain.
#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
Be open during the creation process. One great way to tap into the crux of your handbook is to glean feedback from your team once you have a solid draft. Then, rework the piece as needed. At GitLab, anyone can contribute to their employee handbook, regardless of whether they work at the company or not. The interesting thing about the project you’re embarking on is that your team is the heart of the story. Your job? Letting them help you tell it.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
This is a slugline; a classic script summary that most movies follow. A story only begins when something upsets the status quo and something new takes its place. Every company is different, but see if you can make your handbook embody your culture while still standing out from the crowd. The beat after “until finally,” is your moment to make something extraordinary happen — to help folks absorb the important policies you’re writing about.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
Brevity is your bestie. Write the handbook out as you see fit, then take that red pen and slash away until all the extra stuff is gone. Be stingy with what you allow to remain. Why? Because it has to be worthy of your employees’ time and attention. Plus, getting rid of things makes what remains even stronger.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
While you’re the HR pro, it doesn’t mean your employees can’t learn what to do. Put yourself in your team’s shoes so you can think about all the different scenarios that could play out at work. One great way to get into that mindframe is to ask a recent hire what their experience was like as they went through onboarding. Then, use the handbook to mirror what actually happened, along with the areas that could’ve made it even better. It gives your team more confidence in their abilities, which will help them throughout their entire time at your company.
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
Think about what you want people to walk away with beyond a solid grasp of your policies and procedures. Then, work backward to get them there. This is where policy groupings and the order of your handbook will help you achieve that smooth journey.
#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
With handbooks, there’s always room to improve. Built into the year are annual reviews where you can keep everything in tip-top shape on the compliance front. However, it’s also important to not get bogged down as you’re piecing it all together. There’s always room for improvement, especially once you gather input from your team.
#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
After a new hire joins, what are some things that just would never happen? Getting locked out on the first day? Having a marching band come through while you’re filling out new hire forms? This will lead you to the things you actually do want to occur.
#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
Everything you enjoy and don’t enjoy gets tattooed on your psyche. Zappos did a great job with identifying what they liked about comic books, and then used that theme to guide their very own handbook design.
#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
Luckily, the handbook forces you to jam your entire company mission, values, and rules into one special place. But go beyond just getting the project done. Take risks with your handbook, and explore even more of your team’s ideas than you’ll wind up using. You can always take things away.
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
And when you do, you surprise and delight the reader too. Instead of starting your handbook with the traditional “this is a handbook” overview, consider talking about what inspired you to start the company. Throw in a joke or puzzle that people can redeem for a free lunch. Get weird.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
This one goes back to putting yourself in your audience’s shoes. There should be a voice in the back of your head constantly asking questions your employees would have — real, thoughtful, opinionated questions that aren’t censored. Doing so will allow you to do a decent job addressing them on the first go-round. Your team is multifaceted, so you want your handbook to truly capture what they’re feeling and thinking about.
#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
Well, at first glance you can say that your belief is staying compliant (hey, we’re with you), but this learning goes a little deeper. Consider including a handbook section that delves into your company mission and values, and explains exactly why the company exists. Interview the founders and teammates about why they’re on board, then try to dig into the less-than-obvious reason why your company’s story needs to be told.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
Be completely upfront with yourself. Does your current handbook/manual/guide make you feel comfortable as an employee? Scared? Unsure of what you got yourself into? See what feelings rise to the surface, and then reflect on whether those were the ones you wanted to shake up. Then, find out what exactly is causing the unwanted feelings to emerge, and rethink your tone, design, or other elements to address them.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Sure, this is technically the discipline section, but it also goes well beyond that. Put your employee in as many imaginary situations you can think of. Place them in scenarios you never want them to be in, and then work out ways they can get themselves out by following the rules in your handbook. This is a great way to test out the procedures that you’re so thoughtfully laying out.
#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
Can’t get around to making the handbook of your dreams this time around? It’s not the end of the world. With HR projects like employee handbooks, various teams and compliance experts can have a lot of sway on what you can or cannot do. Do what you can with what you have, and then try to incorporate the rest of your vision as you can, in bits down the line.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
This is a truth that runs across every endeavor, creative or not — there’s always a time to put a bow on something. Put something out there, get it reviewed by a compliance expert, and then see how people react. Are you a perfectionist? Try to wrap up your handbook as soon as you get the legal go-ahead, and it will liberate you.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
It all comes down to doing the right thing. As an HR pro, you care so much about your team it’s crazy. Everything you do, including the handbook, should be a way to help them succeed.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
This one can be (too) easily applied to the handbooks that are already out there. What sucks about them? And what can you do to make yours better? Identifying what doesn’t work is the first step in figuring out what does.
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
As you’re illustrating a bunch of common scenarios, go back and try to tap into the reason someone might be in one of those situations. It’s not just “because they messed up.” It’s because of a deliberate, underlying reason. Your other job description? Understanding why people do the things they do.
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
In handbook world, the best way to get at this is to go through an outline of the policies you want to include, along with the general feeling you want people to walk away with.
It doesn’t matter if it’s about wizards or work, a good story is the backdrop behind any memorable experience. These 22 insights from Emma Coats will help you shake off those handbook doldrums and get you focused on writing something that’s both useful and that your team will actually find entertaining. You are the master of your handbook universe. So flip to a new page and start telling that oh-so-special story that everyone wants to read.