Increasing engagement through storytelling: Part 3

by Sylvie Edwards
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We continue with our discussion of the importance of the role of storytelling in project management in this third part with a closer look at how Project Managers should be more conscious of how useful storytelling can help engage their audience and assist in the successful delivery of projects.

The use of storytelling in project management

Storytelling has proven itself to be very effective in a great number of situations, professions, and domains hence the reason why so many organizations are trying to foster this old yet very applicable method of communication. Storytelling is a learning process, it is not something you will just master in one sitting. It’s a trial-and-error process of mastery. Stories, when crafted right, are a great way to represent and convey complex, multi-dimensional ideas. Well-crafted and told stories can convey both information and emotion, so touching on both explicit and tacit knowledge.

Overall, in a business context, storytelling has proven to be extremely effective when:

  • Trying to impart norms and values onto a multi-generational audience.
  • Launching a new company, brand, product, or service. 
  • On-boarding new employees or team members.
  • Assisting in repairing relationships.
  • Imparting wisdom and best practices. 
  • Developing trust and commitment.
  • Dealing with change management efforts.
  • Sharing tacit knowledge or that stuff that does not easily get captured through our every day reports and documentation.
  • Generating emotional connections by engaging our emotions into what would just normally be a series of data streams. The emotional element makes the knowledge “stick,” as a person can more easily relate to it.

There are specific targeted areas of project management that can be well served by storytelling, such as but not limited to: (7)

  • Developing the overall vision for the project and helping in making objectives clearer.
  • Communicating that vision to a varied group of stakeholders who are not always looking at the project from the same perspective.
  • Communicating issues, problems, decision-making, and resolutions.
  • Dealing with instances of conflict management
  • Explaining our decisions as they relate to our stakeholders’ interests.
  • Enhancing facilitation efforts by making the process more personal and entertaining. 
  • Personalizing the planning process so that it is not perceived as just a series of processes having to be performed.
  • Managing uncertainty and risks.
  • Showing good and bad practices used throughout but mostly in areas such as negotiating.
  • Coaching/mentoring would not be possible without storytelling elements. A good coach or mentor is able to use their own stories to make the points more personal and therefore more relevant.

I am certain that we could easily come up with double that amount if we kept it ongoing. You do not have to look far for story content when it comes to project management. If you have been working in this profession for some time, there is always a better or a worst project to draw from. Stakeholders and their antics are also well-used sources, not to mention the arrays of engaged or not engaged sponsors we encounter in our lifetime. 

You can tap into your own knowledge as well as that of your fellow Project Managers when it comes to establishing content. If this fails, there is all sorts of literature and case studies that can provide some sought-after materials. The one point that I suggest is important when “borrowing” stories from other sources is to always provide as part of your storytelling the original source. As with writing an article, paper, or other documents, you want to ensure that you have clearly referenced the original source, always give credit where credit is due.

What is your role in storytelling?

As I eluded in our introduction, the use of storytelling, although key to our human communication, is taking a backseat to all the new technological advances that are being generated daily. 

When humankind only had stories by the campfire to perpetuate an idea, a way of living, or a lifetime of experiences, storytelling was at the center of ensuring that generation after generation of individuals could carry forward information. Storytelling was what made culture.

These days, server after server of information is gathered and considered to be a way to carry forward our ways of doing and being. Several organizations are coming up against the issue that information without context can be interpreted in a number of ways, not all of which are necessarily the best or correspond to what was actually experienced. These same organizations are having issues with the succession of key personnel and retention of information when employees are exiting the organization. These are all solvable by the introduction and documentation of more of our organizations’ stories in several forms. Think of more robust ways to document and capture lessons learned for projects so that they can be easily adapted into stories for future projects.

Storytelling has seen a strong resurgence in recent times. You see it more and more used with marketing, branding, and strategic efforts. Even in this age of high technology, people realize that stories are powerful. Stories can move people to tears and to action. Studies suggest that they stimulate our minds in ways that other art and education mediums cannot. Storytelling is a craft, an art – and an important way of preserving culture, values, and history.

A project manager who uses stories to go beyond the everyday data generated as part of their project communication plan is:

  • Connecting ideas and people more easily and in a different way.
  • Bringing the values of the organization to life and are better at influencing project outcomes.
  • Being perceived as human and this can promote a positive image and elevate trust.
  • Putting information into context faster so that stakeholders understand clearly.
  • Appealing to all types of people that gravitate around a project.
  • Showing respect for the audience with thoughtful crafting of applicable stories.

Where to begin? 

Every individual has stories inside them, not just our grandpas and grandmas. Practice makes it better. Start small work with a small group of coworkers and grow your audience from there. Remember to stick to some of our key best practices and to create yourself a model to draw from when stuck. Don’t be frustrated with yourself if it does not work on the first attempt. The more you practice the more you will reap the benefits in time.

Don’t be shy? 

Everyone has a story. A story does not necessarily mean that it is large or dramatic, it only needs to be relatable to your audience at that time. There is always a worst project, team member, or stakeholder experience coming around the corner. You are a well of stories without knowing it, you simply need to bring them to the surface, frame them in the right way and watch the reaction.

Finally, remember that in a project-oriented world dominated by data, effective storytelling cuts through the noise; it gets to the core of the message and connects people to the truth behind the numbers. What’s more likely to stick in their minds: a series of stats on spreadsheets, graphs organized in a scorecard, or a story that highlights real-life experiences that they can relate to? Authentic stories speak louder than data could ever, use them to your project’s benefit.

 

References

    1. National Storytelling Network, https://storynet.org/what-is-storytelling/     
    2. A Good Presentation is About Data and Story | Kate Harrison, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateharrison/2015/01/20/a-good-presentation-is-about-data-and-story/?sh=51dfb32c450f   
    3. YouTube: The Neuroscience Behind Storytelling | Uri Hasson, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3_MYEd3DHg 
    4. YouTube: Why storytelling is more trustworthy than presenting data | Karen Eber, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ez5yS4Q5ASA 
    5. YouTube: The magical science of storytelling | David JP Phillips, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nj-hdQMa3uA 
    6. Freytag’s Pyramid: Definition, Examples, and How to Use this Dramatic Structure in Your Writing | Joe Bunting, https://thewritepractice.com/freytags-pyramid/.
    7. Storytelling is for kids – and project managers, Eddie Merla, 2009 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, available at www.pmi.org.

 

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