The lists of skills that Project Managers should seek to develop if interested in growing their competencies are published all the time. I have never found on any of these lists a key and relevant skill, storytelling. I would like to think that it is buried under the very important “communications” area, but when digging further, I often find that this is not the case. Having matured into the profession and now identifying with the older generation of Project Managers, I have seen firsthand the power of storytelling. Unfortunately, like any skill, this is one that must be developed, practiced, and passed along to junior practitioners so that it can take hold. The problem is that most of the newest generations rely on videos clips, TikTok, and other social media tools to play the function of storytelling. In other words, we are losing our storytelling ability. In this three-part article, we look at the concept of true storytelling (the good and the bad) and why it is of great importance to project management.
For most people, the term storytelling conjures up the image of bedtime stories with a child or two in tow. That is one view of telling stories. Well, I am here to tell you that storytelling is not just for children. The focus of this article will be on the use of storytelling as it relates to business and, more importantly, how Project Managers can use it to their advantage to create a more productive bond with stakeholders. Paying attention to the best orators of our lifetime and throughout history, the key to most great communicators is the fact that they can marry information, data, and explanations while conveying emotions. This does not come by the simple reading of a report, it comes from being able to craft or structure a story that will carry the data that little bit beyond just plain facts. People can relate way more and faster to a story than they can to any report or pie chart.
What is storytelling?
It is important before we go any further to define storytelling and to provide you with a bit of a framework around how to develop a good story so that you can capture your stakeholders’ attention.
Having combed the internet for different versions of the definition, the one that I find best suits the concept as it related to us in project management is the definition by the National Storytelling Network that states: “Storytelling is the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination.” (1)
Most PMs or industry leaders that I know who are good at this, as it is not everyone who is, do use storytelling to amplify their stakeholders’ communications and bring them “to life.” Storytelling done well will go beyond that and make you “feel” the story. Storytelling is traditional and even an ancient means of passing on more than facts but also wisdom and elements of culture along. Do not be fooled, storytelling is not just the simple act of adding humor components to your presentations. We have all seen how this can turn out badly. In organizations that promote and encourage the use of storytelling, this mode of sharing information ensures that components of information that are not easy to capture or communicate in an analytical form (tacit knowledge) are conveyed and easily understood by most audiences.
Fundamentally, storytelling starts with our brain and how it perceives information and emotions in the context of communications. Our brains are hardwired to search for patterns or stories to help us retain information, in fact, we spend almost a third of our time daydreaming. Having a good story can help our audience stay focused and stop daydreaming. Stories that contain conflict-driven events can create chemical reactions within the brain that can lead to the release of oxytocin and dopamine, and this creates an emotional response and connection to the information in the story.
Basically, if we read a report or sit through a PowerPoint presentation with boring bullets, only two areas of our brain get activated. Scientists call these the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. When we receive information, it reaches the part of the brain responsible for processing language, decoding information, and assigning meaning to that information (Wernicke’s area of the brain).
This process changes drastically when we are being told a story. Not only are the language-processing parts in our brain activated, but up to seven other regions are activated. Our brains have an easier time remembering stories than straight facts because they are tied together by a unifying theme. The human brain seeks patterns in information, and it is unable to tell the difference between hearing or reading a story versus actually experiencing it. In both cases, similar regions of the brain are activated. Personal or emotionally charged stories or information are more likely to be retained because they are relevant and have a level of emotional connectedness compared to straight facts. Research conducted by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner supports the point that stories enable people to remember important details and messages. Bruner’s work indicates that ”messages delivered as stories can be up to 22 times more memorable.” (2)
For us to be more efficient at communications, we need to blend more seamlessly both data and information with emotions. This will carry your message further and give the story meaning. You cannot forget or forego the data or information altogether as is it the foundation governing the story and still needs to remain so. What you need to learn to master is a quick transition from fully factual to borderline entertainment.
Our brains love storytelling because it does work at a more efficient level than just the presenting of pure data. You will not start crying, sweating, or feeling cold when someone presents slide after slide of data. On the other hand, a good story can quiet a room in an instant, makes us angry, sad and links us all in a moment within the context of a story. (3, 4, 5)
In this article, we looked at the importance of storytelling as a skill and how it can help project managers present data in a more engaging manner. Part 2 of this series will look at Gustav Freytag’s storytelling pyramid, my own modified model, and how to build your own storytelling model. It will also touch on some of the things project managers can utilize to engage their audience and some of the things they should avoid.
- National Storytelling Network, https://storynet.org/what-is-storytelling/.
- 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.
- YouTube: The Neuroscience Behind Storytelling | Uri Hasson, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3_MYEd3DHg.
- YouTube: Why storytelling is more trustworthy than presenting data | Karen Eber, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ez5yS4Q5ASA.
- YouTube: The magical science of storytelling | David JP Phillips, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nj-hdQMa3uA.
- Freytag’s Pyramid: Definition, Examples, and How to Use this Dramatic Structure in Your Writing | Joe Bunting, https://thewritepractice.com/freytags-pyramid/.
- Storytelling is for kids – and project managers, Eddie Merla, 2009 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, available at www.pmi.org.