In part one of this three-part series, we discussed the fundamentals of storytelling, the importance of storytelling in project management, and how project managers can leverage this skill to increase audience engagement when presenting facts or data. In part two of the series, we will look at a popular storytelling model, how to build your own model, and the key steps involved in shaping a story to maximize engagement.
How to build yourself a storytelling model
As with any other form of communication, it is important to understand that storytelling does not just happen without structure, form, or norms. You format reports, letters, and other key documents, so they are recognizable and relatable to your stakeholders, and, so you should also format your stories. Most people who are not familiar with this concept will not even recognize that you are doing it. A good storyteller just needs to develop a few-word script that frames the story, develops the character(s), establishes a plot, and finally ties it all together in a full learning experience with a “ta-dah” ending. Sounds simple, right?
A good framework or basis for any story is the Story Pyramid, first introduced by Gustav Freytag, the 19th Century German playwright and novelist. (6) As you can see below (Graphic #1), in this modified model, each story has a set pattern that establishes a pyramid and dictates the highs and lows of our story.
Graphic #1: Adapted Freytag Pyramid
The adapted model represented here was my own interpretation, with some modifications from Freytag’s original, and others have come after him. This diagram sits proudly on my office whiteboard. If you want to create a model of your own, try researching Freytag’s diagram some more, as well as what is known as the Story or Character pyramid, curve, or rollercoaster.
The story is established by seven key levels:
- In the beginning: The storyteller sets the scene and the character’s background.
- The problem: The character or hero reacts to something that has happened, and it starts a chain reaction of events.
- Rising action: The story builds. There is often a complication or a setback which means the problem the character tried to solve gets more complex, or the stakes are changed along the way.
- Climax or peak: “The story reaches the point of greatest tension between the protagonist and antagonist (or if there is only one main character, the darkness or lightness of that character appears to take control) (Chey, 2021).”
- Falling action: This is when the story focuses on “action that happens because of the climax, which can also contain a reversal (when the character shows how they are changed by events of the climax) (Chey, 2021).”
- Resolution: The character/hero solves the problem, issue, or conflict.
- Denouement or the end: French for “the ending,” the denouement is often happy if it’s in comedy writing and dark and sad if it’s a tragedy. If you take this outside of writing for a moment in a project management context, we will often refer to some lessons learned to point to a final understanding.
As with most models, the Freytag Pyramid has been reworked into several permutations for different genres and styles of writing. The more simplistic one used for this article is more than sufficient for storytelling. There are several such models that can be sourced out through a simple internet search when trying your hand at more proper or formal storytelling. Find one that is easy to remember and start applying it to your basic conversations to test how well you are doing. Over a period, it has been proven that the model will establish itself as a pattern, and it will become easier to create or generate the stories with more practice.
Using a framework will help you with the structure. You can then select how to best position the story. There are two options or routes that you can take. You can create a story directly stemming from the data or information that you have. This is the most common route for most Project Managers. It does validate your knowledge of the data while positioning it in the context of a project situation that makes it more relatable. The second option is to use a parallel story that will ultimately prove the validity of the data. This way of crafting a story that mirrors the facts or data will need a bit more mastery. This second one is also known as an analogy.
Whichever option you choose for a particular story, there are a few things to remember to be successful at storytelling. This list below feels long and tricky, but it is meant to provide you with as many pointers as possible and has been generated by talking to several other PMs using storytelling as part of their daily work.
A Project Manager utilizing storytelling as part of his/her communication efforts should:
- Know your audience. You need to make certain that they will be able to relate to the situation, problem, and to your story or “hero.”
- Some of the best stories start with a quote. Take the time to read quotes that speak to you and keep them handy for your next story or presentation.
- You are aiming at explaining the WHY and not the WHAT; therefore, be precise and avoid adding too much detail as this will make your story-heavy and detract from the story.
- Be human, the best stories are those we can relate to, those that move us and evoke empathy. Don’t forget that getting personal is the best way to get a connection.
- Remain light and keep your story alive. You want your audience to be curious about what will happen next and sit on the edge of their seats.
- Simplify, avoid jargon, try to speak in layman’s terms. Stories are told in everyday language.
- Be credible without overselling it. You want to make a connection, not an enemy.
- Used in the context of education or learning, storytelling can make something that seems complex more approachable.
- Be careful in putting forward too many choices or options when it comes to the resolution. Your audience is not doing the work, you are. Keep it simple, keep it real.
- A good story is universal in its appeal to all the members of the audience and taps into the feelings and perceptions of most.
- Above all else, always maintain respect, inclusivity, and an ethical position.
There are also potentially quite a number of barriers that might impede your success. The first one which is not stated in the list is the fact that storytelling, although sounding like a skill everyone should develop, is not well developed in a great majority of individuals. Great storytellers will try to uncover barriers that exist and rework or tweak their stories accordingly to have a better chance at success. Some veterans use humor or direct examples to tackle head-on or lighten up areas of contention.
The biggest barriers that might make you fail at connecting with your audience are related to (7)
- Lack of central message
- Lack of authenticity
- Too much factual data
- Boring or lengthy story
- Listening skills
- Situational and emotional status
- Authority or position
- Common sense
- Use of media to deliver
- Delivery itself (being you and your frame of mind)
Before moving on, I wanted to discuss one point for this section in more detail. For most people, the most difficult part of storytelling is the public speaking aspect and actually articulating their views. The best way to overcome these struggles is to practice, practice, practice. Over time, you will develop your signature style, and people will love you for it!
While this article helps you understand the basic details about storytelling and the steps to develop a good story and tell it the best possible way to get the desired results, mastering the art of storytelling is not possible overnight. It requires determination, dedication, observation, constant efforts, and years of hard work.
We will continue in part three with a specific look at storytelling as it applies to Project Management.
- 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.