AXELOS ProPath, the world's most powerful project, programme and portfolio best practice certifications

Communication through powerful storytelling

Lynda Bourne
June 25, 2013

Storytelling is one effective way to avoid the curse of knowledge when we have to explain something. If we know a subject well it is very difficult to imagine what it is like to not know it. But, if your explanation is pitched towards a knowledgeable listener (just like you), and the person lacks the level of knowledge you have assumed, your explanation will fail.

Researching the audience’s starting point before starting on the development of the story, and seeking feedback as the story unfolds, helps you pitch at the right level. Aim too high and you create fear and confusion, too low and you will be seen as boring or worse. People grappling with a totally new concept generally need to appreciate ‘why’ it is important before moving forward. Experts know ‘why’—they are interested in ‘how’ the new idea will help them.

Some of the other elements that can be built into your story to help ‘sell’ the idea you are explaining include:

  • Seeking agreement early by introducing big-picture statements almost everyone can appreciate and understand such as: “We can all agree petrol prices are rising.”
  • Developing specific context that is relevant and personally important to the audience such as: “Which means more of your hard-earned income is going to pay the running costs of your car.”
  • Introduce a ‘real’ person into the storyline: “Meet Billy, he’s tired of paying so much for fuel and needs alternatives, this is what he found.”
  • Make connections using analogies and metaphors to connect the new idea to something the audience already understands. An analogy compares two ideas for the purpose of outlining a connection between them, such as: “Billy could see using public transport was like multi-tasking because he could work and travel at the same time.”
  • Use descriptions that are focused on solutions; ‘how’ rather than ‘why’. “Billy found he could save $20 per week by taking the tram three times per week.”
  • Finish with a conclusion that wraps up the story and defines the next steps for the audience to take. “The next time petrol prices get you down, remember…”

Well-crafted stories are designed. Some of the factors to consider in designing your story include:

  • Find out what your audience already know (don’t assume).
  • Use the most basic language possible.
  • Understand the constraints:

—When do you need to have the story ready by?
—How long do you have to present? Keep it short!
—Where will the presentation take place?
—How will the information be presented?
—KISS – how many ideas can you really explain in the available time?
—Slow down! Many explanations are too fast and too complex.

  • Focus on the big ideas; forget the detail and exceptions.
  • Solve a real problem: if the story is going to last, it needs to be timeless, so avoid datable examples where possible).
  • State your intentions early, ideally in the title. This sets expectations.
  • Trade accuracy for understanding; if they don’t understand you have wasted everyone’s time. Embrace imperfections.
  • Accessibility to the audience. Ensure the story:

—Is clean and clear: reduce noise and distractions to zero.
—Makes effective use of visuals to enhance the message
—Fun to engage with: the careful use of informality and humour helps build rapport.

  • Grounded: build onto knowledge or ideas the audience already hold.

Next time you need to sell an idea to management, why not try a good ‘story’ – you may be surprised at the results!

Author avatar
Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
Read more

One thought on “Communication through powerful storytelling

  1. Hi Linda
    I met you at University of Melbourne with Patrick (I think it was for Hementa’s book launch). Thanks for your article – humanising communication is key to captivating interest. I now work as a project manager in mining (MMG). Sebastian

Comments are closed.