CXO

How to use storytelling to pitch projects and ideas

Facts and figures are nice, but they usually don't move people to action. Storytelling techniques, however, can help advance your agenda.

Image: iStock/monkeybusinessimages

Long ago, as a young university student unsure of what to do with my life, I considered switching from computer science to English as my major, and pursuing a career in writing. While I ultimately chose the former and have had a great career in this space, what's interesting is that I've used the storytelling and writing skills from my English classes far more than the Motorola 6800 Assembler or C Programming classes that ultimately helped complete my CS studies. Despite the "hard sciences" being very relevant to the work we do as IT leaders, storytelling is not only a valuable communications skill, but also a very real way to help articulate, disseminate, and gain acceptance for everything from new projects and implementations to changes in your technology vision.

Why stories?

As human beings, we tend to love a good story. Stories naturally and immediately resonate with us where facts and figures can't, a trait that manifests itself in a very real and economically valuable way. Facts and figures about the dangers of smoking did far less to curb smoking than photographs of cancerous lungs, just as nearly every culture teaches its children morality through storytelling and fables.

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A good story allows the listener to become personally invested in its outcome. We want the heroine to avoid the Big Bad Wolf, or the wicked witch to get her comeuppance. Furthermore, a well-told story is universally more engaging than a recitation of facts and figures, even if they both are fundamentally conveying the same point.

Whether you're pitching a new systems implementation, or requesting your annual budget, presenting the facts of the request using storytelling techniques will make your message more accessible, more likely to resonate, and ultimately more likely to be acted upon, which is the goal of every presentation.

SEE: VMware turns to sci-fi writers to explain virtualization (ZDNet)

How to build your story

Storytelling techniques abound and can be highly technical in their own right; however, you can broadly distill these techniques into three basic tools to build your own stories.

1. Your story needs likable and relatable characters.

You need not employ anything as dramatic as a frog prince, but if you're presenting changes that affect your factory, tell the story in the context of someone who works in that factory. The listener will find a Rosie the Riveter-type character, with a real name and personality, far more engaging than a Level 3 Shift Manager, or worse yet, "key stakeholders in the production management process." Share details about these characters' jobs, their interactions, and how they feel about the environment in which they're working. The character should be a likable person who ultimately invests the listener in their journey.

2. Your story should take the listener on a journey.

The most basic journey tells a story about the character's current circumstance, and then presents the character with some sort of challenge, creating conflict and drama. The character then overcomes that challenge, usually with some outside help, and arrives at a better future state. This is the same time-tested mechanic you'll find in nearly every fairy tale, except in your case the Big Bad Wolf might be challenging economic conditions or a ferocious competitor. The fairy godmother might be a new HR application or cloud infrastructure, and "living happily ever after" might be a more effective and productive salesperson who ultimately drives increased revenue.

SEE: 20 vacation reads that take a fictional look at real technology (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

3. Your story should appeal to listeners' emotions and reasoning abilities.

Include dialog; for example, rather than talking about the excessive time products spend in rework for quality inspections, you might have Rosie complaining to a coworker that, "I spend all my time entering data into that damn ERP system and am shortchanging my quality inspections!"

Sizzle AND steak

You may have heard the old admonition to "sell the sizzle, not the steak," and for many IT leaders storytelling might seem like a disingenuous means to discuss technical and seemingly fact-driven arguments. However, when you combine the sizzle of storytelling with a well-researched and supported argument, you have a potent combination. If storytelling techniques initially strike you as unimportant or beneath the "serious" discussions IT leaders should be engaging in, consider how many times you've seen good, fact-based materials that have been poorly presented, and ultimately ignored. Storytelling without the underlying facts may indeed make you a huckster, but facts without a good story are likely to create even less action on the part of your peers.

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