Ali Girard

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The Business of Storytelling

I love stories, and I know that I’m not the only one who does. Jonathan Gottschall claims that we human beings are “addicted to story,” seeking them not only in books and television, but in fantasies, religion, conspiracies, and in our own personal narratives. Stories allow us to make sense of the world; playing into our need to identify patterns, and reassuring us that everything has a predictable flow. They also produce neurochemicals in our brains that make us more readily open up our wallets.

Business-minded people have caught on, using Freytag’s Pyramid as a framework to engage audiences. Advertisers, marketers, and public relations professionals all use stories to sell products and brands. But when it comes project management, especially in IT, the stories are often forgotten. We lean on facts, timelines, and dollars. We’ve got to deliver by the deadline – who has time for storytelling?

Yet, whether it’s a can of Coca-Cola, or a system implementation, someone has to “buy” it. And people can “buy” your project in different ways: providing the dollars, visible leadership, the time it takes to learn the system, etc.

In this way, I think that storytelling plays an important role in successful project communications and change management. In fact, stories not only help to have people “buy” the project, but sponsors who own the story are more active, and stakeholders who are affected can absorb and make sense of the ensuing change using the story. It’s a tool that can be weaved into a number of communications activities, from pitching to a board, to kicking off stakeholder consultations, to the creation of an internal project site.

(Bonus: people remember stories. If you’re looking to equip your sponsor, project team, “change champions,” or whoever else is communicating about your project, you’ll make it easier for them if they have a story in their back pocket.)

The story doesn’t have to tug at your heartstrings to be effective – but it does have to have a few key elements:

  • Structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. This structure is especially easy to identify in a project environment – there is a need, we are working toward meeting it, we will deliver the project, it will have these results, and continue to make things better in this way.
  • Values: tailor your story to your audience’s values. The finance controller might get excited about cutting costs, while a clinical staff member might get on board once they see the connection to how they are able to deliver quality care.
  • People: People connect to other people. Most people don’t have an emotional connection to technology. Find out where your project touches people, and incorporate them into your story.

Taking a moment to get creative with a story might not be on your to-do list when kicking off a project (timelines, dollars – remember?), but it will provide stability to your project and ease transition points through increasing understanding, commitment, and engagement.

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