how to engage stakeholders as never before
Dr. Joseph A. Griffin, PMP
Northeastern University, College of Professional Studies
We all love stories. We love them because they move us, they inspire us, and they touch us. Stories are a primary means of connecting people, countries, and cultures. They have the power to transform the way we think, act, and live. Yet, we project management professionals rarely take advantage of the power that storytelling offers us. This paper presents a case for using story and storytelling as a tool for engaging stakeholders. It provides an overview of some common storytelling methods, structures, and techniques, and it provides specific application for how project management professionals can use the power of story to engage stakeholders as never before.
Introduction to Story and Storytelling
In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall (2013) writes, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories” (Loc. 60). Story connects with us in a way that is basic to our very humanity. Regardless of culture or century, story has resonated with people and become a primary means of relating to others and passing down cultural norms and values. Essentially, we are addicted to story on a very evolutionary level, and we should harness this powerful reality when engaging stakeholders in our projects. There are four key reasons why story should be an important stakeholder engagement strategy:
- Stories engage in a way data cannot.
- Stories frame data in a more memorable manner.
- Stories provide context and relevance.
- Stories are often more persuasive than data alone.
Stories engage us
We cannot escape story, even if we want to. Even if we are given only “raw” data, our minds will naturally work to produce a story to make sense of the data. For instance, if you were to learn that the schedule performance index (SPI) of a project was 1.1 and that the cost performance index (CPI) was .9, apart from any data about what the project is or how far it has progressed, your mind would most likely begin crafting a narrative about the project. The data tells me that the project is ahead of schedule but over budget. The narrative your mind would most likely begin scripting is that the project is possibly more time-sensitive than cost-sensitive, which led to the schedule being fast-tracked or crashed in an attempt to deliver early, leading to increased costs. Gottschall (2013) writes, “The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can't” (Loc. 1245). Therefore, because the mind will seek the story or the narrative, we need to use the power of story to engage our stakeholders.
Stories engage us in a way that stand-alone data cannot. When engaging stakeholders through story, a context or framework can be created in an engaging manner that mere facts cannot achieve. It will allow us to draw the stakeholder into a particular frame of mind, even unintentionally. As project managers, we can almost always see the bad news coming through the way the topic or explanations (or excuses) are introduced. A story typically accompanies bad news, as it allows the teller to frame the bad news in a particular context. This evidences the reality that we use story to shape circumstances and explanations in a favourable manner, which evidences the power story has to engage us in a meaningful manner.
Stories frame data memorably
Not only do stories engage us as mere facts cannot, they can be used to frame data in a memorable manner. Jennifer Aaker (n.d.), a professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School, reports that we remember stories much better than mere data or facts. She says, “Stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone,” and when stories and data are combined, “it can pull at the audience, both intellectually and emotionally” (Aaker, n.d.). When you need to drive home a point, or you are hoping to implant something memorable in the mind of a stakeholder, a story can be the most impactful means when supported by the data you have.
Stories provide context and highlight relevance
Closely related to the last point regarding memory, stories provide context and relevance in a way that mere data cannot, which is one of the reasons that facts embedded within a story are much more memorable. Recall our previous example of a project that had an SPI of 1.1 and a CPI of .9. This information on its own is helpful, as it does relate helpful data about a project's performance. But it doesn't provide us with the necessary context to make an informed judgment on how to accurately interpret and use this data.
However, if we are reporting this data either in person or in writing, we can frame it in the context of a story about the project, helping our stakeholders understand both the implications of the data and how it can be used to inform decisions about the future work of the project. As we learn who the participants are in the project and what circumstances led to these performance metrics, we are able to get behind the data, if you will, and see it in the appropriate context. Given the right set of circumstances, these metrics (SPI of 1.1; CPI of .9) could actually be seen as a positive, as the benefits of being ahead of schedule outweigh the extra costs incurred.
Here's a final answer to the question, “Why story?”: Stories are simply more persuasive than mere facts and figures alone in most instances. In their essay “The Persuasive Power of Story,” Edward Wachtman and Sheree Johnson (n.d.) cite at least six reasons stories are more persuasive.
Stories are a fundamental form of communication.
As discussed previously, stories are one of the oldest forms of communication. From the most ancient of times, stories seem to have been a primary communication tool. This is seen in the earliest writings and art forms of our ancestors. Stories are a means of communicating values and important lessons as old as humanity itself.
Stories bond us together.
One of the reasons stories are so fundamental is because of the societal value they provide through bonding us together. With friends and family, stories can bond us together. This is easily seen by recalling the last time you saw a long-lost friend from your days at school. Those conversations quickly move to someone saying, “Do you remember when?” It is the facts and figures and data that we remember about those relationships, but it is the stories from which we may extract what we believe to be true. For instance, if we believe someone to be loyal, it is most likely because we remember a situation where that person evidenced his or her loyalty, and it is feelings imparted by the shared story that bond us together.
Stories provide meaning.
Closely linked to the last point, stories provide meaning. Another way to think about this is that they shape meaning as well. We only have to look to the stories that have been passed down in our families, cities, and countries to see truth. The stories of personal, professional, and cultural histories shape our understanding of ourselves, our work, and our world as we perceive them. Stories remind us of both the greatness of human achievement and the depths of human destruction. These histories, these stories, provide meaning, and this meaning often persuades us to view the world from a particular point of view rather than another.
Stories incite action and shape behaviour.
Without question, stories incite action. Oftentimes, they incite emotions that produce certain actions. One may remember the story your coach told you about a past team that rallied in the second half to snatch victory from defeat, or the references made by a country's leaders to the better times of the past and how the current difficulties can be overcome, if we only follow a certain path. Story is used to set forth an ideal, and then inspire others towards the ideal by taking concrete actions. This is one of the main purposes of completing lessons learned. We believe that the examples of past projects should inspire us to pursue certain actions and behave in a certain fashion.
Stories are memorable.
Finally, stories are persuasive because they are memorable. The specific points of a story may not be memorable, but the impression the story made on us is memorable, and it will often inspire actions long after the particulars have been forgotten or reimagined. Therefore, we can use stories as a vehicle for implanting both memories and impressions in the minds of stakeholders for the purpose of persuading them to our view.
Gottschall (2013) writes, “When we read non-fiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and sceptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenceless” (Loc. 1779). This does not mean story should be used to manipulate or mislead, but it can be an effective tool to support the successful execution of a project in an ethical manner.
This is a short introduction to the “Why” of story, but hopefully it makes clear the role story plays within our lives and the clear impact that a well-communicated story can have on our engagement with stakeholders. We now turn our attention to the structure and techniques of storytelling.
Storytelling Structure and Techniques
We can think of a story's structure as a matrix or scaffolding in which we can place various elements of our project. This structure is helpful because it is known intuitively by us and by our listeners, so it provides the teller and the listener with a structure that is, to some degree, predictable.
A story's structure also acts as a memory device, as it helps ensure that we deliver all the key elements of what we need to communicate to our stakeholders. Finally, the structure provides integrity and coherence to our story. It ensures that relevant information is provided in a reasonable and connected manner.
Depending on the sources used, one will find structures with varying levels of detail and complexity. In TED Talks Storytelling, Akash Karia (2014) provides the following minimalist outline:
- Character: Introduction to character and setting
- Conflict: The challenges faced by the character
- Spark: The wisdom or tool for overcoming the conflict
- Change: The result of applying the spark to the situation
- Takeaway: The lesson or moral the listener should apply to themselves (Loc. 370)
This is a helpful structure for certain settings and story types. It is an especially effective approach for telling a stakeholder a story when you want to reinforce an idea or build confidence in a proposed course of action, as it can be used to relay the details of a past project in a way that succinctly communicates the relevant information and applies the takeaway to the existing situation with the stakeholder. For creating a more formal written report, a different structure might provide clearer alignment with a more standard reporting structure, as shown in Exhibit 1.
Exhibit 1: Comparison between story structure and report structure.
In this comparison, one can see how the way that we often construct our reports parallels the structure of a story, yet we often do not think of this parallelism. But, if we do and we leverage it well, this will allow us to connect with our stakeholders in a way that we haven't in the past, as we can use the power of story to connect in a more direct and human way with our stakeholders. We can draw them not into the data and facts of our project but into the drama of the project that is unfolding. Therefore, it is key that we have a strong understanding of a basic storytelling structure, so that we can align it with how we report, formally and informally, our project's progress.
Storytelling techniques can refer, at a most basic level, to both the overall structure of your narrative and the specific tools used when delivering the story.
One of the most common narrative structures is called the hero's journey; this is where the hero, often grudgingly, takes on a quest where she must overcome great obstacles before achieving some level of success. It is certain that many projects feel this way from the perspective of the project manager.
Another narrative structure is where you create a juxtaposition between what is and what could or should be. Visually, the structure of the story is seen in Exhibit 2.
Exhibit 2: Example story structure (Solomon, 2014).
This technique is called the sparkline technique, and many communicators have used it to successfully help the listeners see the gap that exists between reality and a desired state (Solomon, 2014). This is an especially powerful tool method for a project manager who believes that constraints placed on the project are hindering the success of the project. It allows the project manager to show how the current state is hindering performance and how a change in dynamics would improve project performance. This many not mean that the project manager needs more resources; instead, he or she may need the authority to make certain decisions. It is an effective method of highlighting constraints from a more positive perspective.
Not only are there overall structural techniques, but there is a range of specific storytelling practices that a project manager may choose to employ. The following is a sampling of a few of the more common methods:
- Foreshadowing: Hints and clues to coming revelations allow you to soften bad news or build excitement for good news.
- Dialogue: Inserting dialogue is a way to allow your listeners to enter into the action as participants, and it often makes certain aspects more vivid and impactful.
- Visuals: Using visuals to explain aspects of your project is an excellent way to set the stage and bring certain images and perspectives to the mind of your listener.
- Interaction: Invite your listeners to participate in the story; ask them probing questions about what might have or will happen.
- Conflict: Every story needs some type of conflict, so don't act as though everything is wonderful. Be sure to include the conflict in the story; stakeholders expect it, and you can use it to show where they can support the success of the project.
This is but a mere survey of the storytelling techniques that can be employed. In some instances, you may use them all and others, or you may use entirely different techniques. The key isn't necessarily to make sure that you include the right techniques at the right time but that you use these techniques in an authentic manner. The best stories we can tell are the stories we know. In my presentations, the stories that I find that have the most impact are not those that I heard but those that I lived. Oftentimes, when I want to drive home the need to be aware of different cultures when working on cross-cultural project teams, I don't relate facts about cross-cultural communications or rattle of a list of techniques. Rather, I tell a story about when I was traveling to Ethiopia to complete the adoption of my daughter. I talk about the cab driver and the translator I met, and about my conversations with the attorneys and court employees. I talk about the waitress and guest-house owner I met. I tell the stories where I had to overcome my own challenges with cross-cultural communication, and these stories don't simply entertain (some of them are quite humorous); they teach truths about working well with others, even when the two parties are often talking past one another, and this is the power of story. It allows us to connect in a memorable, persuasive, and instructive way that is entertaining and engaging. So don't try to master a list of uncomfortable techniques or develop a repertoire of canned stories, but find those stories in your own life and experiences that speak to the message you need to communicate, and you will find your own storytelling voice.
How and When to Use Story
Project management professionals can use stories and storytelling techniques in an almost unlimited number of ways and situations. But, given the constraints of this paper, brief attention shall be given to three specific means.
First, stories can be a powerful tool for seeking to convince a stakeholder either to take a particular viewpoint or make a certain decision. Oftentimes, the way we see a particular situation or arrive at a certain opinion is the result of our past experiences, our own personal stories. The setup is simple. We arrive at a situation that requires a decision, and our mind automatically begins scanning our past experiences, almost unconsciously, in an attempt to arrive at a past situation that can inform our present dilemma. Based on those past situations, we analyse the dilemma at hand and make an informed decision. However, when someone else views our decision independently, he or she may see it a bit differently, and may question our decision. This is a perfect opportunity to use the power of story. We can tell the stakeholder or sponsor a story from a past project or situation that will, hopefully, enlighten them to our particular point of view. Of course, we may also have particular data or facts we may employ as well, but we shouldn't overlook the power of a story to shape opinions and decisions.
Second, story techniques can be combined with reporting data from earned value management to structure status reports. Earned value management is a tool that can provide project managers with three specific sets of information. First, it can tell someone what happened in the past through the cost and schedule variance data; second, it can provide insight into the current status by analysing the Cost Performance Index (CPI) and Schedule Performance Index (SPI) of the project, and it can be used to forecast future performance by considering the Estimate at Complete (EAC) and Estimate to Completion (ETC). These metrics mirror the structure of a simple story, what happened in the past that led the protagonist to the current situation, what the current situation actually is, and what will happen if the protagonist continues as he or she has in the past. In this way, one's report isn't a boring repetition of earned value metrics, but it is a narrative that is supported by the data, but in a more memorable manner.
Third, stories can be used as a means of building confidence in the project management professional. The kings of the ancient Near East, like many others in history, used stories as a means to increase their reputation. The kings would brag of how many chariots they had or how many lions they had slayed, and this was a means of using story to inspire fear in potential rivals. Today, we may not brag about the lions we have battled, but we may boast of the subject matter expert (SME) we procured or the schedule deadline we met. As long as the story is true, it is perfectly appropriate to use stories of past project successes and lessons learned as a means of building confidence in one's ability to succeed as a project management professional. Humility is certainly a virtue, but communicating an honest assessment of one's past successes is certainly no vice.
There is no certain formula for telling you which story to use and when to use it. A good storyteller perceives which story to tell and when to tell it, and this is a skill that can be developed through the practised and intentional use of stories. Stories are a powerful tool that can allow us to connect with our team members, sponsors, and other stakeholders at our most basic level, but it is a skill that we must develop, and the way to become a good storyteller is to tell stories. So I recommend we all begin practicing saying, “Once upon a time ….” Happy storytelling!
Aaker, J. (n.d.). Harnessing the power of stories [Video file]. Retrieved from http://leanin.org/education/harnessing-the-power-of-stories
Gottschall, J. (2013). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human. New York, NY: Mariner Books.
Karia, A. (2014). TED Talks storytelling: 23 storytelling techniques from the best TED Talks [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Solomon, L. (2014, February 11). Creating moments of impact: Using sparklines for strategic conversations. Retrieved from http://www.duarte.com/blog/creating-moments-of-impact-using-sparklines-for-strategic-conversations
Wachtman, E., & Johnson, S. (n.d.). The persuasive power of story. Retrieved from http://www.storytellings.com/images/StoryTellings_Consulting_The_Persuasive_Power_of_Story.pdf
© 2015, Dr. Joseph A. Griffin, PMP
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, U.K.