Storytelling is for kids-- and project managers

Abstract

As a project manager, are you communicating the messages you want to communicate? Have you tried using storytelling skills to enhance your communications? Storytelling is not just for kids. It is a vital tool for project managers seeking to communicate complex problems, establish relationships, connect with difficult stakeholders, and create compelling visions.

As a project manager, your success and results depend on those key conversations and presentations that require your attention throughout the project. Making things happen through other people requires strong communications and leadership skills. By employing and enhancing your storytelling skills, you can raise the effectiveness of your communications to another level.

Learn how to mine your personal, corporate, and professional knowledge for powerful stories that will create shared visions and win-win solutions. The purpose of this paper is to provide tools and techniques for mining, developing, and delivering stories to ensure your personal, professional, and project success.

This paper will provide tools and techniques for augmenting your communications and conversational skills through the storytelling process. The author will introduce the power of stories in the project environment and the storytelling process. This paper is organized into five sections:

  • Introduction to storytelling in the project environment—Learn how storytelling skills can enhance project success.
  • The analysis of a compelling story—Understand the components of a great story.
  • Mining your knowledge—Mine your personal, professional, and project knowledge to uncover those powerful stories that you already own.
  • Crafting the story—Learn techniques to craft powerful stories with purpose to accomplish your objectives.
  • Delivering the story—Learn to develop and use narrative voice, oral language, imagery, character development, humor, and gestures to deliver the right story at the right time.

Introduction to Storytelling in the Project Environment

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) 4th Edition states that “effective communication creates a bridge between diverse stakeholders involved in a project, connecting various cultural and organizational backgrounds, different levels of expertise, and various perspectives and interests in the project execution or outcome” (p. 209). Storytelling is a communications tool that can enhance the project manager’s effectiveness and improve the chances of success on a project. Through effective storytelling, a project manager can create and enhance relationships with the project stakeholders. Storytelling can bridge communications and knowledge gaps. Storytelling can be used to establish powerful project visions. Storytelling can also be used to simplify complex or ambiguous topics.

Storytelling Defined

So what is storytelling? Storytelling for the purpose of this paper is an art, a form of oral communications that requires a story, a storyteller, and an audience. Kendall Haven, in his book Super Simple Storytelling, states that “at its core, storytelling is the art of using language, vocalization, and/or physical movement and gesture to reveal the elements and images of a story to a specific, live audience” (Haven, 2000, p. 216). Haven also provides the following characteristics of storytelling, which distinguishes storytelling from other means of communications:

  • “Storytelling is an interactive performance art form. Direct interaction between the teller and audience is an essential element of the storytelling experience” (Haven, 2000, p. 216).
  • “Storytelling is, by design, a co-creative process” (Haven, 2000, p. 216). Listeners create their own images based on the storyteller’s delivery and their own experiences, emotions and beliefs.
  • “Storytelling is, by its nature, personal, interpretive, and uniquely human.” Haven adds that “more than any other form of communication, the telling of stories is an integral and essential part of the human experience” (Haven, 2000, p. 216).
  • “Storytelling is a process, a medium for sharing, interpreting, offering the content and meaning of a story to an audience” (Haven, 2000, p. 216).

Because of the nature of project management and the dependence on effective communications to lead a project, the ability to tell stories is essential to the project manager. Mark Victor Hansen, in the forward to Grady Jim Robinson’s book, “Did I Ever Tell You About The Time…,” states that “stories shape lives and ideas and worldviews. It has been said that we understand everything through the context provided by story” (Robinson, 2000, p. ix).

Application of Storytelling in the Project Environment

Exhibit 1 highlights some of the major soft skills expected of a project manager along with samples of potential applications of storytelling to augment and enhance the soft skills.

Soft Skills and Sample Applications of Storytelling

Exhibit 1: Soft Skills and Sample Applications of Storytelling

The application of storytelling will vary by the project management process groups as defined by the Project Management Institute. For each process group, we will briefly discuss the potential application of stories within that process group.

Initiation

The initiation phase of a project is critical to the definition and survival of the project. For the project manager, the primary challenge and objective is to develop the story of the project. Depending on the situation, the project manager may often have to work with the primary stakeholders to jointly develop the story of the project, the project vision. The challenge for the project manager is that the primary stakeholder’s vision needs to be translated into a story that connects with all stakeholders. Storytelling techniques can then be used to communicate the vision to all project stakeholders and obtain buy-in to the project objectives.

Stories can also be used to obtain funding for the project. Stories can help persuade and sell the benefits of a project by humanizing the project. Stories sell “what’s in it” for the funders of the project.

Planning

The planning process group offers many opportunities to lead, influence, and teach using the storytelling process. Stories can help transform the project vision to a specific project scope and definable actions. Stories can also assist in communicating and “teaching” the scope and plan to the project stakeholders.

Stories can be used to communicate schedules and to resolve schedule conflicts. Stories can help address stakeholders’ needs and help develop long-term relationships during the planning and schedule development processes.

Executing and Controlling

Stories can help facilitate the executing and monitoring and controlling process groups. Stories can be used to strengthen leadership power, enhance stakeholder management, resolve conflict among stakeholders, effectively make and communicate decisions, solve problems, negotiate, and coach.

Closing

Some of the specific opportunities for the application of storytelling skills in the closing process group include obtaining stakeholder buy-in and acceptance of project deliverables and facilitating the process of project and team shut-down.

Analysis of a Compelling Story

“When we understand what makes people receptive to influence, we are in a position to be a motivating force in their lives” (Jeary, 2005, p. 42).

Every compelling story contains the following components: The Storyteller, the Relationship, the Message, the Story, the Audience, and the Result. These are further defined next.

The Storyteller

The role of the storyteller is to tell the story. The challenge for the storyteller is to deliver a compelling story, a story that will connect with the audience. The storyteller must not only find the right story for the given situation but also must be able to use the story to deliver the key message or call to action. The storyteller must craft the story to ensure the right effect and then, most importantly, must deliver the story using language, vocal variety, body movement, and gestures.

As a project manager, I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate vision development workshops for technical projects. Several years ago, I personally made the shift from a facilitator to a storyteller facilitating a vision workshop. The shift occurred when I began using the story of John F. Kennedy’s May 1963 vision speech for sending a man to the moon, a vision speech that launched the United States space program and successful race to the moon. When I use that story, I never fail to mention that his vision was so powerful and effective that it survived him and continued to hold its power in spite of his death. I used this story to emphasize the importance and power of a well-crafted vision and have continued to use this story because it is very effective in connecting with the workshop participants.

The Relationship

Before the story begins, the relationship between the storyteller and the audience must be considered. Is it an audience of one or many? Is the relationship a temporary one or a long-term relationship? Is the relationship vital to the health of the project? Is the relationship a strong relationship or a weak one? Is the purpose of the story to establish or enhance the relationship?

How important is the relationship to the story? If the relationship is new or weak, the story must be one that can establish a connection and a trust in the storyteller. Rob Sherman, in his introduction to his book, “Sherman’s 21 Laws of Speaking,” reports that “one executive observed, ‘just five minutes in front of the right audience can be worth more than a whole year behind your desk’” (Sherman, 2001, p. 8). One well delivered story can establish a life-long relationship.

The Message

Every story has a message. In the project environment, the storyteller should understand the purpose of the story and the intended message or call to action. The storyteller should simply ask, “What do I want my audience to do or think as a result of delivering this story?” In considering the purpose of the message, the storyteller should determine if the purpose is to inform (teach), persuade, inspire, or simply entertain (with the purpose of building the relationship or establishing a bond). The beauty of a story is that a story can incorporate multiple purposes while delivering a single message or call to action.

The Story

The story is the means of delivering the message. The story can be a personal story or it can be someone else’s story. Personal stories have the added impact of authenticity and can help to quickly establish trust. A contemporary story, if appropriate to the purpose and the message, has the advantage of recognition by the audience. When having to choose a non-personal story for your intended purpose, ensure that the story is fresh and not worn out. If it is a familiar story, work on giving it a fresh and entertaining slant.

The Audience

Each member of your audience may relate to the story differently. The storyteller should consider such factors as cultural differences, personality traits, backgrounds, knowledge, needs, and state of mind of the audience members. The power of a well-crafted story is that it can bridge across many barriers to communicate a common message.

I use a personal childhood story of a “strange” neighbor to communicate the need to understand a person before making a judgment of that person. In that story, I give very little detail about that “strange” neighbor and although, I never mention his height, weight, or skin color, my audience members provide me with those details and more. They describe the image planted in their own minds using their own perspectives and experiences.

The Result

The final component of the story is the result. Some stories work, some don’t. Sometimes it’s not the story that fails but perhaps its delivery or perhaps the audience was not ready to hear that particular story at that particular time. The storyteller should evaluate the result to determine if the result was positive or negative. Did the story achieve its desired result? If not, why not? Did the result harm the relationship or enhance it? Was the result specific enough to initiate additional action?

Mining Your Knowledge for Stories

“God made man because He loved stories.” – Isak Dinesen

Considering the importance of stories and storytelling. Where do stories come from? You don’t have to look far to find stories to support your objectives or your project. You can mine your own knowledge. You are a story. You own the story of who you are. You own the story of what you want or need. Your life is a series of stories. The following table provides knowledge sources based on the process group. Use these sources to develop your own stories or to find stories to support your knowledge or experience.

Process Groups and Knowledge Sources

Exhibit 2: Process Groups and Knowledge Sources

Crafting a Story

Some stories are simple, some complex. This section outlines a five-step process for crafting your story. The five steps are: Complete an assessment, determine your message, define your characters, consider your setting, and organize your story. Let’s explore each step briefly.

Step One: Complete an Assessment

Start with an assessment of yourself. The story, whether it is based on personal experience or adapted from another source, will contain your personality, your experience, your perspective, and your emotions. What is your state of mind going into the story? What are your objectives? What is your relationship to the audience? What do you desire as a result of your story? How do you desire the relationship to be enhanced as a result of the story?

Completing an assessment should also include an honest assessment of barriers to effectively delivering your story.

The following are just some of the barriers that may be encountered when delivering your story:

  • Listening skills
  • Culture
  • Intelligence
  • Knowledge base
  • Language
  • Situational status
  • Emotional status
  • Authority or position
  • Common sense
  • Gender
  • Attraction/repulsion.

If you face any of these barriers or a combination of them, it is worth your investment of time to strategize ways to minimize them or deal with them directly while crafting your story. Great storytellers can overcome these barriers by confronting them directly as part of the storytelling process or using these as opportunities to introduce humor.

Step Two: Determine Your Message

Consider your message. It should be simple and easy to convey with your story. A guideline to use in developing your message is write it down—if you have to use more than one sentence to define your message, it needs to be revised. Ask yourself if your purpose will be served by the message. Consider also your general purpose: to inform (teach), persuade, inspire, or entertain (or a combination of these).

Step Three: Define Your Characters

Consider your characters. How many characters will you use? In a story for business purposes, I suggest using fewer characters. Use just enough characters to make the point or deliver your message. Too many characters may confuse the audience and take away from your message. Consider the audience interpretation of your characters. Consider also the motives of your characters—where are they going? What do they want? When considering characters, consider how much detail you want to provide—detail can add to the entertainment value of the story but could detract from the message.

Step Four: Consider Your Setting

Consider your setting. Where and when does your story take place? Does the setting support your message? Does the setting add or take away from the story or the message? Consider how much detail you wish to share. As with characters, detail for your setting can add to the entertainment value but could detract from the message.

Step Five: Organize Your Story

Every story has a beginning, middle, and an end. Develop an outline for your story. Determine how you will start. Great starts can quickly grab your audience’s attention and lead to powerful stories. Develop the main body of your story. If you not sure how to develop the main body of your story, consider creating a storyboard or using a mind-map. Let your characters lead your story. The end, your close, should also be powerful. Use it to provide your call to action and to bring closure to your story. I suggest writing your story on paper; if it doesn’t read well, it won’t tell well.

Delivering the Story

Determine your delivery. How are you going to tell your story? What voice will you use? Will you use your own voice or will you use the voice of one of your characters? Will you be sitting, standing, or moving about a platform? Will you be using a lectern? You should plan your use of vocal variety and pauses. You should consider the use of humor. Humor is a great way to establish a connection with your audience. You should also consider your use of gestures to deliver your story. Consider the use of language to enhance the story. Language can help paint powerful images in the minds of your audience members.

Before you deliver your story before your live audience, consider the importance of rehearsal. I personally prefer to rehearse after I’ve written a draft. I do not use the draft to memorize my speech but instead to provide me with structure and to test the effectiveness of my words and story. Rehearse until you “own” the story. Once you “own” the story, you can easily adapt the story when you are giving it before a live audience.

Conclusion

As a project manager, you can significantly enhance your communications skills and your project success by using and telling stories. Use your stories to bridge stakeholder differences, to develop win-win solutions, to develop long profitable relationships, and to improve and sustain your personal, business, and project success. Storytelling is not just for kids…it’s also for project managers.

Haven, K. (2000). Super simple storytelling: A can-do guide for every classroom. Every day. www.lu.com: Libraries Unlimited.

Jeary, T. (2005). Life is a series of presentations. New York: Fireside.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) 4th Ed. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Robinson, G. (2000). “Did I ever tell you about the time…” New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sherman, R. (2001). Sherman’s 21 laws of speaking. Blacklick, OH: Cedar Creek Press.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, Eddie Merla, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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