Storytelling is one of those overlooked skills that not many people spend time to develop. Even though we are surrounded by stories, and we use them as a way of explaining, expressing and transferring information, we still tend to not give the necessary attention to it as a skill. Stories can be found everywhere in the professional world, for example, when transferring information from one level of management to another while still trying to make sure that everyone understands the full picture.
The ability to tell a story is required everywhere and a big mistake people make is believing that storytelling is simply a natural skill that can’t be cultivated.
How to become a better storyteller
Let’s start with the basics. What are the components of a good story? To summarise it in a sentence; it’s no more than presenting the facts and pointing out the valuable lesson(s) we learned from the scenario. A good story is like a good presentation for a project manager — for the same reason you wouldn't go into a meeting with a poorly prepared presentation, you shouldn't try to tell a story without first thinking through the different components that are required to make it good.
Donald Miller, in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, defines a good story as “A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” Anyone can tell a success story but without describing the valuable lesson from it, it’s not a good one.
Use the power of description
The more your story describes situations your audience is familiar with, the more closely they will be engaged and captivated. Do you remember your first day at work, or a big demanding project that quickly went off the rails? These are some of the things that most of us can relate to.
Another good approach is to familiarise your audience to the environment. Talk about the surrounding area with some level of details — ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is a great saying but not if your audience is sitting with their backs to the picture. However, try not to focus on too many details. Make people imagine how the space looks and how it feels when you were there. At the same time, stay close to your main purpose; don’t create another story while you’re telling a story.
Remember the ‘why’
Fascinating experiences, like how you once flew by helicopter for a client meeting, might sound exciting to recount, but again this does not make for a good story if it doesn’t include why it was important. Mentioning instead how you flew in a helicopter to a client’s site and that this led to having a more personal conversation with them, which in turn changed your career trajectory — all of that together has the potential for a good story.
Don’t be afraid to go a bit personal, everyone likes seeing the unseen side of you.
Stories build relationships and that’s what project teams need
Projects require us to interact with so many individuals, engage with them and build strong relationships and these are all essential skills for a good project manager. However, storytelling is critical in building these relationships, but it also tends to be a skill that many people don’t make a conscious effort to practise and improve. Being a good storyteller can help you be a better leader and also be more persuasive in the relationships you are looking to build.
Being able to provide an example of a scenario using real life experiences makes you more understandable and others will be drawn to listen to those who have experienced a lot and can draw relatable lessons from those experiences. Additionally, for those who have more of a democratic style of leadership, storytelling can also be a tool that can help you pass your message along.
If you are looking to improve your skills on the subject, I would highly recommend not only Donald Miller’s book, but Storyworthy, by Matthew Dicks. These are the best books I have read so far on the subject. They both focus on how storytelling is a learnable skill which we can, and should, all be better at, and provide strategies on how this can be achieved.