Our education taught us how to sharpen our arguments, think logically, memorise facts and develop critical thinking. It comes as no surprise, then, that when we need to communicate the elements of a project or present information, we rely on logic, facts and well-rounded arguments. But when was the last time you convinced anybody using logic and perfect arguments?
People are never convinced based only on good reasons. We need something more – motivation to act, engagement, enthusiasm, passion – and that something more is not logical at all. Understanding has never been enough. I know that if I want to lose weight, I need to start eating healthier food, but I don’t. Why? Because I understand what needs to be done, but I’m not motivated enough to do it. My logic is on board, but how I feel about it isn’t.
We’re all irrational when it comes to making decisions. We need emotions more than rational thinking to move us forward.
Emotions aren’t just an accessory
The neurologist Antonio Damasio famously researched the case of a patient called Elliot, who had a damaged frontal lobe, the part of the brain that affects the emotions. Elliot could understand and function logically, but he did not feel emotions. Although his IQ and mental ability were intact, he couldn’t make decisions. Elliot’s life had become a nightmare. There was no trace of the bright, successful businessman he had once been. He had no job and no family, and he was living in a rented room.
Damasio came to the ground-breaking conclusion that, when emotions are impaired, so is decision-making. What can we learn from this? That when describing a project or giving information, emotions aren’t just an accessory, because without them, people will have more difficulty acting. And how can we add the emotional edge to our communication? By applying the principles of storytelling to our communication strategy.
Think about your communication strategy as a big story that needs to be told
You know you can’t create engagement and motivation with the wrong story. So, for every project that needs stakeholders on board, the right story needs to be crafted from the beginning. And the right story is the one that talks about why you do what you do, why it matters, what it means to you and the stakeholders, the difference it will make, and why people will be proud of it.
Think about Nelson Mandela using rugby to bring a nation together to overcome apartheid. Think about Steve Jobs talking about 1,000 songs in your pocket. Think about Barack Obama telling his fellow Americans: “Yes you can.” These leaders had a lot of things to say, but they chose a story that everyone could connect to. Before starting to think about what information needs to be delivered and to whom, it’s important to think about how you want to make them feel, and what story they need to tell themselves and others.
Remember that we’re all irrational
One of the ways of applying ‘story thinking’ for better communication is to start asking why the project is important. What is it that you really want to achieve as a team? What are the core values? Why are they important? How are the values and purpose actually related to the people who are going to be involved in the project? How can people feel part of the project? Once you know the answers, your communication and your message should focus only on this.
Wouldn’t it be easier if people could just see the benefits of the project? Wouldn’t it be enough to talk about what the project will bring, and how we can all benefit from it? Sure – but remember, we’re all irrational, driven by emotions. It’s easy to lose perspective. What seems like a benefit today becomes a burden tomorrow. You need to create a story that people can hold onto in the bad moments and when emotions are running high.
We all attach meaning to everything we do. When you create the right story, your project becomes not just another project, but the project that made a difference. Something to be remembered, something to be proud of and something that will bring meaning.
A version of this blog appears in the spring 2021 edition of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members. You can find out more here.
You may also be interested in: