Why You Should Become a Great Storyteller

Managing project communication is a monumental juggling actI was tense. I was staring into sixteen unsmiling faces, and sixteen pairs of eyes stared back at me. The room suddenly felt stuffy. My tongue was a ball of cotton inside my mouth. I was fidgeting with my hands and dropped them to my lap, wiping the clammy feeling onto my trousers.

What was going on inside their heads? Do they like me? How many “gotcha” questions were they going to ask?

Let me back up a little. Two months earlier, I had submitted a proposal to provide project management services to a state government organization. Of the thirteen bid responses, two had surpassed the threshold to move on to final selection – a local firm, and my fledgling consulting practice. Think of it as “Consultants Got Talent”, only without Simon Cowell and thousands of screaming fans.

The final step to determine the winner was what is known in the industry as “orals”. Firms getting to this final step were required to present the salient points of their proposals orally, and then respond to questions from the selection committee.

As I said, I was tense. I had just finished my most persuasive argument for why the state should award the bid to me. The control now passed to the committee. With their prepared questions. With their unsmiling faces.

It’s no wonder my mouth was dry and my hands were clammy. It all boiled down to these next few hours of how well I handled their questions.

Fast forward a few weeks. I sat down with my client and asked him, “So, what were the factors that resulted in my being selected as Project Manager?”

“It wasn’t even close. By the time you finished answering our questions, everyone on that committee knew you were the right person for us.”

“So why the unsmiling faces?”

“A facade to mask any positive or negative feelings a committee member may have.”

“Then why all the tough questions?”

“To satisfy our bureaucracy, which requires boxes to be checked.”

“Ok, but back to my question. What exactly caused you to award me the higher points for orals?”

“Your stories. You answered our questions, and then you backed up your answers with real life stories. We knew within ten minutes that you’ve ‘been there and done that’, and that you would be able to help us.”

What did I just do to entice you to read this far? That’s right: I told a story. (Actually, I told a story about telling stories.)

In my previous article, “How to Make the Communication Management Plan Real”, I provided several techniques for managing project communications. However, I left out one of my favorite techniques – one that stands alone – the power of storytelling. If anything brings out the people aspects of project management, it’s storytelling.

Yet so many Project Managers I know do not use storytelling to enhance their communication skills. Are they afraid to? Don’t they know how? Do they not have enough stories? Do they think storytelling does not belong in a professional setting?

The fact is that storytelling is a powerful tool that can sway others to your point of view. Without stories, facts are just facts. Take them or leave them.

But with stories, what were mere facts come alive. Data becomes persuasive when propped up with story. What’s the old adage? Facts tell; stories sell.

A well-crafted, strategic story can change attitudes and minds, can persuade people to act, can strengthen bonds. Stories are irresistible because people are first and foremost social creatures that want to relate to those around them.

My client counterpart on a project that I managed in Hawaii would invite me to his office with a local colloquialism whenever he needed to discuss a project issue: “Hey, Merv, talk story?”

Stories are life.

“But,” you say, “I don’t have any stories.”

You’re a Project Manager. You have more project war stories than Genghis Khan.

“But all my stories are boring. I’m boring.”

Yes, you are. So what. Tell your story anyway. It will make the point and endear you to your listeners because you shared life with them.

“But stories are for kids, not for tough environments like IT projects.”

Nope, nope, nope. Stories ARE for tough environments (as well as for kids). Where do you go to forget about life’s the pressures for just a couple of hours? To the movies! What’s the favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal? When Uncle Joe talks about the good old days. What’s the best part of the religious service? The anecdotes that support the homily.

“But our meeting run long as it is. Stories will just add to that and waste more time.”

If a puppy and a Clydesdale can sell beer in a 30-second Super Bowl ad, then you can surely craft short, powerful stories that make a point. A well told story can save hundreds of words just by painting the picture in the listeners’ minds.

“But …”

Stop with the excuses already! Project management is about people first. People love stories. People relate to stories. People get your points when you support them with stories.

Tell stories!

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