The Importance of Storytelling

“To hell with facts! We need stories!” – Ken Kesey, author

Can any of us remember a day without slides, spreadsheets, or charts? We are taking in at least 5 times as much information in this decade than we did in the mid-1980s. Terms like info-mania and data addiction are used to describe this deluge. We can help each other manage and make sense of the tsunami of information by applying storytelling.

Frequently, spreadsheets and pivot charts get plopped down in front of us as the primary method of driving dialogue, collaboration, and decisions. If the story is “project X is on track to be 5% over budget because additional regulatory requirements came to light,” tell that story.  A spreadsheet (proving the 5% is real and not imaginary) is a prop, not the main character, in that story.

We are constantly presenting, from hallway conversations to executive steering committees. Here’s some tips to making the story a bestseller.

  1. Start at the beginning. If the first thing your audience sees is a spreadsheet, you’re starting in the middle with a prop that is out of context. Why do we care about this data? What is it helping us to influence or decide? Does it indicate a need for swift action or is it input to a longer strategic cycle? The first chapter of a book sets the scene and introduces the characters; think of the first few minutes of a meeting as that first chapter. Get your audience acclimated, this will pay off when you get to the heart of the matter.
  2. Re-start at the beginning. You may be living a certain project or operation day in and day out. Many people you are interacting with are episodically dealing with the topic; they need a recap in order to get effectively engaged. One of my colleagues often starts meetings with “recall last time….” and briefly synopsizes what we discussed and/or decided. This gets the group back up to the same starting point, and from there we can move forward together.
  3. Assume everyone is distracted. Never in the history of humankind have there been as many distractions. There is information flying at us from all sides – news outlets, social media, digital signage, electronic mail. You have to grab and keep your audience’s attention. There’s an art and a science to presenting usable content and data. Find the experts in your organization who can give you tips on how to effectively develop and deliver information.
  4. Know your audience. It follows from #3 that in order to get attention, you have to know your audience. Are these busy executives for whom every meeting is a different topic? A project team who has been focused on the same work stream for months? Different audiences require different types and levels of content.
  5. Get to the point. Most meetings are an hour, and you should automatically shave off 5 minutes at the beginning and end for people to settle in and bustle out. Time-block the agenda and organize the content (the story) to allow enough time for engagement and the right outcome. Don’t produce 45 minutes of content for a 50-minute meeting where the outcome needs discussion.
  6. Don’t change the plot mid-stream. For big decisions and large projects, meetings stretch over weeks, months, even years. While adjustments are inevitable as planning and projects cycle through phases and time, don’t switch formats of key exhibits unless necessary. Your audience shouldn’t have to translate or crosswalk between different ways of presenting the same data; this will delay outcomes and frustrate people. (This should not be confused with instances where different ways of presenting data can help with shared understanding – for example, accompanying a dense spreadsheet with a high-level graph to illuminate key information.) I also see instances where suspicion and distrust emerge when exhibits change, as people might start to suspect obfuscation. This can be particularly true in information technology, due to the complex nature and often high price tags of technology solutions.

The story is the main event. Get that right, and the props of charts and spreadsheets will be more effective.

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” – Gertrude Stein

Worthwhile:

I often get asked what keeps me up at night; here’s the answer: 93% of people in the world do not have a college degree. By 2020, 65% of jobs will require some form of post-secondary education.

Looking for a fun exercise to do with a team that gets great results but is easy and inexpensive to set up? Check out the marshmallow exercise.

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