The Importance of Story

Gain influence and get your way with a good story

Published on Saturday, April 28, 2018

Creating a compelling story is one of the most important skills a technology leader must develop. You'll use storytelling to convince your boss that your ideas are good ones, and influence your peers to take your advice.

Good storytelling is a cornerstone of influence, and influence is how you get things done.

The death of good ideas

I've worked with countless technologists who had fantastic ideas that never went anywhere. Ideas that could have, if implemented with excellence, changed the fate of projects, departments and companies. I've watched these ideas die before they could be presented, I've watched them die the slow death suffered by those with no influence, and I've watched them die on the vine. I've watched software and network engineers, project managers and business analysts all suffer the dismay of knowing they were right and have absolutely no idea how to get support and buy in.

Why? If they were good ideas, why didn't they go anywhere? Wasn't someone listening?!

They lacked a fundamental facet needed to sell all ideas; a good story.

Influence over authority

It's rare that we have absolute authority over anything in life. In our professional life, our ideas will be bound by constraints that our peers or superiors will impose and control. If you're lucky, you might only need their blessing, but more than likely you'll need their resources and probably their active support. These both come in finite quantities that you will compete for; Jeff in accounting has good ideas too.

It is advantageous to leverage influence rather than authority to see your ideas blossom and bear fruit, and good storytelling is one of the tools we're going to use to drive engagement. A good story is critical to the influence of others, and thus critical to you seeing your initiatives succeed. Even if you have a high degree of credibility, your ability to convince others that your idea is worth pursuing without spending your political capital requires you to have a compelling perspective.

We've all seen the terrible idea that somehow manages to get more interest and support than our genius business saving profit multiplier and said to ourselves, WTF?! Generally speaking, and aside from "politics", that bad idea was more than likely presented in a way that was more attractive than yours. The other person was just better at being heard, taken seriously, or viewed with more credibility than you at that point in time.

Being a storyteller

Forming the story that supports your idea can be, but doesn't have to be complex. There are however, a few things to keep in mind.

Know your audience

Above everything, you need to know your audience. This can be a boss, a peer group, a board of directors, a user group or for larger initiatives, any combination of these. Take care when identifying your audience; if you include the wrong people or exclude the right ones, you're going to have an uphill battle to navigate. Knowing your audience is by far the most important and difficult aspect of storytelling and it requires that you flex yourself rather than expect them to accommodate you. With experience you'll get better at this part of things but be patient, it can be painful when you're wrong or mis-read a situation.

In my day to day, I commonly find myself both formally and informally presenting to people with a wide assortment of interest in my work. These conversations are usually non-technical and based in areas of finance and resource management, contracting and compliance, in both business and semi-social settings. To be successful, I need to tell complex technical stories in terms that non-technologists find valuable, and so I have to put on my finance hat when discussing the nuances of a financial constraint on a project, or my legal hat when navigating a compliance or contracting concern. This does not mean I need to be an accountant or an attorney, but it does mean I need to be able to anticipate questions or concerns that come from those disciplines; I need to flex from my technical comfort zone into areas where I may not demonstrate as much acumen as those who live them day in and day out.

Tailoring your story to the need of your audience removes the burden of them needing to know aspects of your initiative that aren't pertinent to their background, and makes your story easier to absorb. It allows them to focus on the part of your story that they care about, and if you tell it well (by addressing their needs), you'll likely gain a supporter.

A word of caution; don't assume the people you are engaging are one dimensional, that the attorney will only have concern for the legal position, or that the project manager doesn't care about quality assurance, or that the architect doesn't care about resource planning. Your audience will have diverse interests and background, and you need to account for it. Ignore this fact at your peril.

Compose your story

This is largely a mental exercise, summed up simply as "know your audience and pull your shit together". If you want to convince your leaders that refactoring a large part of your codebase is a good idea, be prepared to explain to them why. Most likely, the "why" from a technical standpoint will be easy for you, and if your leader is an engineer your story will be easier than if they are a project manager or marketing person. They will care more about resource needs and financial investment than they will the benefit of a cleaner, more consistent codebase. Remember, it's not about the black and white perspective we want them to see our story from, but the reality that they will care about the whole initiative, just some areas more than others. Sometimes, much more.

Use this to your advantage.

Many people, especially those with nominal exposure to high-tech might look at your ideas primarily through the lens of return on investment (ROI). They may want to know the full cost of your initiative; licensing impact, resource needs, financial investment, etc., measured against the benefit of the project over some period of time. Depending on the size and type of project and your companies financial strategies, they may consider depreciation or amortization, which will add additional complexity for you to address.

It is critical to understand that a person with an ROI focus values other aspects of your project, just not as much as the black and white ROI aspect. In my opinion, ROI is important but a bit lazy if it's the only lens used to view your project and I guarantee, you will encounter this obstacle.

For the refactoring example I mentioned, this can be a very difficult picture to paint. From a raw business perspective, a project that doesn't directly impact the consumer or the bottom line will require more creativity on your part to sell. Compared against a project to improve search performance, decrease conversion times or increase stability, projects without a direct impact will require you to be a better storyteller. You'll need to highlight the benefits of operational efficiency, risk management or that it's an evolution of technology that enables you to focus on new ways of doing things which in turn paves the way to innovate more easily in the future.

Or that sometimes, it's just the right thing to do. Don't discount the potential to include morality into your story, it can be a powerful cannon to field. Just be aware that it can blow up on you in irksome ways.

On voice and tone

You need to be genuine, so establish a voice and tone that works for you. For me, conversational, practical and personal are the most natural ways for me to communicate; and that comes out in my communication style. This will likely not be true for you, and you'll have to spend some time figuring this out for yourself.

Whatever it is, establish a consistent voice and it will build trust through predictability.

On presentation

You've got your idea, you spent time to identify your audience, and you've framed your story; now it's time to start socializing it. If you're thinking this is just a one-off presentation, you're wrong and you'll get nowhere. You should be having conversations in your one on ones and requesting time from people to get their initial impressions. Be wary of "hallway conversations" with those you don't have solid working relationships with as these can work against you. The last thing you want to do is freak out a peer of your boss that you don't know well with your super expensive, resource intensive, business changing idea while standing outside the bathrooms.

Your story should have a beginning, middle and end that scales with the situations and timescales with which you'll be communicating under. Can you perk my interest in a two minute hallway conversation? Keep me engaged in a 45 minute formal presentation? Generate excitement in a 90 minute or half day working session?

How well does your story scale? If it doesn't, it needs to.

In any scenario where you're engaging your audience you need to be able to communicate effectively. Many people think that presenting is simply occupying the lead chair in a room full of people and driving the conversation with a (hopefully) well crafted deck. This is only partly true, and it is folly to tell your story without considering other aspects critical to storytelling beyond "the speech".

Your comportment, e.g., personal appearance, body language, composure, and presence are often overlooked and in some ways are just as challenging to get right as the speaking part. This is your outward appearance and it is a critical part of building credibility and influence. You need to be natural here, to be yourself, so don't try to be someone you aren't. At the same time, your audience will have it's own needs of your comportment in order to be influenced, and this is a tricky thing to balance against who you are as a person.

Generally, I believe it's more important to be genuine and passionate than to put on a suit and a too tight tie if that's not your thing. Be aware that many traditional business people will disagree with me here...

Get these right and you should be fine: Sit up straight, plaster on a smile and be confident, and don't fidget. Wear clothes that fit. Don't be smelly. Don't over think it. Really, it is this simple.

Fascinating Josh fact: I don't look at eyes when I'm maintaining eye contact with my audience. I look at noses, they're far less intimidating and no one can tell...

To Powerpoint or not to Powerpoint... just don't

And now to start a flame war with a LOT of people who fancy themselves good presenters:

Powerpoint is a crutch few know how to walk with - Joshua Gall

Don't get me wrong, Powerpoint has it's place. It can be a powerful tool in the hands of someone who knows how to use it and has advanced presentation and storytelling skills. My boss is one of these people, and I've seen him "throw some slides together" in an insanely short amount of time; it boggles the mind. He's also fantastic on his feet and has a natural presentation style that is complimented by his deck, which by the way is entirely useless to anyone else who wants to use it to present.

Ask me how I know...

I avoid Powerpoint as much as possible, and I find myself staring at it for an age and a day getting nothing actually done when forced to use it. I'm just not wired for creating disjointed slideshows where my public speaking ability is expected to be the concrete that holds it all together. Based on the dozens of crap presentations I see every year, this is probably true for you as well; sorry (not sorry) for the bad news.

A few of the "Sins of Powerpoint™" that I commonly see, and have been guilty of myself:

  • The slides distract from the story (too. many. memes.)
  • The slides are read to the audience (omg please stop doing this)
  • The slides are too dense / sparse
  • The deck is poorly designed and looks sophomoric
  • The presenter doesn't engage the audience effectively
    • Engaging body language when the audience should focus on what you say
    • Remain still when the audience should be absorbing information on the deck

If you're going to Powerpoint, and there will be cases where you are required to, learn to use it as part of your presentation and don't do those things above. Especially reading your slides, even a little. By the time you're done mumbling through things, I've already read the slide and am thinking about what I want to eat later. Or pandas. Probably pandas.

I stopped listening, and I'm not alone.

As an alternative, consider the following:

Pull together a one or two, possibly more, page narrative as a pre-read to a conversation (meeting) that you're going to schedule. Then, book a meeting (with an agenda please!) with your audience and attach your document with a polite request to read it before the meeting. When the meeting comes, pass out a printed copy and present it's information (do not read it aloud) as you would a Powerpoint for the slackers (busy people who go to meetings for a living) who didn't read it beforehand. Next, turn the presentation into a conversation that you lead by asking for feedback and perspective. Finally, summarize the conversation in an email, reinforcing the discussion and any to-dos that people have and distribute to the attendees.

Do this within a few days of the conversation or it will loose momentum.

Don't wear leather suits (at work...)

warning: intentionally ambiguous story ahead...

Years ago I interviewed someone for a position at a company that provided software services to a very conservative industry, and he had a fantastic story. Like most interviews, it started on the phone and after a few minutes I was hooked. He was engaging, charming, articulate and clearly intelligent without being arrogant, and so we brought him in for an in-person meeting.

He wore a leather suit. A suit... made of leather. I'll let your mind wander...

I don't really even know what to say. I mean, he looked good, our meeting went really well and he was just as charming and engaging as he was on the phone. But c'mon, how can anyone take you seriously for a job interview when you're sitting across the table, creaking away as you take a sip from your glass of water. Even me, morbidly amused, envisioned numerous better wardrobe choices he could have made.

He didn't get the job.

This guy, who had so many things going for him, lost the opportunity simply because he failed to recognize one simple and important fact about job interviews; you have absolutely no idea who your audience is. He failed to adjust his own need to look fashionable(ish) to those of his audience who needed him to be credible.

I bring up this blast from the past to reinforce the importance of comportment and knowing your audience I mentioned earlier. Your outward appearance can undo all of your hard work. Sorry (not sorry) about the dose of reality here.

The influence buffet

It's easy to think that after all this work you've done you're finished, and sometimes (rarely) you might be. More often than not you'll need to rinse and repeat this process many times, catching people who may be at different states of acceptance of your idea and nudging them in the direction you want. You'll have to be careful at this point to not become a pest or an annoyance for your audience, but honestly, sometimes it's unavoidable.

Just be aware of how your story is being received and work at it over time. This process could take days (awesome) or months and sometimes much, much longer.

My boss and I spent years telling the story that ultimately convinced our leaders to invest in the creation of our Digital team. We agonized over who to engage and when, which powerpoint needed to convey what message, what business drivers to engage and what industry trends were pointing to. We created a base operating model, budget, and organizational structure that could deliver on the promises we were making. And finally, we perpetually adjusted all of these things based on the feedback, constraints, and challenges we encountered.

None of this happened in a single meeting, but dozens upon dozens of formal and informal meetings, conversations, and more than a few lunches.

Many years later we are both asked by other business and technology leaders how we did what we did, and the answer is simple; we told a masterful story.

Final thoughts

Storytelling is hard, the actually hard kind of hard. It is as hard to learn to do well as it is to learn to become an engineer, or project manager or an executive. This will be a personal journey for you, and you'll have to work on yourself in order to realize the full benefit of what I'm only scratching the surface of here.

There are a lot of books on this, and derivative topics for you to read. There are countless other sites online that can give you advice. Read everything you care to, but don't look for magic bullets and pixie dust; they don't exist. Instead, like all educational pursuits, absorb their information, learn from them, and make up your own mind.

Even better, find yourself a mentor.

You'll be better for it.

Header Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash