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Storytelling – And Getting it Right

March 2018- by Carl Pritchard, PMP®, PMI-RMP®, Apex Systems Contributor and an internationally recognized author, lecturer and trainer

storytelling

Once upon a time...

Telling a story is an art form, but it’s a learned art form. We’ve all encountered the painful storyteller who...

...doesn’t have a point,

...doesn’t know where he’s going,

...doesn’t seem to be able to end it, and

...doesn’t capture our imagination

And it hurts. The story is underway, and you, as the listener, are essentially a prisoner to the tale.

While we can’t stop others from poor storytelling, we can stop ourselves, and in the process, become powerful raconteurs who seem to be able to hold others in rapt attention with our simple tales. The keys?

  • Conclusion
  • Direction, and
  • Context

Conclusion

When something amazing happens to you, you feel compelled to share it with others. But in order to get them to care, they have to know they are a part of the story. The story has to be headed somewhere that they want to go. Think through the last 48 hours. In that time, did you meet anyone? Encounter any wildlife? See anything unusual? Hear a news story that seemed outside the norm? Any of those moments may be perfect for a story.

Great. How does that story end? If you don’t know how it ends, don’t bother with it. It’s not a good story. You have to be able to hit the end in order to make your point (which we’ll get to in a moment). But you need an end. In the stories I’ve shared with friends and family over the last day, the endings included:

  • So he has until April 19 to either fix it or get back to me with how he’s fixing it.
  • From communications to health care to registered nursing. Boom. Boom. Boom.
  • And by four o’clock, the streets were clear and everyone’s driving like nothing ever happened.
  • It may not be over, but at least the ball will have moved forward.

The stories here don’t matter. The key is that I knew, from the very beginning, when and how to end it. That’s one of the first rules of effective day-to-day storytelling. We often believe that we’ll figure out the ending once we walk through the whole story. There’s a problem with that. It’s called meandering. Without knowing how the end looks in a story, some aspiring storytellers find themselves as nomads in the wilderness. If you know where it ends, you know where you’re going!

Direction

To get from Point A to Point B, there must be a path. There can be no leaps of faith. There should be a direct and straightforward ability to understand the highlights of the experience.

  • 20 minutes on hold
  • Suddenly the degrees don’t matter, and the slate is clean
  • Cops are hanging yellow police tape everywhere
  • It’s the judge’s choice, and he’ll be calling the shots

Note what’s been left out here. There’s not a lot of emotion about how frustrating, thrilling or engaging the experience is. That’s good! Let the story create the emotion. And if you’re showing the path well, others will walk it with you.

Context

The relatability of stories comes through context. Ever sucked in the new car smell? That’s shared context. Most people can relate. Ever felt the wet sandpaper of a kitty’s tongue? Context. Ever glanced in the rear-view mirror to see the familiar red and blue flashing lights? Context. Context touches the senses. It pulls people into stories through their shared experiences. Context becomes richer when we add the names and details

  • 20 minutes on hold, listening to the “Girl from Ipanema”
  • Suddenly the degree from Penn State doesn’t matter and he’s in the community college at the edge of town
  • Every cop from Frederick to Brunswick is hanging yellow police tape, and it looks like a fiesta
  • It’s the judge’s choice, and Judge Younger is up there in his black robe, looking serious, and calling the shots

Note how the context drives it home. It puts you in the story. It makes you a party to the experience. If you don’t know the song, the place, or the trappings as a listener, you’ll insert your own version of them. The context gives you a jumping off place, even if you’ve never heard of Judge Younger. Without my direction, as you read that sentence, you assign an age, a hair color and a relative weight to Judge Younger. I didn’t have to do it for you. You pulled someone out of “Central Casting” and made him appear.

The Point

These are the starters for good stories. There are a host of other practices and tricks of the trade, but without conclusions, directions and context, the story will feel directionless. The one other element that needs to be there is the answer to “Why should I care?”

  • Don’t let your financial planner do this to you!
  • My children are part of the “college du jour” plan, too.
  • No matter how catastrophic it all looks, it’s fleeting
  • We may not know how it turns out, but we do know what’s coming

If we know our stories have direction and a point, then it’s just a matter of getting them down to short and shorter. And with that, we take a major step forward toward being better raconteurs.


Carl Pritchard, PMP®, PMI-RMP®, is an Apex Systems Contributor and an internationally recognized author, lecturer and trainer. He is the author of seven texts in project management, and serves as the U.S. Correspondent to the UK Project Management magazine, Project Manager Today. He produced the Audio PMP Prep: Conversations on Passing the PMP® Exam with Bruce Falk (just released for PMBOK Guide 6th Edition). And he’s hosting Seminars at Sea, sailing from Baltimore October 2018. He welcomes your feedback at carl@carlpritchard.com. Follow him on Twitter at @carlpritchard and @pmpprep

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