There are many ways to define storytelling. But you probably don’t have the time or the patience for an extensive literature review, so in this article I’d like to share a definition of storytelling that I’ve found most useful for the business environment, and specifically for storytelling in the IT industry. All with the help of a short story.
“What is storytelling?” Send in your answers now.
Alex is sweating profusely. The conference room, which a few minutes ago seemed so airy with its white walls, high ceiling and tall windows, suddenly starts to shrink, grow dark, and stuffy. She feels her face turning red and hot. Her heart is beating faster, her ears are ringing, and the room is starting to spin.
“Don’t overthink it”, she hears the speaker saying. “It’s a simple question. Just write whatever comes up”. But she is overthinking, staring wide-eyed at her phone where the Menti survey app displays that so-called “simple question”: What is storytelling? Ugh, I just hate it when speakers do this, she thinks to herself. If I already knew all these things, I wouldn’t need to come here now, would I?
She glances around at the other participants who are busy tapping on their phones, then looks up at the presentation screen where the responses are rapidly filling up a dynamic word cloud. “Art”. “Science”. “Communication method”. “Negotiation tool”. “Writing”. “Words”. “Blogs”. “Videos”. “Social and cultural activity”. “Tales”. “Children’s games”.
Meanwhile, Alex is still staring at her phone, her fingers hovering hesitantly over the keyboard. She feels her mind racing, too many thoughts flashing at the speed of light. That’s exactly why I went into IT, she thinks. I work with code, not freaking stories, dude!
Then, it suddenly hits her. Her face lights up as she quickly taps the two words on her phone and presses the Send button. Then she lets out a deep breath as she sees “User Story” appearing in a corner of the word cloud.
Storytelling: a definition
At some point, we all had an “Alex moment”, especially when trying to wrap our heads around a concept that has so many interpretations, such as storytelling.
There’s a good reason why every introductory class starts with a definition. It’s a way we can all agree on what we’re about to learn and it helps us categorize the world around us. In particular, when it comes to Tech people: developers, architects, testers, I’ve noticed how crucial it is to have clarity, focus, concision and just how irritated and annoyed they get when there’s too much ambiguity. It’s part of the engineering mindset.
But with so many ways of looking at storytelling, what would be a good-enough definition that can help us understand and remember what storytelling is, what’s it made of, and why that’s important?
My favorite definition of storytelling is the one proposed by Stavroula Kalogeras from the University of Plymouth, UK, in the Handbook of Research on Contemporary Storytelling Methods Across New Media and Disciplines. I prefer this definition to others that are more elaborate because it’s easier to explain it to Tech people as it uses simple, concrete terminology. She defines storytelling as:
“The process of using fact and narrative to communicate something to your audience. Some stories are factual, and some are embellished or improvised in order to better explain the core message.”
In a nutshell, storytelling helps you share ideas in an entertaining way, one that speaks to both the mind and the heart of the audience. When you’re telling a story, you’re drawing others into the world you build around your story. You’re using emotion to capture the attention of your audience and to get in touch with their reason.
The five basic elements of storytelling
This definition is made up of five key elements, each of them acting like a piece of puzzle that contributes to create the overall picture: storytelling is a (1) process where someone uses a combination of (2) information and (3) narrative techniques to (4) communicate a message to a particular (5) audience.
What I want to do next is spend some time to explain each of the five parts in more detail, clear the fog and give you some examples based on our story so you can see how this works from theory to practice.
1. Storytelling is a PROCESS
Personally, I see many similarities between storytelling and any Scrum process. It’s iterative, agile, dynamic, and it can be broken down into steps and followed at your own pace. You can try storytelling in a demo session today or when mentoring a junior colleague tomorrow. You can look back after some time and reconsider your initial assumptions or discover ramifications that were previously hidden.
To use this article as an example, the story of Alex’s moment of anxiety when faced with a definition started to take shape after I explored about four or five different versions of characters, points of view and plots. The process of producing the article itself took a few weeks and it involved an initial outline, a lot of late-night writing, and two rounds of editing (adding, deleting, and rewriting some parts) from me and a colleague who is also a writer and acts as my reviewer.
As is the case with any process, the journey is more important than the destination and there’s no way to see what lies at the end. Every step is significant, and it can take you in different directions. It’s not always a walk in the park, but it’s a fun ride.
2. Delivering INFORMATION
We use storytelling to share information, knowledge, experiences, and to create meaning. Storytelling is not just used for enjoyment, to stir up emotion or to make you weep. The purpose of using storytelling is to deliver something worth sharing (information, data, and facts) and it does that by drawing the attention of the audience and keeping people engaged.
Information is the content that needs to be delivered and storytelling is the method – and they both work together to make the story useful, not just entertaining. Because it involves the entire brain, not just specific areas that are responsible for processing data, storytelling is extremely efficient in helping us understand and remember this information better.
Just think about what would have happened if I had started without Alex, just throwing the definition of storytelling out there, without any actual context or a way to make you feel the stress anyone is feeling when they’re dealing with concepts that are not familiar to them. But besides being entertaining, Alex’s story was also a tool, a method I used to get your attention and prepare you for the moment where I shared the information that I wanted to share.
3. Using NARRATIVE techniques
As humans, we’re programmed to instinctively recognize and relate to storytelling, it’s an evolutionary trait that helped us organize and grow into the complex society we are today. But when it comes to creating stories, many people, particularly in the technical field, feel they just don’t have the right skills.
But storytelling is not as complicated as it seems. Especially if you’re not aiming to become the next Pulitzer Prize winner, you just want to know how to use storytelling in real-life settings: to share your knowledge, pitch an idea to a manager, get buy-in from stakeholders, etc.
Stories follow a simple formula that you can recognize from ancient Greek tragedies to present-day TED Talks: character, conflict, resolution. A hero encounters a problem, goes on a transformational journey, and learns a lesson in trying to find a solution. These three elements fill every story with an organizational logic that makes it easy to understand, familiar, and clear.
There is a cause-and-effect relationship between these events that take place over a particular time, impacting characters, and that’s what gives the story its solid structure. Of course, as you practice, you can learn to play around with more complex techniques like the Freytag plot structure, sensory details, or non-linear narratives. But for starters, if you can create a simple, logical, flowing story, that’s good enough.
Going back to our story, I’ve built Alex’s character as an “IT Crowd” techie, introverted but curious, passionate about IT and willing to come out of her shell to attend industry events where she can expand her knowledge. When describing the situation, I focused on her sensations (what she’s seeing, hearing, feeling), her actions, and her thoughts. Alex is a combination of different people, me included, and the entire episode is a combination of real-life events and imaginary additions. Hence the reference to “embellished” in the definition of storytelling.
4. Fast-tracking COMMUNICATION
Telling stories is an activity that’s fun and useful by itself, but what if you could use storytelling as a strategic tool when building better teams or products? It’s no coincidence that communication ranks high on the list of the most desirable skills for specialists in any field, and even more so in the IT industry, where people need to find ways to work together and share understanding.
The key here is using storytelling purposefully, with a clear goal in mind. Knowing that you want to improve communication with a colleague, manager or client can help you design the story, choose the character, set the context. Especially for IT people, who may not be skillful communicators, it can be daunting to find the right way to get the message across.
Storytelling can help bridge that gap. When creating Alex’s story, I had a clear goal of sending a message. That’s its purpose and everything else was built to support it. The core message of the story is that coming up with a definition is a difficult but necessary process to achieve clarity – but how effective would that message have been without Alex’s part? Storytelling can be used as a fast track to communicate your ideas.
5. Connecting with an AUDIENCE
Storytelling is essentially a social activity – which means that it’s a way of creating an emotional connection, a shared experience between the person telling the story and the other person on the receiving end. It doesn’t matter if it’s a speech, a blog post, or a video, we’re all telling stories to connect to other humans.
Before you start on this path, take a minute to consider what story you want to tell, why you want to tell it now and who would be interested to hear it. Who is your audience? Think about their feelings, walk a mile in their shoes, understand their problems. If they can identify with the hero in your story, they will be more open and willing to listen. Contrary to the first impression, storytelling is not about the storyteller. It’s about how they connect with the audience.
That’s why it was so important to make Alex, and her experience, relatable to IT people. In creating Alex, I drew inspiration from my real-life colleagues, including the ones who were at first skeptical about storytelling. When the first step is understanding your audience, it’s no wonder that one of the main benefits of storytelling is promoting collaboration by fostering empathy.
To sum up
Storytelling can mean different things to different people and that’s fine, it’s not an exact science. With this article, I just hoped to add some clarity around the concept of storytelling and to show you how it can be applied with a simple, practical example.
If, by the time you’re finished reading this article, you feel you’ve learned something useful without too much effort and that it was time well spent, then you’ve just witnessed the power of storytelling firsthand. Try to apply that in your day-to-day activities.
“I can see your answers coming in, guys. This Menti app is so cool, right?”, the speaker laughs. But Alex is not laughing. I hope whoever invented this Menti app gets to step on a long, sharp, rusty nail, she mumbles to herself.
Then she gets a cold shiver down her back as she remembers that before Menti became such a popular tool in conferences, people were expected to actually speak up. On second thought, perhaps a normal nail would do, she concludes with a smirk.
The speaker nods while staring at the word cloud and then looks back at the room full of people. “I see some really interesting ideas in here, guys. Here’s one… User Story? Who sent this and could you tell us why?”
Alex’s smile freezes. Well, crap.