The best way to get people to pay attention, learn something or remember important information is to tell them a story. Think of your favorite story; what makes it memorable? Chances are it has some or all of the characteristics of persuasive and powerful stories, characters you connect with, a conflict, or a lesson learned.
Storytelling is a universal trait. It has been used for thousands of years to share information and establish connections with others. Stories are everywhere, including in IT. We conduct post-incident retrospectives to understand why things broke and how they were resolved. The facts and figures behind an incident are important, but the story behind those facts and figures is more captivating.
We don’t say, “Remember that time it took us four hours to resolve an incident?” We say, “Remember that time an incorrect command was executed and half our servers went off-line? What a nightmare!” Narratives are easier to remember than a long list of facts and figures void of emotional context.
You can use the same characteristics of memorable stories to communicate more effectively at work. Stories can help IT organizations demonstrate value, build cases for change, and secure additional IT funding. How?
Consider the audience
Effective stories evoke emotion. We identify with people and characters that we care about, and establishing empathy helps us tell better stories. Research from York University in Canada, found that the areas of the brain used to understand stories have significant overlap with the areas used to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. When we tailor messages to an audience’s unique perspective we tell more compelling stories.
When sharing information, look at the situation from the audience’s perspective. Ask yourself, “Why should this team care that incident resolution times have increased?” The answer may be different based on each audience. Operations cares because team members are experiencing burnout. Support cares because customers are calling and complaining about issues. Sales cares because they are losing customers. Consider their perspective when telling your story.
Everybody cares, but their reasons for caring are different. When you have empathy and examine things from the perspective of the audience you have a greater likelihood of evoking emotion that leads to action. Facts and figures inform, stories drive people to action.
Keep it simple
Persuasive storytelling must be confident, clear, concise, and simple. Read the following sentences:
Example 1: To have all the required qualities to be the best you must regularly rehearse a skill.
Example 2: Practice makes perfect.
These sentences are both saying the same thing, but the second example is much simpler. It’s easy to make things complicated. It is much harder to make things simple. The more complicated the concept the simpler the language needs to be. Complex thoughts need clear and concise language, especially since the human attention span is declining. According to research from Microsoft humans now have an average attention span of eight seconds – shorter than that of a goldfish.
Don’t try to impress people with how much you know or the size of your vocabulary. Think about the simplest and easiest way to convey a concept. According to Carmine Gallo in The Storyteller’s Secret, powerful storytellers use words and sentence structure that an elementary aged student could understand. This doesn’t make the stories less powerful. Powerful messages can be told very simply; talks given by Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have been known to register at a third- to sixth-grade reading level.
The Flesch Kincaid reading level of this article is 8.7. This means it can be understood by a ninth grader. Would you be surprised to learn that many popular authors write at or below a ninth grade reading level, according to analysis by Shane Snow? Experts recommend to write for an eight-grade reading level to make reading more effortless. In the words of Mark Twain,
“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
Simple does not mean boring. To keep people engaged diversity of thought and structure is needed. Look for new and diverse ways to convey a message. Get input from others, which can lead to novel ways of saying things.
One way to keep stories interesting is to include images. Earliest forms of storytelling were 100% visual, with stories being drawn onto cave walls. Facts and figures need to be presented in a way to engage emotions. Raw data dumps don’t work but images do. Data comes to life when displayed in charts, maps, or infographics.
The challenge with visuals comes with a tendency to present misleading data, whether intentional or not. There are entire subreddits devoted to “ugly data.” Data and accompanying visuals should easily convey accurate information, making it more consumable by your audience.
Stories in data and systems
IT systems are shouting data all the time. This data is analyzed and converted into stories to understand how systems, applications, and people are performing.
Knowing a single metric or value isn’t all that interesting. What is more interesting is why that value matters, and how that value is part of a larger story. Reporting on uptime or availability is a fine metric to track, but it doesn’t tell a story. How does this number impact the business? What can be done to change it? The answers to these questions lead to a stronger story helping IT teams gain access to the resources required to make an impact.
The ability to tell compelling stories that drive others to action is critical to IT. Stories can help you showcase how IT initiatives are improving the business or gain support and resources for new projects.
When you convey the story of IT data in a business context you increase the influence of the organization. Remember these three techniques to help you tell powerful stories. One, not all audiences are the same – motivate and appeal to your audience. Two, use concise and easy to understand language. And three, leverage visual elements to support your story.
This “power of persuasion” is just one of several skills today’s IT teams and IT executives need to succeed.
Dawn Parzych is a director at Catchpoint, a digital experience intelligence company. She has deep expertise in topics relating to the psychology of IT and frequently researches, writes, and speaks about trends related to application performance, user perception, and how they impact the digital experience. In 15+ year career, Dawn has held a wide variety of roles in the application performance space at Instart Logic, F5 Networks, and Gomez.