Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Storytelling Techniques for IT and Research Departments

The more esoteric your work is, the more you need to use storytelling in your job. To those of you in the IT (or any technology at all) and Research departments, I am talking to you.

Sometimes it is hard for the others in your company to understand the ins and outs of the mysteries of technology and research. By using the power of storytelling techniques in your communications, you can create the "frames" to highlight, carry and explain the bigger concepts of your work.

Every house I have ever been in has a wall or table filled with pictures of family and friends. Rather than just glue these pictures to the wall, the pictures are placed in frames that help draw the eye to the subjects contained within. In the most artistic of homes, the frames surrounding these pictures have been carefully chosen to help emphasize the content of the pictures. Done well, the frames are an extension of the pictures. The more important the pictures (the "everybody in the family" type) have the most expensive and sturdy frames.

Just like these picture frames in someone's home, your ability to frame your complicated and important data in the context of a memorable story will protect and carry your message to your listeners.

Let me give you an example of how this works.

You could talk about the collection methods used to complete a survey and how that proves the validity of the data. However, folks want results first. So, instead of talking first about how the data means you must completely drop an ingrained and "sacred cow" program from your company, you could start with the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk," (JATBS) emphasizing how Jack's mother was furious with Jack for trading her sacred cow for a few magic beans. However, in the end, Jack ends up with a goose that lays golden eggs, giving Jack and his mother more than they ever dreamed of.

You will the present your data after you tell your version of JATBS, showing the data that correlates to your conclusion. Then, you might lead a discussion based on the data that asks, "Just like the mother in JATBS, what do we in our company fear from what the data tells us? In what ways is this data like magic beans for our company's future?"

You can then end your presentation with a recap of JATBS. Now, you have framed your data (data is important and needed) in the center of a very familiar and comfortable story. I can assure you that the first time you do this process, you will wade through some discomfort and come out with a presentation that will cement the conclusions of your data into the minds of your listeners.

Here are three things you should know about story and narrative as framing tools.

1. People just want to know "what's in it for me?"

Your fellow employees are not as interested in the mechanics of your job as you are. I know you have gone to school to learn how statics work. I know you understand the many ways to hook up one computer to another in your office. However, the people you work with have not gone to the same schools you have. For most of them, how you collected the data is not nearly as important as what the data implies and instructs for their work. Storytelling lets you talk about benefits of research and technology, not just mechanics.

2. Stories remind you to speak in the language of the people: your fellow employees.

Although the idea of the uncommunicative IT employee is an unfair cultural joke, there are those in your company that are still slightly afraid of you. When they know you will speak in ways they understand, they are more open to hear what you have to say. When you can give folks the story of how others have benefited by the work you are proposing, they will feel better about providing you the tools and time to fulfill your projects. In a sense, storytelling allows others to know you are "on their side." It's far better to talk to others about how Susan at the other office could get twice as much work done in the same amount time after the expensive software update you have proposed rather than list of the uncommon features of database processing.

3. Your CFO approves funds for results not information.

Most people hate the process of change. Results are better than promises. Stories are the frames that carry results. You will get much more support for any project when folks know how others have benefited from your proposals. How the office across the city became so efficient that they now have a four-day workweek is one-hundred percent more effective in getting results than any presentation of how a Blade server works.

Your work in statics, data and technology is vital to your company. Even more vital is your ability to communicate the benefits of your work to the rest of your company through good business presentation skills. Information framed in the context of story, information carried by understandable narratives, will stick with your fellow staff members much longer than data alone. Take a chance and frame your next presentation in story.

 Go deeper into this subject on how to create a story with my short-and-focused book on designing your stories: "Measures of Story," over on Amazon

Sean Buvala is an award-winning trainer who teaches businesses and nonprofit organizations how to grow their bottom line and employee satisfaction through the power of storytelling. You learn more about his work at Follow him at Twitter @storyteller .

The official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Water Deep: Growing Your Nonprofit Through Internal Storytelling Techniques

Your nonprofit organization will grow both the financial bottom line and staff satisfaction when you incorporate storytelling into your organization's internal communications.You need to water deeply.

As a leader of a nonprofit organization, it might be easy for individual staff and volunteers to be focused just on those who receive the services of the organization. However, does your group remember to talk to each other about your own work? Nonprofit storytelling is not just for the outside customers, it is for our very own staff members.

Stories can inspire your staff, improve staff retention and grow job satisfaction. You will see greater nonprofit fundraising. In turn, a happy organization generates deeper satisfaction among clients and benefactors.

Learn to use the power of nonprofit storytelling in your business communications with these five tips:

1. Leaders should know and speak the stories of everyday successes.

Do your nonprofit's leaders only speak to everyone when there is a problem? Stories are everywhere in an organization and they can be easy to find. I teach several methods for story gathering, but whatever method you choose to use, do something to solicit and find the stories of your company. When using storytelling for nonprofit organizations, the leaders must be the first to demonstrate this communication technique and they should seek to do so for every level of staff.

2. At least once a calendar quarter, have a single department share in-depth stories about their role in the organization.

Are your staff meetings limited to cursory sharing of agendas?

My wife is a gardener. Among other things, I have learned from her is that plants not only need the surface watering on a regular basis, but that they benefit from a "deep" watering occasionally. Much like these plants, your company needs to be "deep" in sharing their stories.
I have been on staff for many nonprofits. In our busyness, our staff meetings were reduced to around-the-table updating, doing not much more than checking in. To grow your staff cohesion, make a monthly gathering where one department shares both the success and challenge stories. As the deep watering that my gardener wife does for her trees, let these monthly or quarterly gatherings feed the roots of the entire organization.

3. Be sure volunteer training includes stories from other volunteers.

Do you assume your volunteers (or those seeking nonprofit jobs) are present because they really understand your group? As a nonprofit leader, I have seen how quickly some volunteers can burn out, especially in jobs requiring a great deal of face-to-face interaction. It is easy to assume that volunteers completely understand your mission statement. Of course, that is false. When your volunteers know the joys, challenges and reasonable expectations of your group, they will be more inspired to stay longer with your group. Mixing in a generous portion of stories (fun and serious) to your training will have long-term benefits.

4. Invite, rather than require, staff to create stories of the organization.

Mandatory story sharing results in low quality stories. Gathering stories is a natural process but sometimes your staff needs to be reminded how to do so. Rather than mandate to a group, teach them skills. Your stories will be much more genuine as they grow out of desire to share and not a requirement to meet a quota.

5. Never be afraid of negative stories.

I have found that negative stories (complaints) are a more effective gauge of staff satisfaction or job issues than any comment box will ever be.

In any organization there will be moments of success and sometimes challenge. Learn to listen carefully to all stories you hear. What are the trends and patterns? Before a staff issue becomes a major problem, it first appears as a few whispers. Are you listening to these stories? In thinking about your own work history, what problems might have been avoided if management had been carefully listening rather than defending or suppressing issues?

Strive to implement these "internal customer" tips for the health of your nonprofit group.

Thinking of starting a nonprofit organization? Make these steps an integral part of your initial plans.

K. Sean Buvala is a national leader in the communication skill of storytelling for business. An award-winning veteran of nearly three decades in storytelling, he uses his experience in the non-profit industry to help you grow your bottom line and increase staff satisfaction. Learn more at  For daily tips, follow him at Twitter @storyteller .

The official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach.