Communicating with Stories

Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Scaling a Biotech research platform requires getting many people from a wide range of backgrounds and mindsets to adopt a common vision and plan.

The more variation and inconsistency about what your colleagues think they’re working towards, the harder it’s going to be to coordinate the work that will get you there.

It’s hard enough to get aligned with people who use the same vocabulary and think like you do.

But this is a biotech organization we’re talking about: Biologists. Chemists. Data scientists. Software Engineers. The IT department. …

These groups tend to have very different understandings of what’s possible and what’s desirable.

In this and the next few posts, I will explore how thinking of communication in terms of stories and storytelling can help bridge these gaps.

I’ll start, in this post, by describing what it means to use storytelling in this context, how it can help, and why it’s not as crazy an idea as you might think.

It’s not just for marketing

The idea of storytelling in business has gotten popular in the last few years.

A lot of this has focused on pitching ideas to investors, potential customers, your boss.

In other words, communicating upwards.

They focus on these things because that’s where the money is. The people who care about those things buy more books and more consulting services.

But thinking in terms of stories can be just as useful when communicating sideways and down.

Communicating to users why the data they collect is important across the organization.

Communicating to other teams what’s in the roadmap and how they can help you get there.

Communicating to your team what’s most important for them to design into the system. Storytelling can help you with all of these.

A story is a structured package for information

The literature differs somewhat on exactly what storytelling means.

Some sources focus on incorporating narratives about individuals into your communication to illustrate points and get people’s attention.

Others present storytelling as structure you can apply to your high-level communication that keeps people engaged and makes the information easier to understand.

In fact, these are two ends of a single spectrum.

A story is a way to package information in a particular form that goes by different names: beginning/middle/end, setting/conflict/action, situation/complication/resolution.

I’ll go into the details of this structure in a future post. For now, we just need to know that it exists.

Storytelling just means that you fit the information you want to communicate into this structure.

This might mean changing the order in which you present information.

It might mean emphasizing different things.

It might even mean leaving things out if they don’t support an element of the story structure.

Thinking in terms of stories is what helps you make these decisions.

And in practice, they tend to be the right decisions.

Stories are about causality, not time

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to think that stories have to describe a sequence of events.

But here’s the thing: Stories are about causality, not time.

It’s easy to conflate the two because in the physical world, causality respects time.

If A causes B then A must happen before B.

But what makes stories interesting to people is how A caused B which caused C, not that they happened in that order.

How did we get from how things were at the beginning of the story to how they are at the end?

In the world of ideas, the logical connections between ideas may be identified in a very different order.

Your audience probably doesn’t care how you figured out the logic.

They want to know how each idea leads to the next.

And that’s something you can put into the structure of a story.

Your universe contains many stories

When you start trying to form your universe of information into the form a story, you’ll quickly run into a problem:

The information you want to convey won’t have a clear cut beginning, middle and end (or whatever form of the story structure you want to use.)

But this actually isn’t a problem at all.

A story has *a* beginning/middle/end, not *the* beginning/middle/end.

In other words, the collective whole of everything you think and do shouldn’t be a single story.

It should be many.

Like the Star Wars Universe.

Movies, novels, TV shows, comic books, picture books, reference books, informational posters.

Star Wars is made up of a huge number of different stories, told in different ways, that collectively communicate an incredible amount of detail about the underlying (fictional) universe.

Yours can too.

You should expect to communicate the “universe” of your own work through many different stories.

Each will have the structure of a story.

They will overlap in places. (And they’ll be consistent when they do.)

But together they will communicate all the relevant information you need others to understand.

Tell different stories to different audiences for different purposes

Once you’re on board with the idea of telling multiple stories, it’s clear that you’ll want to tell different stories to different people in different situations.

In each of these situations, you’ll have a goal:

Are you trying to transfer as much information as possible?

Do you want them to pay attention to something new?

Are you trying to change their mind about something they already feel strongly about?

Do you want them to take a specific action?

Different stories, and different types of stories, will be better at some of these goals than others.

This includes where you choose the beginning/middle/end, how much time you put into each part, and what storytelling tactics you choose.

For example, those narratives about individuals that I mentioned earlier are a good way to get people’s attention or show them another perspective.

They’re not very efficient for transferring information.

But if you’re trying to change someone’s mind, that doesn’t matter.

Take War and Peace, for example – A very long account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, told through the stories of individuals who were directly or peripherally involved.

It isn’t the easiest way to learn the history.

It isn’t meant to be.

Instead, Tolstoy’s goal was to convince the reader of his theory of how individual actions shape the course of history.

And for that goal it’s quite effective.

All your stories shouldn’t be like War and Peace.

But maybe some should.

And thinking in terms of stories can help you figure this out.

Conclusion

You probably already use some aspects of storytelling in your communication.

Thinking in terms of storytelling doesn’t need to radically change that.

But I’ve found that it’s a good way of strategically nudging it in a better direction.

In my next few posts, I plan to explore what the structure of a story looks like when you’re communicating technical plans, how different storytelling tactics can help you achieve particular communication goals, and how you can figure out when to use them.

If this sounds interesting, please follow along, or even sign up for my (free) weekly newsletter where I’ll explore some of these topics in more detail.

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