Structuring communication with stories

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Scaling a biotech platform requires getting a group of people from different backgrounds and perspectives to understand a common vision and plan.

But it can sometime be difficult to recognize where the differences and gaps are.

So, how can you make sure you’re communicating all the things that you take for granted, but others might not?

It turns out that thinking of your communication in terms of stories can help fix this.

In this post, I’ll discuss how.

Setting the frame

When we discuss a project, a problem, an objective an outcome, etc. there’s usually a set of ideas and rules that we use to evaluate them.

What are we trying to achieve from this discussion?

How will we evaluate the options?

How will we decide if we succeeded?

This is the frame.

But not only do frames often go unspoken – they’re often so hidden that we don’t even realize we have one.

And we don’t notice when the people on the other end of the communication have a different one.

But despite being hidden, frames are crucial.

Maybe even more important than the content of the communication.

If you agree on the goal and the rules for evaluation, then the conclusions should be obvious.

If you disagree on the frame, good luck with the rest.

One reason stories are so powerful is that they force you to build the frame first.

And yet, often communication focusses on the content and ignores the frame.

Telling a story addresses this by structuring the information in a way that forces you to define the frame before you get to the content.

The five parts of every story

Most experts will tell you that there are three parts to a good story.

But they all disagree on what those three parts are.

I think there are actually five parts, and most people leave some out or merge them to get to three.

People like the number three.

I’m going to stick with five for this post, but the abbreviated three-part structures can be useful too.

Here are the five parts.

  1. Context – The characters, setting, backstories, etc.
  2. Tension – The thing that needs to be addressed. The reason you’re telling the story.
  3. Epiphany – The idea that connects the tension to the action.
  4. Action – The steps that were/will be taken to address the tension.
  5. Outcome – The way things will be as a result of the action.

For the rest of this post, I’ll explain what these are and how the first three create a frame that sets up the last two for success.

Logic vs Time

Before we get into it, remember that, as I wrote about last time, stories are about logic, not time.

Your story doesn’t have to be about a sequence of event.

In fact, it probably shouldn’t be.

For example, this very blog post that you’re reading now follows the story pattern.

(I’ll explain how below.)

Similarly, the five parts don’t have to follow a temporal order.

They should be in the order above because it follows a logical flow.

All those movies and books that tell the stories out of temporal order still follow the five parts above.

Think about it next time you watch one – you’ll see.

Context

The first section of your story should define the context in which the rest of the story takes place.

Who are the actors (people, teams, ideas, etc.)?

Where are they and what are they doing?

The context for this blog post is you, dear reader, a member of the biotech organization who is working on building a data platform.

Each person that you’re communicating with will come in with different assumptions about the context, even if they’re using the same words.

When you say “data processing”, are you talking about interacting with lab instruments, transferring data to storage, loading it into models, or something else?

And that’s a simple one.

Explicitly defining the context creates a reset point that gets everyone onto the same page.

This is the page from which you will begin to build your frame.

If you take context for granted, your audience will either build a very different frame from their own starting point, or spend the whole time confused.

Tension

You might think that a story is about the characters who were established in the context section, but it’s not.

A story is about the tension – the thing that needs to be addressed.

Without the tension, there is no story.

Or, at least, there’s no reason to tell it.

I don’t use the word “conflict” for this part because often, particularly for the type of story I’m discussing here, the tension isn’t from a conflict per se.

Often the tension will come from a goal or an opportunity.

In this post, the tension comes from the goal of getting people with different backgrounds and mindsets to understand a common vision and plan.

Regardless, the tension begins to create the frame by defining a goal for the story, something that needs to be addressed.

If you don’t clearly define this, your audience may expect you to solve a completely different problem.

And when that happens, there’s no way they’ll be happy with your solution.

Epiphany

The epiphany is the idea that defines how you will design the action to address the tension.

Note the subtlety there: It isn’t the action you will take.

It’s how you will decide what action to take.

In this post, the epiphany is that the structure of a story creates a common frame that gets everyone on the same page.

That’s it.

In fiction, the epiphany is often implied rather than explicit.

It’s when the main character starts doing things differently, in a way that will lead to the resolution.

In the type of communication we’re talking about here, you should explicitly call out the epiphany.

(The book Everyday Business Storytelling calls this the Big Idea and suggests making it its own slide.)

If someone watching a movie doesn’t understand the epiphany, they assume it’s their fault for not being cultured enough.

If a colleague you’re communicating with doesn’t get the epiphany, they assume it’s your fault for having a bad idea.

Don’t take chances with this.

Action

The action is what you will do to address the tension: The design. The plan.

If you created the frame successfully, the audience is now bought into the big idea.

The action fills in the details.

This is the place where a lot of people tend to start their communication.

But if you use the story structure, it’s almost over by now – or at least it’s all downhill.

It will often be the longest section, and it probably contains the most important information.

That’s the case for this post, where the action defines the five parts of every story.

That’s where we are now.

But if you’ve managed to build the frame for the audience, everything in the action section should seem almost obvious based on the epiphany.

The audience should only be asking clarifying questions at this point – Any disagreement should be in the first three parts, or else they weren’t clear enough.

If I did my job right (which is a big “if”), by the time you got to the list, you were at least willing to give it a try.

By this point, you should be reading this and thinking about how you might apply it yourself.

Outcome

In fairytales, the outcome is the “And they lived happily ever after.”

In the types of stories we’re talking about here, it’s often implied.

For example, if the tension is a goal, the outcome is that the goal is achieved.

That’s the case for this post, where the outcome is that you will better communicate with a diverse audience by explicitly creating a frame via the five parts of a story.

But you probably didn’t need me to tell you that.

And your own audience will often figure this out even if you don’t explicitly state it.

It can sometimes be useful to illustrate how the action leads into the outcome, but mostly this part is here as the symmetric counterpart of the context.

By this point, the frame is created, and that’s the most important part.

If you did a good job of that, it’s OK to leave the outcome as implicit.

Conclusion

Thinking about your communication in terms of the five parts of a story is a great way to make sure that you’re clearly defining a frame, particularly for people with a different background or mindset.

For myself, I’ve found that it makes me spend more time on the context, the tension and the epiphany – parts that I might otherwise leave out in favor of skipping to the action.

For more practical details, the best book I’ve found is the one I mentioned above, Everyday Business Storytelling by Janine Kurnoff and Lee Lazarus.

In my next post, I plan to explore how the universe of a large technical project like building a biotech data platform can be cut up into stories that each follow the five parts above.

If you want to read more about these ideas, and get notified of new posts, you can sign up for my (free) weekly newsletter.

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