Why Project Managers Need Storytelling Skills
Did you hear the one about why the project manager has to be a good storyteller? Well, let me tell it to you. The art of storytelling is essential to being a good leader. Whether you’re coaching your project team, representing your team and their projects to executive stakeholders, or communicating with external and internal customers you often achieve success through the stories you tell.
Here are some reasons why stories matter for leading project teams, and how to develop your skills:
1. Coaching your project team
Stories are part of the culture of project teams. A seasoned project manager can use stories to coach and build morale among team members. There’s also the power of the story as a troubleshooting catalyst to consider.
One effective storyteller mode is drawing on your experience. For example, an experienced IT contractor once told me that you work with the same people every place you go. Their faces change. Their names change, the place changes. But they’re basically the same people. This story taught me to approach people and situations based on my experience of dealing with similar people and situations in the past.
When you can share stories about your experience, and encourage your team members to do so as well, everyone can find a solution in the war stories. It’s not about having a team story hour at each team stand up. It’s about being able to tell the story of a previous project in the following ways:
- Speak about a similar issue or situation from a similar situation—distilling it down to just the key points.
- Relate a past situation to the current situation.
- Map out some solutions based on what worked on past projects, and could be applied again.
2. Pitching new projects
Knowing how to tell an enticing story is especially helpful when you’re pitching new projects. You could be pitching an internal technology initiative or trying to win over a coveted external customer; either way, you need the same skills. The best sales people I know are the best storytellers or performers in their own right, and it’s not something they learned in “sales school.” Rather it’s an innate talent or a skill they worked hard on to master. The same thing applies to project managers. Story telling is something you can nurture as a project manager, and use to your advantage.
Start by including these elements:
- Explain your solution in easy-to-comprehend terms.
- Make an appeal to business people—tell stories about the things that matter to organizations, i.e., “Here’s how this solution makes/saves you money.”
- Bring your story to life by adding imagery and visual aids to your presentation—pictures, diagrams, videos, popular memes or product mock-ups.
As a project manager, you don’t need to be a sales person when pitching new projects. But if you understand the basic elements of (and power of) storytelling, you stand a better chance of getting your team’s projects approved and moved to the top of the line.
3. Making executive-level presentations
Making that long walk up to the executive suite to deliver a presentation can strike fear into the heart of anyone. Being a good storyteller (or having some trustworthy back-pocket tricks) can be a great equalizer for a project manager making important presentations. Good stories transcend the boring bullet points that populate slide show decks everywhere—and replace them with salient and compelling points that the execs need to know.
4. Creating your project team brand
Organizations have brands. And the teams residing within those organizations have their own brands. Storytelling is key to building your project team brand. In today’s climate of mergers & acquisitions and other uncertainties, it’s all important for project teams to distinguish themselves from other parts of the organization.
I once worked at a large telecom provider that was just starting to have departments pay each other for internal services like programming, web development and technical writing. Often this is called “chargeback” or “internal consulting services” depending on the organization. Some project managers resisted this new model because they it meant they now had to “sing for their supper.” But there was one project manager who thrived in this new environment. That’s because he could tell a compelling story about why his team should take over the web projects. He succeeded by telling stories about his team’s past projects, which included:
- A story about a technical problem and how they solved it.
- How his team accomplished projects despite certain types of project challenges.
- The times they delivered a project successfully.
- The valuable lessons learned that they could apply to all new projects.
His peers and managers knew all about him and his team, and their projects through these stories. Based on Stephen Carver’s presentation entitled “Successful Project Management Through Storytelling,” this project manager was good at telling a “sticky” story.
What’s your story?
Some people are natural storytellers while others have to work at it. If story telling doesn’t come naturally, here are some tips to get you going:
- Speak from experience.
- Practice your stories and solicit feedback from a trusted advisor, mentor, team member, manager, friend, etc., before you tell it to customers and executives.
- Use your retrospectives and post mortems as source materials for your stories.
- Stay well informed. Read industry blogs, business books and talk to others in your industry.
Telling an effective story can come from outside your experience. If you don’t have the experience, find a similar one from reading business books or industry blog posts and you’re your story with “I read how one of our competitors solved a similar problem.”
The good news here is this: Everyone loves a story. Just find a way to tell yours.
If you’re looking for tips, skill sets and best practices to do your job more effectively, we have a handbook with your name on it. To increase your bandwidth of knowledge, download The Ultimate Project Management Guide.