What’s the story?

Fostering a culture of effective communication

When I was a child I was captivated by TV commercials. As I got older I began resenting them because of how they were able to get into my head. Yet throughout my life I have always been fascinated by how effective they were. I mean in the end they were just a very short communication. I think this has influenced the way I revere the power of storytelling. It is invaluable to the way I practice Program Management.

Effective communication is glue. It can be what holds an organization together or what allows it to fall apart. Tragically, most organizations rely on ineffective communication, (AKA procedural documentation) as their main communication method. Just because the document has words on it, doesn’t mean it is communicating anything. To truly communicate, the message needs to resonate.

When you hear or read a great story, you tend to remember it. Storytelling is a powerful form of communication. And yet it is very underutilized in organizations. To tell a story you need to address an audience in a way that will engage them. When we write status reports, specs and even emails — we seldom consider how to best engage the audience. And so we miss the opportunity to leverage storytelling in our everyday work interactions.

In my program leadership, one of the most important things that I try to permeate throughout my teams and programs is the habit of storytelling. When we take upon a new project we tell each other it’s story. When we complete a sprint or a new feature, we let people know in a way that tells the story of why we created that feature and why they should care. That’s quite different from the standard status report.

When we remind ourselves of the story, we are then able to consistently check whether what we are doing on the ground matches the point of the story. This is important because when we’re building software, or working on any other tasks, we get caught up in the details and need to be able to step back. You know the saying, “you can’t see the forest through the trees?” Stories bring us back to seeing the forest.

So when you write a status report — who are you writing to? What are you trying to get them to understand and why? If you’re not asking yourself these questions when you write them, then your communication is going to be ineffective. What about a project artifact, a functional spec, a meeting recap? Why are you writing these and who are you writing this for?

There are so many ways that we can communicate the work we do every day. But we have to choose wisely; focus on less noise and more intention. If you are writing something that you think you have to because you have always done it, or you think it is customary to do — please stop. Writing procedural documentation that will either never be read, or will not resonate — is not only a waste of time, but also a distraction from the story that you really need to tell.

I know it may feel awkward when you first start using storytelling. It can feel like you are being verbose, or telling people things that they may already know. But once you get into the habit you’ll quickly realize that in fact most of the time people don’t know the whole story and you are in fact providing context. And sometimes, just telling the story out loud will help you check whether you too are remembering the bigger picture.

Agile Leader