3 Ways to Use Stories on Your Projects


Stories create engagement on projects, as I’ve written about before. But knowing that as fact and being able to use them on your projects are two different things.

Dr Jo Griffin from Northeastern University’s Master’s in Project Management program gave some concrete examples of how you can actually use stories as part of your project communications plan at the 2015 PMI Global Congress EMEA.

Here are 3 ways you can use story telling at work to get your message across.

1. Use stories to connect and convince

Projects are done by teams, and for those teams to work effectively together you need to bring everyone along to meet a common goal.

Jo talked about four different types of stories you can use to connect with and convince your colleagues to work with you.

1. Analogous stories

Early on in the project look back at what other projects have achieved and draw parallels. Use positive examples from the past that have delivered similar results, or results that had something in common with what you are trying to do and talk about those successes, and how your project will be like that.

Jo Griffin and Elizabeth Harrin
Dr Jo Griffin and me at the PMI Global Congress EMEA 2015

2. Three-point stories

Use the language of story to explain options to people, giving them a most likely, least likely and optimistic view of what could happen on the project.

“Based on what you want, this is the best case, the worst case and the most likely outcome.” This holds people accountable and gives them choices while also limiting their options to those you know you could deliver.

This is especially helpful, Jo said, when you are talking about bad news as within the options they get to choose the route forward.

3. Top down stories

Talk about the big picture. This can help you avoid details if you don’t know them.

“What’s your 120 second update?” Jo asked. When your sponsor says they cannot read the report (or haven’t read it) can you update them quickly at a level that’s meaningful?

4. Bottom up stories

“John said…” Use the details to create a narrative around project events.

However, you do have to watch yourself for ethical behaviour here. There can be a tendency to go into the details where it isn’t appropriate for the situation and would just result in spreading gossip or creating awkwardness.

Have you noticed these are all framed in terminology used for project estimating?

2. Use stories to report data

CPI, SPI, EAC… Do these terms mean anything to your senior managers? Even if they do, they are far more likely to remember the narrative that goes with them than the fact you are currently working with a CPI of 1.1.

Put your data points in context by also talking about how you got there and what you are going to do differently now.

“We can frame and present different details for the purpose of making it more relevant,” Jo explained, going on to say that this definitely doesn’t mean that different people get different versions of the story.

If there is no happy ending, don’t invent one for your sponsor.

3. Use stories to build confidence and trust

Tell people about your successes! This gives them the data to trust you in a format they can easily understand.

It’s also about making sure that the stories can “tell themselves”. In other words, your team feel confident talking about their accomplishments and they know what to say.

“The stories we tell ourselves are as important as the stories we tell others,” Jo said. “They inspire confidence for success.”

More storytelling techniques to try

Jo talked about the storytelling techniques that you can use at work.

Foreshadowing is technique you’ll see in stories that works well on projects. In Don’t Wake the Beastie (my current favorite bedtime story, when I can pry the boys away from another Thomas book), you can tell that eventually the Beastie will wake up. There are hints and clues to what is going to happen.

Drop hints on your project too: that way the outcomes of any given action are less likely to come as a surprise as your senior managers will have been prepared.

Visuals help set the stage. Children’s books are full of them, for good reason. They add something. Use them in your reports (this is covered in more detail in my project status reporting course).

Interaction lets you involve your stakeholders in the story. Think pantomime or Punch and Judy. Or more formally, project communication methods that allow for a response in the form of a feedback loop.

Conflict is a key part of most stories. We’ve been reading Henry’s Holiday quite a bit at the moment and Henry is in conflict with his surroundings (too cold), his friends, his family and then himself as he makes a decision he then overturns. It all ends happily, don’t worry. It has penguins in. You wouldn’t expect anything else.

“We don’t do ourselves any favors by glossing over conflict,” Jo said, “especially with sponsors.” Accept that it will happen and try to capitalize on it when it does by turning it into the opportunity for positive discussion.

Jo advised that project managers frame the story for the part of the project the stakeholder is part of. Connect the status to what is meaningful for them right now.

Even if all you do is think about how you can talk to your stakeholders in a way that means something to them, their level of engagement and knowledge, you’ll be moving in the right direction for better project communication.

Next steps

In this article, you learned different ways to use storytelling in project management to help stakeholders connect with what the work is all about. Here’s how to put this into practice:

  • Come up with two or three stories that you can use as part of your project communications now.
  • Look at what you are reporting. Is there enough narrative? Do you need to supplement the stats with story to help get the message across?

Have you tried thinking about stories with your project communications plans?

This article first appeared in 2015 and has been updated to keep it relevant.