While leading a tech organization might seem to be all about things like DevOps and Digital Transformation, these activities are likely underperforming if you can’t communicate them effectively. Too many leaders inside (and outside) technology underestimate the importance of effectively communicating their strategies, plans, and goals.
This is more than a communications problem since clearly and compellingly sharing ideas is what gets you funding, leadership support, and buy-in from your teams. The same strategy could have very different results if the vision is well understood, supported, and appropriately funded; all benefits accrue to effectively sharing your strategy.
Improving your ability to present information and win support from your audience doesn’t have to be complex. One of the best ways to improve your ability to communicate with your teams, colleagues, and leadership is by incorporating basic storytelling techniques. Humans have been sharing stories since the beginning of time, and most of us were raised on simple stories that taught profound moral and ethical lessons or just conveyed an amusing anecdote that stuck with us. Here are some basic techniques you can apply to even the most complex technical topics to improve your presentations.
Start With the Audience
When developing a presentation, many people start with the topic they’re sharing. They might mentally outline the critical elements of that topic, including key definitions and background information, and perhaps even the technical details of why that topic is important.
A better approach is to start with your audience. What’s important to them, and what problems are they trying to solve? What is their baseline knowledge level, and how do you provide information they can understand and apply?
Consider children’s stories for a moment. Suppose you’re trying to teach someone ethics. In that case, you could introduce them to various philosophers or world religions, explain the importance of ethics and how it applies to the development of organized societies, and provide examples of where ethical failings have led to disaster. This might work for an adult with an interest or background in ethics but will fail miserably for most small children. However, a fairy tale with relatable children facing a big, bad wolf or wicked witch immediately resonates while still imparting an important ethical lesson.
Before thinking about the technical aspects of your presentation, think about your audience. What are they worried about? What are their hopes and aspirations? How do they like to receive information, and do they prefer data and figures or “big picture” thinking?
Ask yourself how you want your audience to be changed after experiencing your email, presentation, or workshop. How are they going to think or act differently after engaging with you?
Use a Story Structure
Good stories have a defined beginning, middle, and end and connect each part of the story with a logical flow. Your presentations should do the same and take the audience on a logical journey that gradually shifts them to the destination you identified when thinking about your audience.
Good stories spend time considering what details to include and what details to leave out. As tech leaders, we often want to provide every detail or highlight aspects of a problem that are important to us. Avoid that temptation by understanding your audience and providing only enough detail to keep the story moving toward its logical conclusion.
Even if you’re merely sharing information, a simple story structure that sets the stage for why you’re sharing this particular content, what it means to the audience, and what they should do now that they have this information can help frame your presentation.
Identify the “Villain”
Good stories usually have a villain or “bad guy” that the audience understands and wants to see defeated. The villain focuses the story and allows the audience to invest themselves in seeing the villain vanquished by a hero of some sort. While hopefully no fire-breathing dragons or evil warlocks are roaming the halls of your organization, there are still villains you can use to engage your audience.
If you’re presenting a status update for a complex project, time might be the villain lurking in a dark corner and preparing to attack your heroic project team. A strong competitor might be the Goliath to your David, and you can tell a story about how your technology strategy is the slingshot that can help defeat this superior foe.
We all love a “good versus evil” story, and thinking about your presentations in this light can add some interest and ultimately create investment from your audience.
Be a Storyteller
It’s fascinating that dynamic, funny, and engaging human beings often come into work, place themselves next to a set of PowerPoint slides, and become droning robots reciting bullet points. Consider presentations you’ve enjoyed in the past. Was the content purely facts and figures, or was there an underlying story to the content? Was the presenter little more than a reader of slides, or did they bring dynamism and interest to the content by acting more like an adult reading to a small child or recounting a funny event with friends?
Using humor, varying your tone and pacing, showing legitimate excitement, and all the other techniques that come naturally when interacting with family and friends are perfectly acceptable at work. Abandoning your humanity when you connect to Zoom or walk across the threshold at your office makes you a far less effective communicator.
While these techniques might feel a bit odd in a professional setting at first, feel free to experiment with one or two and see whether your message is better received. As you grow more comfortable using storytelling techniques, you can add and modify them as you see fit. After all, the goal of presenting and communicating at work is to cause actions to occur and behaviors to change, and tools like storytelling are simple ways to help that process.