These days storytelling isn’t just for movies and bedtime. Forbes magazine calls storytelling “the new strategic imperative” for business. Everything from marketing to politics gets defined by its narrative, and just about anyone in any field, including engineering, can employ storytelling techniques to enhance their workflow and communication. Even if formal presentation isn’t in your job description, you probably find yourself expected to explain difficult concepts in simple terms. Storytelling can help.
Imagine your manager calls on you to present a new design or project. About five minutes in you start to see your audience’s eyes glaze over. Someone stifles a yawn. Maybe you don’t mind, but there’s a lot more at stake here than feelings. Understanding demands attention, and if you can’t get their attention you’ve dramatically reduced your odds of getting your point across.
New studies in cognitive science reveal how deeply wired humans are for story. It’s a mode we understand intuitively and respond to with a great deal of consistency and curiosity. The good news is, every project or product, no matter how technical or complicated, is already part of someone’s story. At minimum, storytelling your way through an explanation can fulfill the role of contextualization. By painting the big picture value of an idea we prime audiences to dive down the rabbit hole and grapple with the gritty details. And even those details can take on additional storytelling forms of their own.
There are five basic stages to the classic story structure, which can apply as effectively to your presentations and explanations as they do to Cinderella or Jack the Giant Killer.
1) The HOOK is quick, compelling, and immediate. A strong opening sparks curiosity. It raises questions with the promise of an answer, or presents a problem with the promise of a solution.
2) GROUND STATE, or context, lets everyone know where things stand in the here and now. Where did this design emerge from? Why do we need it? What struggles inspired innovation?
3) RISING ACTION is the meat and potatoes of every story, and explaining your way through a presentation can follow a similar path. Moving from summary to scene, from question to answer, from problem to solution. Conflict and tension arise not only from the challenges, but from linking those challenges to the larger questions of value.
4) The CLIMAX brings all those questions and problems to a head. You’ve told the story of the relationship between your product and your dilemma—now connect the dots to reveal the big solution.
5) In the end good RESOLUTIONS usher in a sense of completion or circularity. Bring us back to context and ground state, but show us how the integrated project or design changes everything for the future.
Storytelling is a proven method for holding our attention, but it also directs us to the horizons of possibility and engages our imaginations. It gives weight to questions and clarity to answers. Learn how to speak in stories and your explanations, presentations, and overall persuasiveness will all level up.