Our industry (professional services/creative services/consulting) has a language problem. This is nothing new. We often use our own language to create a knowledge gap with clients, reinforcing expertise and requiring them to ask us for additional context. Where the problems start to happen is when we use obscure language internally, making it hard for new people to the industry to learn and improve.
When I started working at a digital marketing/advertising firm 8 years ago, one of the first things my mentor told me was I needed to learn about storytelling. I needed to learn about crafting a narrative. As an ambitious newcomer, I bought a handful of books about writing stories and storytelling. I likely didn’t finish them all, but I can recall feeling this strange disconnect. Why did I need to learn to tell stories? I was working in the strategy department, what story was I writing? The only book that started to make sense for me was Perfect Pitch by Jon Steel. It centred on the broader creative pitch process within advertising. In that context, I understood the good value of a story. You needed to bring the client on a journey through an arc that led to an impactful reveal of your idea or concept.
But that’s not what I was doing every day. I can recall my early work involved competitive reviews, presenting a broader perspective on how customers were using mobile devices in everyday life, and researching opportunities in the small business market. How did storytelling fit in that context? What is this “story” that I am trying to tell?
The problem with everyone using the term storytelling is when you’re new to the industry you don’t know what that means. You start to think about “setting”, “character”, “conflict” quite literally and struggle to find connections between those concepts and your work. Over time I grokked what it meant, but when it came time to manage others, help them learn about crafting a narrative, and provide constructive feedback on what was missing, I was at a loss. Was I contributing to the same problem I faced years ago?
A few months ago I read The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto. Minto, an ex-McKinsey consultant, formalized a method of structuring ideas and concepts in a repeatable way. She focused on the business context which meant it was perfect reading material for me. She still used terms like narrative, but about 2/3 of the way through the book, something clicked for me. I realized that the narrative we are so focused on is the sequence of ideas in the way we speak. It has little to do with this word story, which has too many cultural connotations to be valuable. As Douglas Hofstadter would clarify, “storytelling” is the problem, not storytelling.
Have you ever been listening to someone telling a story and found yourself thinking “where is this going”? The flow of it is confusing, you cannot tell what’s going next, and it rambles on until it eventually reaches its conclusion. This is an example of bad sequencing. A memorable line from Minto is that “the conclusion should feel inevitable given the facts”.
She spends a lot of time on the thinking required to have the right pieces to prioritize in the first place, something I won’t discuss. What’s more important is finding the right set of ideas to make your point, and putting them into a logical progression. The goal is clarity, not drama. You aren’t trying to build dramatic tension during your presentation, but clearly convey information to an audience that is always too short on time. This results in things like putting the conclusion or recommendation up-front, followed by your key proof points. While this format may not work for more expressive writing, in “business writing” such as memos, proposals, decks, you should stick to what will get your point across in the most compelling way. What often ends up happening is we focus too much on the compelling aspect and not enough on getting your point across, leaving readers and listeners lost in a confusing structure and sequence.
To recap: storytelling is the sequence of your thinking in a way for readers of your work to easily grasp your ideas.
We tend to think in a very chaotic and dispersed manner. We lay out an assortment of thoughts in front of us and try to make sense of it, drawing connections, categorizing, probing deeper in some areas. This approach is great for exploring new territory and getting a grasp of the situation. It helps you see the whole picture and discover new connections you hadn’t previously considered. While this method is great for thinking or reviewing your own work, it’s hard to follow during the course of a presentation. Once you have laid out the pieces of your thinking, it’s your job to now structure and cull. Get rid of the pieces that don’t contribute to your key insight, conclusion, or recommendation. Take the reader or listener through a very linear sequence of how you arrived at the conclusion. The goal is to eliminate the expansive, open-world nature of your thinking and make it as straightforward as possible. Hold their hand as you take them through the story that is your thinking. This tweet from Cedric helps put this into perspective, emphasis mine:
I read 52 books in 2019. A good chunk of them were narrative. They made it easier to grok the idea books I wanted to read.@ejames_c
But narrative is dangerous because reality is always messier. The difficulty of reading well is keeping that balance in mind.”
Reality and thinking are messy. Your presentation shouldn’t be. When working on the next piece of writing or a presentation, think through how you can make this as simple to understand for a newcomer as possible.
As a closer, the intent is not that story and narrative are unimportant concepts to learn, but the terminology is confusing and opaque for people looking to improve their skills.