by Adele Sommers
What do business novels, “personas,” case studies, and success anecdotes have in common? They’re all examples of storytelling techniques that you and your team can use to deliciously flavor your project results.
Projects require focused attention on many considerations to achieve the desired results. Yet, when working on a project, it’s common to become riveted on the project mechanics — scheduling, budgeting, meetings, reporting, development, testing, and so on — all of the “technical stuff.” In some cases, a project may appear to take on a life of its own, where what happens inside of the project overshadows all else.
If we have become too focused on the mechanics, we might not pay enough attention to other vital indicators of success. These include the exceptionally pleasant and effective experiences that we want our clients, customers, users, or learners to have while using the systems, products, services, documents, training, or Web sites that our projects produce.
So how can we avoid losing focus on creating outstanding customer experiences?
This article explains how we can use stories and fictional elements to help clarify requirements, explain new ways of doing things, and create highly usable results.
First, Know Thy Audiences
Most projects involve several types of audiences, including:
1. Clients, sponsors, or stakeholders who commissioned the project and/or are overseeing the work. They need the ability to communicate clear requirements and consider the tradeoffs of the approaches that the team members might use.
2. Project team members. They need to receive or derive clear requirements and evaluate and recommend various approaches to completing the project.
3. Customers, clients, users, or learners. They will need to interact with or consume whatever the project delivers, so the outcome must satisfy their primary goals.
4. Marketing/sales, change agents, and trainers. They will need “social proof” (such as anecdotal evidence of success) to help market, sell, or teach the results.
Next, Select Storytelling Tools to Meet Your Audiences’ Needs
Based on your audience composition, select the “cast members” and narrative tools for your production. Although it might seem odd to introduce story-based elements into a project, especially a technical one, it can nevertheless produce very positive results. Storytelling aids include personas, business fiction, case studies, simulations, and testimonials/success anecdotes, as explained below.
Personas are realistic, fictional characters who represent typical people in your audience — whoever will be buying, using, consuming, or learning from whatever your project is producing. Three to five distinct personality types may exemplify a cross-section of your constituents. You will want to figure out who they are and give each a set of characteristics, so you can get “inside their heads,” so to speak. Their traits will help you clarify and fine-tune the requirements for the system or product interfaces, training content, and marketing campaigns, for example.
It’s ideal to characterize personas as realistically as possible by writing a detailed account of their circumstances, career situations, personal concerns, and so on. To do this, you can simply use your imagination, or you can research the:
- demographic data (such as age, gender, and educational characteristics) and
- psychographic data (goals, attitudes, behaviors, interests, beliefs, and so on) of your market.
Give your personas names, genders, ages, professional or personal roles, friends and families, hobbies, educational backgrounds, and major challenges.
Consider that your personas may be very different from one another in ways that will affect how they interact with your offerings. For example, Barbara M. is a computer systems analyst who loves to use “power shortcuts” when interacting with a system interface. Taylor G., on the other hand, is a retired electrician who is brand new to computing. He’ll need the interface to walk him through each step of every process. The interface must accommodate both sets of needs without creating any obstacles.
2) Business Fiction
Storytelling is an ancient medium for communicating news and information. Stories fascinate us through plots that involve twists, turns, conflicts, and resolutions. Our natural engagement with stories explains why they have been used for centuries for teaching and maintaining oral traditions. Their ordered plots help people sequence, store, and retrieve lengthy and detailed information, so they are excellent tools for training and memorization.
Similarly, business fiction explains complex concepts with ease.
These novels have tackled subjects as intricate as production management, design engineering, project management, and accounting. They typically use a suspenseful style in which the characters discover, explain, and argue out the pros and cons of each concept. Much like metaphors and parables, business novels invite people to consider new or controversial ideas in a non-threatening way. Because they are engaging in and of themselves, they make exciting what would otherwise be dry, difficult, or boring material, and are fun to recommend to others.
Several business novels discuss project and product management, including The Deadline by Tom DeMarco, Critical Chain by Eli Goldratt, Necessary But Not Sufficient by Eli Goldratt, and Product Development for the Lean Enterprise by Michael Kennedy.
3) Case Studies and Simulations
Most people don’t have the time, inclination, or talent to write a complete novel, but are comfortable with a condensed variation — a case study or a simulation. This type of story usually highlights fictional or non-fictional characters facing some sort of challenge. Your personas can even become the “actors” in your own case studies.
As instructional tools, case studies and simulations offer rich illustrations for problem solving, allowing learners to invent and compare solutions. A site that offers sample case studies (similar to those from Harvard Business School) is CasePlace.org.
4) Testimonials/Success Anecdotes
Success anecdotes provide the “social proof” that your project deliverables are effective. These stories benefit marketing/sales, change agents, managers, and trainers by providing powerful, third-party examples or endorsements that can be shared with clients, customers, and personnel.
In conclusion, storytelling elements are potent tools for clarifying requirements; exploring new techniques and approaches; and engaging your audiences’ attention, interest, imagination, and satisfaction once your project is complete.
Copyright 2009 Adele Sommers
Adele also offers no-cost articles and resources to help small businesses and large organizations accelerate productivity and increase profitability. Learn more at LearnShareProsper.com.
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