How The Principles of Storytelling Can Improve Your Project Status Updates

By Lee Lazarus and Janine Kurnoff

In the data-driven IT industry, storytelling isn’t always emphasized as an important skill. But finding the right combination of story and data is crucial to getting your point across clearly and moving others to action. This includes when giving a status update on a program or project, something we all will be asked to do at some point. When asked to provide this type of update, many of us simply default to using an existing template and revise it each month or quarter. But as the weeks and months go on, these templates have a tendency to morph and flex to encompass growing feedback of various stakeholders. What starts off as a simple update will eventually feel like a wild beast that needs to be tamed.

The solution is simple when you understand the basic structure of every great story:

  • Setting – this provides the context (often backed up with data and trends) that helps build critical focus for the audience and gets everyone on the same page.
  • Characters – Characters are human (or at least given human traits and emotions) and “meeting” a character in a story feels familiar to us. They establish an emotional element, and can include customers, suppliers, partners, or key stakeholders. 
  • Conflict – This gives your audience a reason to care… a reason to lean in. It allows you to illuminate a current problem 
  • BIG Idea – This is the one thing that you want your audience to remember (because they won’t remember everything).  
  • Resolution – this is the nitty gritty of your business story. Now you can unveil a new opportunity or idea that should always come last in the story.

It may seem strange at first to use storytelling in your update, but by strategically inserting story structure you’re able to more effectively communicate the health of the project inside and out. When communicating an update, your status report will likely fall into one of two camps: either it will come with a conflict or without a conflict. It’s important to understand how each type of update is distinct.

What to do when you’re giving an update with conflict…

An update with conflict will require you to roll out the full baseline story structure. Begin with setting and characters to report what’s been accomplished since the last check-in. Next go into the conflict by identifying the challenge (or challenges) that are impacting (or might impact) the project or program – it could be budget shortfalls, scope change, delays, resource constraints, or new competition. Next bring in your BIG Idea to directly address the conflict. Preview your recommendation and then lay out the details of your resolution. Bam, there’s your story.

What to do when you’re giving an update with no conflict

But what if your project is going just fine and there is no conflict? Well, first, congratulations! If there are truly no present (or future) concerns, you only need some of the story elements. Just establish the setting and characters to convey what your team has accomplished in your project or program. The main goal is to show that everything is progressing on time and on budget. You might even dig out your original recommendation or proposal and compare your characters’ situation today to how things were at the outset. Your BIG Idea is a simple sound bite that basically says,” we’re on track”. And since there is no conflict, no resolution is necessary – the BIG Idea will suffice on its own. Keep in mind: updates without conflict are tactical. You might not even need to hold an actual meeting. Perhaps you can convey that the project is on track in an email or through a project management tool. After all, it never hurts to spare everyone another meeting.

But wait… are you sure there’s no conflict?

Before you put together an update that lacks conflict, you might want to consider the benefits of adding conflict to your update. Yes, you read that right. Without conflict, you’re delivering a purely tactical update. By adding conflict, your update becomes more strategic and likely more productive. If you’d like to offer a strategic update, it’s time to dig deep to discover any possible concerns that’ll elevate your strategic role on this project. To make your digging easier, here are three ways to discover conflict in your update: lean on yourself, lean on a trusted colleague, or lean on your audience.

Start by trying to broaden your individual scope. Consider if there are any new angles, insights, or opportunities you can provide, or are there any potential pitfalls or risks that might lay ahead?

Secondly, talk to a wise colleague who’s had different experiences than you (even better if they’re familiar with your project or worked on a similar one in the past) and might detect a missed conflict. 

Finally, after you share your setting and characters, you can open up your search for conflict to your audience. Use this opportunity to get their opinion about anything that could be a “red flag.” This can be a risky move – and you better do your homework first – but fielding audience engagement brings shared ownership. Your audience will appreciate your open curiosity about any potential risk to the project. If actual conflict emerges through this dialogue, be ready to take note of this new wrinkle and circle back to it – with your resolution – in your next update.

Be an Update Hero

Few projects, product launches, consulting assignments, etc. go perfectly as planned. If you want to drive up your value on the project – and your career  –  step back and think strategically. Look hard for any problems lurking around the corner and always strive to pinpoint new opportunities. Don’t just “check the box”  –  be an update hero.

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