So What’s Your Story?
Creating Powerful Stories That Get Results
By Jennifer Hay
Published: The Data Administration Newsletter (TDAN) and WITI, June 2010
Some people are natural storytellers. They describe events and circumstances in a way that captures attention, compels interest, and engages listeners. Storytellers are a direct contrast with those who use language solely for targeted and factual communications. In interviews and professional networking the storyteller has a distinct advantage – the ability to engage and interest people who can open doors and present opportunities.
Storytelling brings images, actions, and people alive. Well-told stories capture the imagination and interest of the listener and are memorable long past their telling. They move you from the hard facts – dollars and cents, and percentages – to describing events and circumstances in terms of connections with people, relationships, and value. Telling stories in a way that draws attention to your career achievements is a natural fit. Engaging stories about how you solved problems, created opportunities, and nurtured productive teams make the difference between moving forward and staying behind.
For those who come from a long line of storytellers or who have a natural talent for expression through stories, this comes easily. For others, it is a technique learned through practice and repetition. In both cases, the art of telling compelling stories will open doors to tremendous opportunities.
Creating Powerful Stories That Get Results
For IT professionals, turning technical achievements into business value is a real challenge. They need to reach a balance of what I call ‘just enough.’ That is ‘just enough’ technical detail with a strong connection to business results. The balance of technical competence and business value gets attention in both human resources and IT departments. Connecting your technical achievements with business value and IT impact is at the core of your success.
In this article, I describe by example a process that removes confusion and unnecessary details; I illustrate a technique that turns career accomplishments into interesting and compelling stories. The technique is valuable in many situations including resume writing, interviewing, and networking. When you describe your accomplishments to others you’ll know the best stories to tell, and you’ll be able to get right to the point.
A manufacturer with federal contracts had a legacy technology architecture that was no longer going to be supported by the vendor. They had 100K lines of program code for a project costing system that had to be converted to another technology. They needed a short list of products with ability to re-host the essential functionality. Government regulations imposed by terms of the federal contracts required that they select vendors and products using a comprehensive and unbiased decision-making approach.
You created a short list of potential vendors based on extensive research and your depth of industry knowledge. Using your short list, the company asked vendors to provide prototypes of needed functionality. You evaluated the prototypes using a statistical model you designed specifically to provide unbiased results. You used a statistical approach called Analytic Hierarchical Process (AHP) modeling because it allows multiple and complex criteria to be incorporated into a structured and fact-based analysis process. You developed an AHP model, and applied it to prioritize the short-list and identify the top candidate.
The technical committee loved your approach and approved your recommendation. They decided to use your statistical modeling approach on a continuing basis.
Moving From Your Technical Achievement
There is a lot of information in your project background that needs to be condensed. Your goal is clear, concise, and easily understandable language. I use a 1-2-3 method that divides the information into 3 simple steps. This is the starting point to create an interesting story.
- What problem did the business have? They had a legacy project costing system with 100K lines of code no longer supported by the vendor. They needed a replacement system into which they could migrate the system functionality. They needed a short-list of potential vendors to evaluate using a comprehensive and unbiased approach.
- What did you do? First, you created a short list of potential vendors based on extensive research and in-depth knowledge of the industry. Next, you evaluated the prototypes using a statistical model you designed that allowed multi- criteria to be used. Finally you prioritized the short-list and identified the top candidate.
- How did the company benefit? They approved your decision-making process and selected your top recommendation. In fact, they adopted your modeling approach as a standard method of unbiased decision making.
To Business Value
Expect multiple iterations to get the language just right. But once done, you’ll have a story that quickly and comfortably describes your achievement in writing, in interviews, and in conversations. Imagine being in an interview and having great examples at the tip of your tongue.
Business Need: The company needed to replace legacy technology for crucial project costing system.
Actions: I created a short list of technology alternatives based on my research and industry knowledge. I quantified evaluation criteria and developed a statistical model to evaluate vendor prototypes. The statistical model satisfied government requirements for an unbiased analytical decision process. I made a final technology recommendation based on sound and fact-based analysis.
- The organization made a confident decision to implement a best-fit technology architecture.
- They implemented a highly effective analysis and decision process and adopted it as the organization standard.
Creating the Story
I developed a solution for a multi-billion dollar company to replace legacy technology architecture for a critical project costing system. This typically straight-forward project was complicated by the fact that the company was a primary manufacturer for the federal government. To comply with conditions of government contracts, replacement technology selection required a comprehensive, unbiased decision- making method.
I was up to the challenge; this was a great opportunity to use my extensive research skills. I chose an Analytic Hierarchical Process model because AHP is a natural fit for complex, multi-criteria analysis. I evaluated each vendor based upon strict criteria. My recommendations were fully documented, thus adhering to government regulations. I was pleased and gratified when the company selected my first recommendation.
Then there was the expected surprise. The company liked the decision-making process so much that they decided to implement as the organization standard for unbiased and fact-based decisions.
This is a great story. It talks about the obstacles and challenges and describes how each was overcome. A listener may forget the specifics but they will remember that you not only delivered exactly what the company needed but you provided an unexpected bonus. Furthermore, they’ll hear your enthusiasm and recognize the joy that you take in solving problems and making a difference.
Creating and Telling Your Stories
There is no better way to become a good storyteller than practice and repetition. When you tell your stories often enough they become part of you and a natural part of your language and flow effortlessly in the telling. Practice with your friends and colleagues and be receptive to feedback. But most of all don’t be bashful. The results in your interviews and networking sessions will be amazing. You’ll engage your listener and you’ll know you’ve succeeded when they lean forward and say, ‘Tell me more.’