Storytelling to Support Collaboration

Working closely with people from diverse skill sets and backgrounds invigorates teams seeking new ideas. And, while one of the principles of collaboration is “Everyone Helps” (for some values of everyone) it’s also true that not everyone can be a part of groupwork, and not everyone cares to be. Your ideas can often live or die based on your ability to communicate the story behind them when they leave the circle of close collaborators and run into clients and stakeholders.

Getting teams to collaborate well means giving those involved the time and space to think divergently about the problem, and be rigorous and intentional about converging on solutions to test out. So often when we show up and show off the end-product to those who weren’t there while it was being made, we short-circuit the natural process to poke and prod and even take down that end product. Storytelling can make this process less painful by bringing people along for the ride, after the fact.

I owe a huge debt to Christina Wodtke for sharing her thoughts and notes about telling great stories with me when I taught a workshop for Women Talk Design. Here are just some of the key points that you should know to improve how you tell the story of your collaboration.

How Stories Work

Stories are so universal, and we respond to them so automatically, it can be tempting to assume we naturally know how to tell them well. But it is worth looking at what’s going on when we hear stories to help us hone our skills as storytellers. The science behind stories shows us that our own neurology is wired for stories in a surprising way. Kendall Haven is a leading expert on the neuro- and cognitive science of story, and his book Story Proof: The Science behind the startling Power of Story looks at how our brains process stories, and shows some surprising evidence that we are in fact hardwired for stories.

It turns out that when we listen to information, our brains turn it into story form even before it reaches to conscious mind within what Haven and his researchers call a “neural story net”, a dedicated part of the brain that processes stories which operates on a “make-sense mandate.” This mandate means that our brains will make sense of information as a story, and what we can’t make sense of, we ignore or distort it. Our brains simply process such a huge amount of information, this process is part of how we keep from being overloaded. Haven’s research shows that we will even reverse or invent key data points in a narrative if they don’t fit with the sense-making our busy brains are trying to do. In a video about the topic at Stanford, Haven gives a few entertaining examples of how our brains do this.

So, if your audience is sitting there inventing their own information and creating their own stories in their busy brains, what hope do we have in convincing and informing others of what we said and did? While there are many aspects to telling good stories, I will cover one of the most important here, story shape.

The Shape of Stories

The most important aspect of storytelling in service of getting your audience to engage and listen to what you are actually telling them, rather than making up their own versions of “facts” is the shape of stories. By shape, I’m referring really to a specific structure that underlies every story you’ve ever read, or at least any story that was any good.

The basic shape of stories is:

  • An inciting incident that kicks off the action. For a collaboration, this is usually a business objective or hypothesis that the group can or will agree is desirable. It can also be a problem that the group faces that needs to be addressed.
  • Next there should be a struggle or failure that the “characters” or collaborators face. In a collaborative setting, this might be a description of pain points observed in research, or ideas that were tried that didn’t work out. This is where the problem that the story “solves” comes in.
  • The climax of the story is where we unveil the idea or insight or product of the struggle that the team has developed. Instead of opening with your big idea, by leading up to it with some struggle, you’ve engaged your audience in wanting to know and love the winning idea rather than pick it apart for no good reason. The climax should bring the audience to understand not just *what* you did, but why. You should show the criteria and values you discovered and used to find the solution.
  • Finally, your story must have a resolution. The happy couple live happily ever after, or more likely in our case at work, there are some next steps or key indicators that we need our audience to take away from what you’ve shared.

The “Oh Shit!” Moment

The biggest mistake I see people make in the workplace when trying to be persuasive and engaging is forgetting the very thing that makes stories sticky — suspense, conflict, and resolution. Or, as I call it, the “oh shit!” moment. When I first began using scenarios and stories to compel executives to understand and support new product and service strategy, I would often focus on how great the offering would be, and how great it made life for those who would use it. But I began to notice that no matter how finely crafted I made my presentation, I was often met with a “so what?” response.

One day, after a particularly unsuccessful set of sessions getting feedback with customers, I found myself sharing the difficulties we were having, and how they had changed our thinking about how the product was used. I noticed that the executives were much more engaged than usual, because here, I finally had a real story where *something happened.*

It can be natural to try to exclude the “oh shit!” moment in an attempt to focus on the positive, the successes. But when you do, the opposite happens. With nothing to compel their curiosity about how the story will turn out, the tone and emotional tenor of the conversation is flat and uninspiring. This doesn’t mean you have to air every bit of dirty laundry outside the team, but it does mean that you should always make sure you include a struggle in the story that helps you protagonist overcome.

Different Story Shapes

The elements of stories also take different shapes that you can use. Not every story you put behind a collaboration needs to be an epic tale of overcoming obstacles such as those above. Show and Tell, by Dan Roam is a great resource on creating storylines of different types. He calls out 4 main shapes of stories: the pitch, the report, the explanation and the drama.

From Dan Roam’s Show and Tell

Each of these does a different job with it’s story shape, and can be used in different situations.

If you are looking to keep a group of stakeholders informed and confident in your efforts, the report is an effective way to tell different vignettes that punctuate your overall delivery of information to a group who needs continuity. Like a daily newscast, the report may not have one big climax, but rather a series of ahas that keep people engaged in a stream of information. A report can be successful when it is paced well, and kept as brief as possible. Reports also benefit from what we will get into below, being “story-decorated,” as Wodtke calls it in her blog post about working with story where the arc of the story is punctuated by several small stories rather than one overarching narrative.

If you are looking to create buy in, the pitch structure will help bring your audience to identify with your charter, and want to see the team succeed over challenges. The pitch serves to ground the audience in the pain points, the struggles of a someone in the target market who goes on to achieve greatness, with the help of your solution. This is frequently encountered in business in the form of demos and proposals. Steve Jobs was a master of the pitch form in his on-stage presences at Apple events. He tended to minimize the “hurdle” aspect of the pitch, in favor of dazzling audiences with clear, impressive shows of a brilliant future. The “carousel scene” from Mad Men is an exemplary, almost meta-level pitch about pitching that nails the form (

The explanation is probably a common form you’ve encountered in the business world already. With its linear, analytically-minded structure, key points are built up over each other bringing the audience new understanding. Because this is such a seemingly simple approach, and is used so frequently, it can often be created poorly, to bad effect. Consider the monologuing expert who throws point after point into a slide deck, without any attention to it actually being a story. This form is actually deceptively simple; in reality, it can be hard to use to create a storyline. The rookie mistake I see most people make with the explanation is that they fail to relate it to a larger picture of what the thing being explained actually achieves. Dan Roam suggests that one easy way to counter this is to literally create that bigger picture…as a picture. Using diagrams to show how the different pieces fit together, and then coming back to that over the course of the “story” will help your audience stay engaged and actually make sense of the whole. At the same time, typing each piece of the explanation back to what problem it solves will give the audience both the tension needed to sustain interest, and the release to know why they should care and make use of this knowledge.

While it’s the most familiar from actual stories we experience in books or video, the drama is probably the most under-used shape of story in the business world. Like the pitch, it focuses on a problem that the protagonist must struggle through before overcoming and reaching a new perspective or type of re-birth. Where the pitch might show a character facing a hurdle in their everyday lives, writing a good drama involves spending more time and energy on drawing out the actual pain of a situation, whether it is self-created, or external. Generally in business, we avoid this level of negativity, not wanting to bring our audience down too much, or focusing too hard on problems over solutions. But this is the form to use when you have an people who needs to develop deeper empathy for a set of people, or confront a harsh reality. The harsh reality you draw on for your story is likely to be something that isn’t totally foreign to the audience; they’ve seen the analytics or the data that describes a current or future danger that is real. What that data seldom does is make people actually feel the discomfort. But what a drama can do is take people into that feeling, in order to inspire or motivate them to take action to solve it by showing a resolution, not just expressing the scope and focus of the problem.

How Do You Work With Stories?

I’ve shared some of my thoughts, and those of experts, like Wodtke and Roam here. But I’d love to hear from you. What works for you? Why? And when have you seen stories go wrong? Let me know below, or at

I am giving a keynote at CanUX (Nov 1–4 in Ottawa) on Secrets of Successful Collaboration. Join us!

Product Design and Development Advisor for stuff that matters: education, healthcare, surgical robots, energy. Author of Mastering Collaboration.