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The value of storytelling in technology work

Dave Bine

September 21, 2023

When we talk about storytelling in marketing, we typically refer to the use of storytelling techniques to build a brand narrative or a product story that connects with customers. We may also refer to the use of storytelling techniques to build a persuasive business case in general. The intended value of storytelling in business is to evoke an emotional response in the listener through relatability, aspiration, or desire, to name a few. When people feel something, they are more likely to be persuaded than by appeals to reason alone.


But when we present technology work, we tend to figure that purely rational explanations are sufficient and appropriate and that storytelling and technology are separate spheres entirely. We deliberately strive for rational explanations for everything. We describe our systems architectures, application designs, and development roadmaps as the logical outcomes of careful thought and the distillation of many considerations. We present our technical designs like blueprints.


And yet every experienced technologist will say they’ve watched a client go glassy-eyed during their technology presentation. Was it information overload? Did the presentation delve into too many technical details? More than likely, the presentation lacked a good through line to help the listener follow along. Every presentation needs an effective through line, a beginning with the context for the work, and a summary of the points to be made. This is “Presentation 101” stuff, regardless of any added storytelling efforts to persuade. 


But it’s very tempting to jump right in when presenting technical topics. Supported by diagrams and confident in your conclusions, why bother with introductory slides when you can voice-over your slides? This is especially common in share-outs in everyday meetings. But without a properly written set-up, you leave room for distraction or confusion. You could have let the audience see upfront what it would need to understand to grasp the big picture and, by implication, what technical details the listeners may choose to defer for themselves to ponder later.


Furthermore, even though you may be able to maintain a through line in a voice-over, you want your presentation to speak for itself. You’re likely to be sharing copies of it anyway. At a minimum, “comment your work,” as we say to programmers, by providing notes. In this case, the goal is to explain the intricacies of your diagrams.


Why Humanizing Technology Through Storytelling Is Essential


We all know why storytelling in marketing is important and effective, so why wouldn’t it be the same in technology? It’s not that presenting a good story is anything new in technology work. Describing a “customer story” is at the core of agile methodology, and when was the last time you met a technology team that didn’t assert its agility? The customer story describes how a piece of work to be done fulfills a customer’s need. Speaking in customer stories helps to elicit the desired feedback from your client (leading to your agile response when you need to pivot!) because a customer story is more relatable for discussion than a purely objective description of how something will work. 


An effective customer story sounds like, “As a customer, I want to interact with a chatbot in the app to place my takeout order.” This is different than describing in detail: “The user opens the takeout food app and is asked if they want to chat by typing or talking. If the user confirms they want to chat, then the chatbot starts by presenting options for FAQs or how to make an order. If the user is speaking their order, then the chatbot asks the user to confirm what it has heard before adding an item to the order, etc.”


It’s not that these additional details are irrelevant or that a presentation should never get into this level of detail. What’s crucial in technology presentations is to consistently emphasize how the technical details relate to their larger context. This avoids drowning the listener in detail by keeping the presentation more relatable, more memorable, and more likely to have the impact you’re after.


The Human Story Within Technology Is Always There, Waiting to Be Told


There are always human stories surrounding technology projects in addition to the stories that comprise a project itself. However, we typically hear about these stories only after the work is underway in the form of discussions around what went well, what didn’t, or, worse, when we’re reporting a root cause analysis of something that went very wrong. 


Storytelling is intrinsic to these discussions because these explanations are more often about a series of human events than about specific technology failures. The intent is for the listener to relate — to share in the good news or to acknowledge the human error in bad news. 


One case study of this placement of tech projects into a larger human context is RAPP’s collaboration with Palo Alto Networks. Cybersecurity is a field often filled with bad news about potential or active threats against a company’s security, and in recent years, it seems these threats have been even more numerous. On the same note, cybersecurity’s role in companies and societies is a positive one, protecting us and our data from attacks, but this requires the right technology investment. In order to show the positive and hopeful aspects that cybersecurity represents and inspiration for investing with Palo Alto Networks, RAPP created a video that inspires leaders to imagine and build for tomorrow, knowing they’re safe with Palo Alto Networks. 


Emphasizing more human stories should be welcomed in technology presentations. These can help to pull the listener in to align their perspective with yours, for example. They can also help to justify a particular solution in terms of the real human benefits involved or perhaps simply to instill trust in you regarding what you and your team have experience with. All of this is possible when we allow storytelling to elevate the human stories that already surround and comprise your projects and letting them speak for the power and purpose of your efforts. They’ll be the most memorable moments in your through line, helping to keep your audience hooked from beginning to end and persuaded to support your initiative thereafter.

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