Charlotte CIO of the Year winners share 4 tips on improving storytelling skills

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Storytelling represents one of the most powerful tools for winning over hearts and minds in business. A good story can help you win buy-in for an idea or an investment. It can help you rally a team to take on a tough project. And it can add meaning to the work your team is tackling: Employees crave a connection to outcomes. Storytelling can be especially powerful in IT, where you must often explain complex ideas – yet jargon, acronyms, and technical details can quickly make your audience glaze over.

The winners of the 2018 Charlotte CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards have all used storytelling to get their constituents on board with an idea. The awards were recently presented by the Charlotte CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership.

[ Want to learn even more strategies? Read 5 secrets of master storytellers. ]

We asked this year's winners to share a storytelling victory, plus their personal tips for other IT leaders who want to hone this important skill.

1. Use field research and future-casting

Corporate Charlotte CIO of the Year

Joe Topinka, CIO, SnapAV: I worked at a company that was experiencing high turnover in a team that drove 70 percent of the company’s revenue. We used field research, a hidden tool that many CIOs and IT organizations aren’t using enough to routinely drive value. In this example, we traveled to 20 cities to observe firsthand the issues our teams and our customers experienced. We wanted to see and hear about the problems with our own eyes and ears. Seeing-is-believing and there is no better way to see what happening than with in-person observation.

We leveraged these experiences to tell a story of the pain our employees and customers were feeling. These powerful and impactful stories, grounded in our own observations, helped our executives feel their pain. We also showed the executive team that we had a game plan to overcome the problems. Next, we told stories, set in the future, that painted a much better picture of what life would be like for employees and customers once key investments were made. This helped everyone better understand what investments were needed to overcome the pain points. We coupled all of this with stories of what life would be like post investment – all of this convinced our executives to make the needed investment.

Storytelling Tip: A powerful aspect of storytelling should center on the business outcomes you seek to drive. The punchline of storytelling in IT can be powerful if used to drive strategy and customer engagement.

2. Use analogies with great imagery

Enterprise Charlotte CIO of the Year

Ames Flynn, EVP Shared Services, Extended Stay America: As we have been piloting the replacement of the network/WiFi/TV infrastructure at each of our hotels, there have been concerns from our Board and senior leadership team as to the level of investment, long-term benefits, and impact on hotel operations in the short-term. I have been telling the story in more understandable, everyday and business terms by using the analogy of what it is like to do a heart transplant. In particular, emphasizing the long-term benefits.

It is vitally important that we plan the conversion in detail, design the right architecture that matches well with our hotel anatomy (needs) and we go into the conversion realizing it isn’t something you just install overnight, but will require close monitoring, certain adjustments and tuning, as well as care and attention to ensure a smooth recovery. We called the project “Cheetah” to help others envision the speed and agility the new network will give our guests.

Storytelling Tip: Take technical concepts and try to explain them in everyday terms and analogies that non-technical audiences will understand and relate to, especially ones that use imagery. For example, a systems engineer is like a NASCAR engine builder and a computer operations specialist is like a NASCAR driver.

3. Paint a picture of the future

Global Charlotte CIO of the Year

Detlef Dohmen, CIO, Polypore: A technique I frequently use to get people on board before implementing a new technology is to paint a picture of the future while putting myself in my constituent's shoes.

One example comes to mind, which goes many years back, but is a great story in itself. While we were planning to implement a new ERP system, we were looking for subject matter experts from the business to lead the effort of defining future processes. We were facing the problem that people just saw more work for the next 18 months, but not what was in it for them. A young, very talented financial analyst saw just the additional work and not how this would change his opportunities going forward. When I explained to him that he would be able to define processes for his department, which defines how they work for the next decade or longer, and that with this knowledge he could be a valuable candidate down the road to lead the department, he got on board.

Long story short, he accepted the challenge, the implementation was a success, he got promoted to lead the accounting department a couple years later and is today the CFO of the company. Not too long ago he told me that if I had not opened his eyes, he most likely would not have been that successful.

Storytelling Tip: Think about the goals of the technology changes you plan to implement and how they add value to the business. Ask questions like: What if we could ... (after the project is finalized)? What is in it for the business? What is in it for individuals (Think about their situation today and in the future in the context of the change). Use analogies, metaphors, or examples if possible to make the story more visible. Adapt the story to the audience without changing the message.

4. Build a narrative around why digital transformation is necessary

Education Charlotte CIO of the Year

Candace Salmon-Hosey, CTO, Rowan-Salisbury School System: It is my belief that an organization’s culture heavily influences the adoption of technology innovation initiatives. In my school district, I found that storytelling was a successful strategy for gaining stakeholder buy-in and acceptance for our digital transformation.

We used it to capture attention and create an understanding of why it was necessary and how it would allow us to improve educational outcomes for the students and families in our schools and community. Communicating our narrative around our core purpose of teaching and learning built an awareness and shared belief that the digital transformation was the right thing for the children of Rowan-Salisbury Schools.

Storytelling Tip: Keep the story simple, authentic, and meaningful. It has to be crafted in a way that not only connects to the intended message but also appeals to the intended audience.

Congratulations to all of the 2018 Charlotte CIO of the Year ORBIE Award winners, including: Leadership winner Chris Heck, VP & CIO, Duke Energy; Super Global winner Marc Hamer, Corporate VP, Global CIO & CDO, Sealed Air; and Healthcare winner Harold Moore, VP and System CIO, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System.

[ Is your IT leadership playbook outdated? Read our new report from HBR Analytic Services: Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership. ]