Don’t Just List Facts, Tell Me a Story! (Lessons from Montreal, Part 1)


I did a workshop on the 24 Steps in Montreal last month, and one of my students, Frederic, really highlighted the power of a story in conveying information much better than a list of facts would.

Frederic’s startup would make an automated ultrasonic welding inspection system. He told the class about his startup’s Persona – a real individual whose priorities will focus the startup’s product marketing (see Step 5 of the 24 Steps). The Persona’s name was Philippe, a 45-year-old Canadian welder working as an inspector for a large oil and gas company. Frederic knew all the facts about Philippe – married, one daughter, salary of $150K per year, some but not a lot of opportunity for promotion at the company.

Philippe would be the end user for Frederic’s inspection system, and he also had the final say on purchasing it for the company (he was the primary economic buyer). So Frederic knew Philippe’s purchasing criteria in prioritized order, too – HSE (health, safety, and environment) was number one, followed by speed and costs. From a logical point of view, it made sense that a Persona concerned primarily with HSE would be interested in a better inspection system.

How concerned was Philippe with HSE? This is where Frederic’s description excelled. He told a story – a story about the worst experience Philippe ever had as an inspector. A story that underscored his commitment to HSE.

Two years prior, Philippe was in charge of inspection for an offshore drilling project in Nigeria for his current employer. An ambitious project manager had just been assigned to the project, and pressured the employees to work more quickly. He rushed Philippe’s inspections and tried to have him sign off on work that Philippe believed risked the safety of the employees and the environment due to its poor quality.

Philippe loved his job, and had been deeply loyal to the company that had until this point treated him well. But he also felt a deep sense of responsibility to his team, knowing the risks that offshore drilling presented to them if the proper safeguards were not observed. For three weeks after the new project manager had arrived, Philippe was unable to sleep, deeply torn by these competing priorities.

And then he called it quits. He resigned from the company, walking away from the job he loved because he was unwilling to sign off on work that could lead to death or environmental disaster. He had an uncertain work future for two years, bouncing between contract jobs. Finally, he found a different team within his old company that valued his commitment to HSE and hired him.

While Frederic told this story, you could hear a pin drop in the room. He knew the facts, but he – and we – now had a deep, visceral understanding of how the Persona makes decisions.

Look for those stories. Use them to communicate to your team what your Persona fears the most and what motivates them best. Facts will get you part of the way, but nothing is more powerful than a story.