Storytelling in project management: how to captivate and inspire the team

Meetings can often be very long and it can be difficult to stay focused. It is in these situations that it can be helpful to have a method of conveying information in a simple and entertaining way, making it easy for people to remember and follow the meeting. This is where storytelling comes in, as its structure can ensure that all team members stay on topic.
A neon sign "WHAT IS YOUR STORY?"


The power of storytelling in project management

Storytelling is a narrative method that uses telling and listening to convey information. This information includes project goals, progress and outcomes. Storytelling can help to communicate this information in an engaging way. It is important to always have a goal in mind when developing a story and to try to relate it to specific situations. This can create a narrative, with characters, plot and setting, which can be used to communicate complex content in a simple way. One's own point of view can be included to create a context in which the listener can better imagine the project. In this way, knowledge can be conveyed, creativity can be stimulated and solutions to problems can be found together. Stories are usually strategic, as they aim to convey values, risks or challenges through anecdotes. But they can also be used to motivate, create a good atmosphere or bring together a team with different interests and perspectives.

Storytelling can also be used to engage stakeholders and give them an insight into the project work without overwhelming them with technical terms. Stakeholders are crucial because the project stands or falls with them. It is particularly important that they are open to the project.

Why stories are beneficial in project management

Storytelling, as mentioned above, can convey complex information in an understandable way by transforming the information into a vivid story. The vividness makes the story more memorable as it is easier to relate to the story.

Storytelling can also promote collaboration, as a story can be told in a way that makes team members feel part of the team, despite having different roles in the project, and realise that they are working together towards the same goal. Different interests can be reconciled through storytelling, by clearly communicating what exactly the goal of the project is. This can also ensure, for example, that the individual members of a newly formed team come together as such.

But as well as the 'what', the 'how' also plays an important role. This is because a good narrative can help to reinforce what is being said and give stakeholders a positive feeling, ideally creating a shared vision that everyone can identify with. This increases the stakeholders' willingness to implement that vision. Telling a story is therefore useful for internal communication with and within the project team, as well as for external communication with clients and other external parties. For this reason, a story strategy should be developed in advance that is fact-based and clearly communicates the project's content in a way that maximises its value.

Listening to the story, the images it creates in the mind and the emotions it evokes can help people retain information for longer and get customers and stakeholders excited about the project. On the other hand, solutions can be found through metaphors, as team members are stimulated to be creative.


Storytelling is particularly effective when it comes to emotions because facts associated with emotions are easier to remember. This is due to the hippocampus, which is important for learning, and the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions. The more active the hippocampus, the easier it is for us to remember things. So, when we are told a story that contains important facts and at the same time involves us emotionally, the amygdala is active. It makes the hippocampus more excited and helps us remember things better. A story with important facts creates images in our minds that we can remember longer by associating them with emotions.

Identify and develop compelling stories for your project

The story in which the facts are embedded must always be adapted to the external circumstances. Who are the listeners - are they stakeholders, team members or someone else entirely? What are their interests? What information needs to be conveyed? Ideally, one tries to answer these questions in advance in order to develop a suitable story that contains the project goal and all other information that is important to the respective stakeholders. In this way, an emotionally significant initial situation can be created, which begins, for example, with a problem and ends with a solution. 

When describing the initial situation, create a character that is as sympathetic as possible, with whom the participants can better identify. What are the challenges or obstacles and how do they affect the project? Challenges can concern resources, staff, but also time schedules. Something is not available; a staff member leaves the organisation or the project is delayed - these are all challenges that can be addressed in a story. The description of the initial situation should also highlight the core message of the project and the project goal.

In this context, the arc of suspense should also be mentioned. This serves to captivate the audience by telling the story in an engaging way. The suspense is created by first pointing out the challenges of the project and then working on the solution to the challenges. When telling the story, work towards the climax, i.e. the peak of the suspense. This is where the project goal has been achieved, as all challenges have been overcome. The conclusion, which can be applied to one's own life, is easier to understand because of the preceding story. When dealing with complex topics, metaphors can also be used to present difficult issues in a simple way. In storytelling, it is important to keep the story short and not too complex. Although facts are better remembered through emotion, participants may stray if the story is too complicated, too long or too abstract.

Best practices for storytelling in project meetings and presentations

It is particularly important to know the audience, because only then can the story be told in a way that addresses specific situations that are particularly relevant to the target group.

The reason for the meeting should always be kept in mind. Do you want to inform the stakeholders about the project or do you want to promote cooperation within the team? The structure of storytelling described above should be followed in order to make the story understandable and to actively involve the participants. 

It is especially important not to develop fictional stories, but to write stories that deal with real situations. This allows concerns and fears to be shared so that the story is thought-provoking, stays in the memory longer and is comprehensible.

Example of storytelling

A project team has been commissioned to build a playground in a residential area. As this is a project whose outcome is intended for the public, there are a number of external stakeholders. These include the parents of the children who will play in the planned playground. Most of the parents have no experience in construction and are therefore not familiar with the processes of the project, but still want to ensure that the project is carried out properly so that their children can benefit from it. Besides parents, there are other stakeholders that need to be involved, such as environmental organisations. In such a scenario, storytelling can be used in a meeting with the stakeholders.

As an introduction, you can briefly outline what the project should look like: 

The playground should be as diverse and green as possible. There should be enough choice of equipment for children to romp around on and enough seating for parents to supervise and watch their children play.

Different characters develop out of this task. 

On the one hand, there is the project manager, who keeps an eye on the goal and the given framework conditions such as the budget, who himself regularly builds parks, playgrounds or the like, i.e., he is a master of his craft. His passion is to use ecological materials instead of simply paving everything over with stones to bring the children closer to nature.
On the other hand, there are the parents with their children who want to have the most beautiful playground possible. The children should be able to romp around, but not be exposed to any danger. They should have fun in a safe environment while the parents can be there. 
Then there is the construction management, which takes care of the implementation, i.e. the construction of the playground, the municipality, which finances the construction, the project team and other actors. You could choose the project manager and the parents as the protagonists of your story.

In the planning phase, you could narrate, the project manager has to sit down with the parents to find out what they want and then discuss with the site manager what is feasible. In the design phase, you could go on to narrate, the project team plans the right placement of the play equipment, paths, seating and plants. At this point you could go through your story to see which playground equipment makes sense, which is safe and why, which paths make sense, and which materials are particularly environmentally friendly. In your story, the project leader presents this design to the parents and they give him feedback. During the construction phase, the story continues, the project leader has to monitor the process and make sure that there are no obstacles and so that the plans made earlier work. What obstacles could there be? Address this in your story as well, so that the tension is maintained. Tell the stakeholders how to deal with these challenges and pave the way to the climax: the completion of the project with the inauguration of the playground. Finally, you may want to say a few closing words to the stakeholders.

As many of the listeners are likely to be parents, they can particularly relate to the story and are easier to convince about the project and the importance of working together.

Conclusion: Increasing project success through storytelling

The goal of storytelling is to increase project success or reduce the risk of failure. The project manager wants to convince potential stakeholders of the project and win them over to their side or get the team members to pull together. The possibility of linking dry and sometimes complex project content with a story can arouse emotions, bring a common goal to mind and improve cooperation. Therefore, storytelling is a tool from the toolbox of methods that project leaders can draw on to improve project work.

Storytelling - The IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Storytelling, Project planning

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