Before I started working with subject matter experts in tech, I was a Creative Non-Fiction writer. What is Creative Non-Fiction? That’s a question I answered often. Creative Non-Fiction is a well-told true story. It’s the practice of finding and telling the stories within our own lives and the lives of others.
I never thought my experience in writing Creative Non-Fiction would translate into my role as an editor at an IT professional services firm as seamlessly as it has. But it makes complete sense. Here, I get to work with our amazing team and their amazing minds to turn their day-to-day work into understandable, relatable, and educational art.
You might be thinking: there’s a huge difference between writing a funny story about that prank I pulled in high school versus explaining how the difference between two development languages. I argue there isn’t. But the big difference that can exist between the two is how eager someone is to read it, and nothing makes a human want to read as a story does.
I’m a firm believer that no matter the desired outcome of a piece of content – long or short – it must tell a story. If a human is meant to read it, the words themselves must be human. This is the importance of using storytelling when communicating technical concepts.
Why bother telling a story?
Using storytelling is an effective way to communicate technical concepts because it helps to make complex information more relatable, digestible, and engaging. Stories actually appeal to both the logical and the emotional realms of our brains according to the Dual Process Theory. While some people view writing stories and communicating technical concepts as mutually exclusive actions, I view them as complementary, and even necessary.
These stories don’t need to be long. They don’t even need to be obvious.
“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”– Richard Price
When you present technical information through a story, it can help to bring abstract concepts to life and make them more meaningful to your audience. Doing so also establishes trust between you and the reader. The more three-dimensional you can be, the better.
5 storytelling techniques
Using storytelling isn’t just for people who self-identify as writers or editors. If you’re human, you have a story to tell. You just need a good nudge to help you get it out on paper. Here are a few tips for using storytelling to communicate technical concepts:
1. Start with a clear goal in mind
What do you want your audience to understand or take away from your message? The clearer your message, the easier it’ll be to bake some story into it and get the listener/reader to grasp it. For the writer or the speaker, this should be something you establish before drafting the words, not something you discover along the way.
I always use the StoryBrand framework created by Donald Miller. I know that if I can’t speak to every stage of this framework, I need to work on flushing out the message.
2. Use concrete examples
Rather than just describing technical concepts in abstract terms, use concrete examples to illustrate your points. This can help your audience better understand and remember the information.
For instance, if you’re working on an analytical solution that’ll help predict customer churn for a telecom company, you might reference an approved case study for another client or a similar use case from another project. If you don’t have one on hand, do some research to find a relatable example. That’s the beauty of documenting your stories, especially your successful ones. Get your story onto paper just once, and you can refer to it again and again.
Using concrete examples can also mean – whenever it’s possible – cutting out jargon or technical details that don’t always translate. Remember when Apple skipped explaining GBs to the general public and just said this?
3. Use analogies and metaphors
Analogies and metaphors can help explain technical concepts in a way that’s more familiar to your audience. For example, you might compare a computer program to a recipe, or a business concept to a salad bar. These analogies and metaphors aren’t meant to be reductive or to oversimplify a concept; they’re meant to reduce the mental calories required to explain or understand something potentially complex. (Tip: be mindful of using analogies and metaphors that won’t necessarily translate across every culture).
This is how I’d explain what a data warehouse is to someone, for instance:
You can think of a data warehouse as an editing room for movies.
Just as a movie editor – I’m going to use Lee Smith, the film editor for The Dark Knight as my example – selects, organizes, and combines different pieces of footage to create a coherent film, a data warehouse collects, organizes, and combines different pieces of data to create a clear picture of a company’s performance or operations.
Just as Lee Smith uses various tools to enhance The Dark Knight, such as color correction and sound mixing, a data analyst uses various tools to analyze the data in a data warehouse, such as SQL and BI tools.
And just as Lee Smith’s goal is to make a dark, polished, action-packed superhero movie, a data warehouse’s goal is to provide accurate and actionable insights for decision-making.
The nature of your work might require you to go much, much deeper than that, but you get the idea.
4. Tell an appropriate personal story
Personal stories can be especially effective at engaging your audience and helping them understand technical concepts. Telling an appropriate personal story can also help with the trust part of an engagement on the condition that this story paints you, your idea, or your product in a positive light. For example, you might tell a story about a problem you faced for a client and how you used a particular technical solution to solve it. Imbue your audience with your lived experience.
5. Use visual aids
Visual aids like charts, diagrams, and videos, can help explain technical concepts. When executed well, they clarify complex ideas and make them more visually appealing, and help you avoid overwriting your message into a black hole. Using visual aids also helps you cater to visual learners.
Don’t get me wrong – storytelling is not an easy job. I’ve gone through (and continue to go through) my fair share of pacing around the room, making yet another coffee, and staring at the ceiling when trying to craft a story. But as soon as you can find a way to relate your message – regardless of how technical it may be – to a real-life process, you’re closer to unearthing the story buried beneath.
In the tech industry specifically, effectively communicating technical information to a variety of audiences, including non-technical stakeholders, is a superpower. By using storytelling techniques, you can make technical concepts more accessible and understandable, which can help to build trust and credibility with your audience. It just makes your message feel less transactional.
It’s a skill that makes you indispensable. Whether you’re presenting to a group or writing a technical document, incorporating storytelling elements can help to make your message more compelling, effective, and most importantly – with the ocean of information out there – memorable.
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