Drowning in Data? Pitch with a Story!

At the close of an intense month of immersion and ideation on a new opportunity, my client was in a rocky place about the next steps in their project. Like most deep dives, the process had surfaced new questions and many possibilities. Valuable marketplace, consumer, competitive, and technical data had been collected and reviewed. The team had generated a plethora of ideas. But the project was at the messy stage of how to translate all of the insights into an actionable strategy. The team members were not aligned on next steps, and they had one week to define the path forward and create a pitch for senior executives.

The project lead pressed his lips into a tight line, as he outlined new projects to collect additional data. Members of the team squirmed in their chairs—concerned about workload and the value of additional analysis. Some advocated for their preferred solutions. The discussion became divisive and tense—even though in earlier work sessions, the team had aligned on success factors and key insights. After watching the controversy “ping-pong” across the conference room, a well-respected member of the team spoke up. She summarized the key points of agreement. As they nodded, she pushed on, “I don’t think we need more data, we just need to tell a story.” A few team members looked baffled; some were intrigued.

When I regrouped with the core team after the session, they agreed that it made sense to assimilate the work they’d done so far before making decisions about gathering more data. Then I helped them explore how a story framework might be used. They plugged their business analysis into a simple narrative arc, incorporating only the data that fleshed out the story. All the rest was inserted into a back-up section. The whole team became excited about how they had created a compelling “story.”

Executives were intrigued with the project, but wanted additional analysis in a few areas before giving the green light. With high-level support for the opportunity, and clarity what additional data was needed, the team had passed a key milestone. They felt that the story framework helped them distill their collective work and convey the opportunity in a persuasive way.

Story Elements for Strategic Framing

This fictionalized story amalgamates several situations (to protect the identities of the characters and clients) where I’ve worked with teams to use story structures to craft a pitch. It also illustrates a process that has worked successfully for me in assimilating a lot of disparate input at the end of the deep-dive step in innovation. The characters, roles, team dynamics, industries, and business challenges vary, but some common elements are transferable to many business strategies.

Set the Stage (Situation)—Define the nature of the problem in a succinct and precise way. Focus on what strategic, technical, communication, resource, or organizational problem you need to solve. Your understanding of the situation might have evolved from where you started before the deep dive, so check your original assumptions.

Tension (Key Challenges)—Projects generally have several inherent tensions that need to be addressed. Villains in the form of competitors, regulators, advocates, or consumers might introduce conflict. Technical limitations, competing priorities, deadlines, demanding customers, and internal resisters might pose challenges to innovation. It’s not uncommon for teams to get overwhelmed by all the problems that surface during a deep dive into a new territory. Identify and examine the range of tensions that might affect a project’s success or failure. Then, hone in on the most relevant and compelling tension to serve as the backbone of the pitch.

Turning Point (Pivotal Insight)—Select the insight that “cracks the code” on the problem and illuminates the path(s) forward. You may need to iterate back and forth between determining the most critical challenge/tension and the pivotal insight.

Resolution (Strategies)—Outline strategies that bring resolution to the key challenges. Add action plan elements as appropriate to the company culture and relevant to other planning parameters.

Pondering a New Truth (Call to Action)—Consider what you want your stakeholders to do. Are you asking for alignment, approval, sponsorship, or resources? Land your story on a new understanding or truth that underpins the “call to action,” or what you want from your stakeholders.

While I don’t think that telling story can replace the analytic and creative processes involved in innovation, a great idea that is packaged in a compelling story has a better chance of advancing in the pipeline. If you work in innovation—or just want a new communication tool—consider framing your business analysis in a story structure to motivate others to consider your point of view.

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