Here are the most common questions we are asked about the fundamentals of storylining.
WHY BUILD STORYLINES ?
Why do I need a story?
Why not just put up some slides and talk the audience through them?
Presenting a coherent story ensures that you have thought through your ideas before you walk into the room to make your presentation. The act of creating the logical storyline also helps you think through your real purpose – the question – and what you want to walk away from the meeting with. Putting the time in up-front to prepare the story will make you not only more efficient overall, but more effective.
It also makes it much easier for your audience to follow.
Why use storylines?
Using storylines helps you get better and faster results from your writing
Many of us think to write, which is useful but also comes with inherent risks. For example, it is easy to become wedded to your writing rather than on the results you want to achieve from that writing. As one prominent Australian CEO said, it is easy to focus more on the writing itself than the thinking that underpins it.
There are, however, techiques you can employ to help you focus on your thinking before you write and speed up your writing process. Here are three:
- Building storylines requires you to sort your ideas into a visual hiearchy, which makes it easier to identify what belongs where within the hierachy than when working with written prose or PowerPoint charts
- Using a storyline helps you see not only what is a higher or lower order idea, but how the ideas at each level and sub level are logically related to each other
- Wrestling with and agreeing one-page storylines that outline your top level argument with your peers and project sponsor before you write, will save you time and lead to a better result. This way you can test your thinking before you become wedded to your document.
Why do you use two different diagrams or storyline types?
The diagrams remind you what form of logic you are using to tell your story.
Each diagram form represents a different form of logic, either a grouping of ideas or a deductive argument.
The grouping diagram visually reminds you that you are constructing a list of independent ideas that together aim to support your overarching conclusion.
The deductive diagram visually reminds you that you are building a story with a series of three dependent ideas. The sideways connection of the boxes shows this interdependence.
HOW TO BUILD STORYLINES
Do I need to build my story from the top down?
No, you can build either top down or bottom up, as long as you tell from the top down
Stories can be created from the bottom up or from the top down. Stories are, however, told from the top down, beginning with the context, the trigger, the question and the answer before moving step by step to the details.
Very often you will begin forming a grouping storyline at the bottom by sorting ideas into groups, to help identify the themes and messages within the idea set. This process enables you to work toward identifying the overarching answer, or governing idea, at the top of the storyline.
Once this this bottom up clarification (or problem-solving) process is complete, you are ready to tell the story from the top down.
How do I know if my storyline is complete?
Apply the MECE (or NONG) test.
This is a very useful test that is used in science and also applies to storylines.
The technical term is MECE, which stands for Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive. This means that collectively the ideas in the storyline should exhaust the entire relevant universe of ideas set up by the overarching answer, and that those sub-ideas should mutually exclude each other.
Simply put, we need to check whether there are any gaps in your story overall and between your ideas, and whether any of your ideas overlap each other. The acronym for this is NONG: no overlaps, no gaps.
What should the executive summary include?
A snapshot of your whole story
The executive summary includes the introduction (the context, trigger and question) as well as the answer and an overview of your whole story that is structured to match the body of your story. For example:
(Context) BigCo has been exploring ways to build its business outside Australia and (trigger) the exec team has identified three high potential options for the board to review.
(Implied question: What are they?)
- Build on existing relationships across Asia Pacific to find new customers for our Australian designed and manufactured goods
- Contract with manufacturers in Asia Pacific to manufacture Australian designed products that we can then market to Asian, European and American markets
- Partner with SmartCo to manufacture and distribute Australian designed goods globally
The strengths and weaknesses of each of these options will now be discussed in turn.
How many sentences can I put into each idea box?
One sentence per box
Each idea box should include only one sentence, ideally one with 25 words or less.
One complete sentence represents one complete idea. Synthesising your ideas one sentence at a time helps you refine your thinking and organise your ideas into a robust hierarchy.
How many words can I put into each idea box?
One sentence per box maximum, around 25 words.
Each box represents one idea, which means that each box should include only one sentence. Good sentences are short, so try and keep below 25 words wherever possible.
Words such as ‘and' as well as punctuation such as commas are hints that your sentence may contain more than one idea. In that case you may need to break your sentence into several boxes.