For Better Cybersecurity, Be A Great Storyteller

Learning how to get your message across to the C-Suite and the entire organization is critical today. One CISO drills down on tips for how to do it well.
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Most people are familiar with stories such as Newton’s observations of an apple falling from a tree, Adam & Eve, Aesop’s Fables and Plato’s story of Atlantis. It is through the art of storytelling that we can seamlessly disseminate important points of philosophy, morality, science—and business. And there is perhaps no greater need for simple and effective storytelling than in cybersecurity, where, as CISOs, we must often present difficult concepts in compelling ways to non-technical audiences. 

Storytelling is a form of tacit knowledge transfer known as Knowledge Socialization. As Dr. John Charles Thomas, the father of Knowledge Socialization, says, “Good story writing is not magic. It’s craft.” The act of crafting a story to deliver a specific message is not an innate skill. There is a methodical process to assist in building a story from an experience. But what makes a compelling story?

Purpose & Deliverable

Even the most basic writing course teaches that a story must have well-defined characters, a problem or protagonist, actions or events leading up to a climax and followed up by some type of resolution. Every story, though, can be summarized in one or two sentences, defining the core or purpose of the story. As a story creator, defining that purpose, knowing the end goal and keeping focus on that goal is imperative.

Semantics & Sentiment

Word selection is key to creating specific sentiments. Skilled wordsmiths can build emotion and sway opinion. Phrases need to convey the right connotation and must build the desired image in the listener’s mind. Although many idioms are clever in their native language, they rarely translate properly. Some can be interpreted as nonsense, or worse yet, opposite to what they are meant to represent.

Certain words can have multiple or ambiguous interpretations depending on the context surrounding it or the firsthand experiences of the audience. A billboard on the side of the road shows the caption “Doctors without Borders”; above the English title is the French translation “Médecins sans Frontières.”

The French word frontières can translate into two terms: borders or frontiers. The perception of “border” describes a mechanism of boundary, division or oppression. Conversely, “frontier” represents wide-open areas and limitless opportunities. Although the message using either word is the same, one of them exudes a more positive tone.

Context & Background

In business, data without context is unusable. By enriching data with context, we create information. By augmenting information with background, we can construct intent and meaning. “Humans are information processors but more fundamentally, meaning processors,” says Dr. Thomas.

Story elements are just data. As story creators, we need background for the story to hold the attention of the audience. And the story’s message needs colorful and compelling context to imprint a lasting message with the audience.

Analogies & Grounding

When deciding to use figurative language, understand the nuances between analogies, allegories and metaphors. Beware of comparing two abstract concepts, as an analogy only works if there is inherent knowledge of the related concept.

In trying to explain one concept using an analogy against another which the listener does not already know, it is natural that the recipient of the analogy struggles to correlate all the aspects of the analogous item to the unknown comparison. “Stories are full of information because they draw on common understood truths to convey more information than is obvious,” says Dr. Thomas.

Stating that “pigeons are like geese” is a straightforward reference. People can identify common attributes with each type of bird. This is known as transference. Yet comparing “nuclear submarines to geese” will backfire. We cannot discern what attributes of either are common. When we make obtuse analogies explicitly, this is known as misdirection. Know your audience when seeking common ground to build the proper transference of concepts.

Communication & Delivery

Telling a story, and being an excellent storyteller, are two distinct skill sets. Two comedians can tell the same joke, but perhaps only one gets the laugh. Similarly, a skilled storyteller only succeeds when the audience is engaged.

“Stories tap an ancient resource—the power of social dynamics,” says Dr. Thomas. Use a consistent pattern for telling your story. Inconsistency across a story detracts and confuses the audience. Ensure that verb tenses correlate with timelines across the story. Employ a specific narrative approach to telling the story. Is the story told through the narrator’s eyes as the subject in the first-person, told through another person’s perspective in the third person or omniscient, told as though looking down from above, jumping inside each character’s mind in a godlike perspective? Is it descriptive, prescriptive or introspective?

Feedback & Pivots

When telling a story, it is important to continuously assess audience reaction and pivot when necessary to keep focus on your tale’s ultimate purpose.

Key Takeaways

Narratives are a useful tool when properly positioned and employed judiciously. The art of storytelling requires two components: a compelling story and an engaging storyteller.

  • Craft a Compelling Story

A story without a point is… pointless. Define an explicit purpose. Use the right words to clearly convey your concepts. Bring context and color to your story. Use common grounding tools, such as analogies, where appropriate to the audience.

  • Be an Engaging Storyteller

A storyteller without emotion is a computer. Anyone can read a story, but to hear and see a storyteller is a much different experience. Emphasize key points at the right moments. Visual cues aligned with semantic emphasis play a large part in imprinting an image so that your audience retains it. Be committed. People can sense disingenuous engagement. Augment your story with non-verbal communications, strategic hand motions and facial expressions.

After all, good storytellers are like…er, geese…right?

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