Providing status updates on a work project often feels like a no-win situation. Either it’s routine, tactical, and everyone is left unenthused, or there’s a problem…and now everyone feels like they’re in a panic to fix things. So many of us default to the boring let’s-get-through-this-as-fast-as-we-can update to avoid the drama. Problem solved, right? Not so much.
The truth is, few projects ever go perfectly smoothly. If you want to drive up your value on the project—and your career—you’ve got to think strategically about how you communicate your report-outs. Believe it or not, conflict in a status update can be your friend…if you know how to frame it. Conflict increases awareness of problems that exist and provides a reason for finding a better way forward. When conflict is valued, it encourages an environment where change is seen as positive—a way of making things better.
When conflict is valued, it encourages an environment where change is seen as positive—a way of making things better.
The trick to crafting a status update (that won’t bore people to sleep or leave them feeling anxious and off-track) is wrapping it in a story framework that includes setting, characters, conflict, a BIG Idea, and resolution. This allows you to develop a compelling narrative that transforms a mundane update into a meaningful story that gets you heard (and taken more seriously). Here’s how:
We All Want to Know WHY
As any good journalist (or detective) will tell you, people have a fundamental need and curiosity to know WHY something is what it is. It’s the backstory behind any whodunit. Always begin your update by providing context—AKA setting and characters—to report what’s been accomplished on your project since the last check-in. It helps establish that you’re able to communicate the details of the project inside and out.
This is usually where most people will want to leap to the ending of their update and call it a day (as their audience zones out). Not so fast…
Give Your Audience a Reason to Care
Now it’s time to add…you guessed it, conflict. As you build your WHY, identify a challenge (or challenges) that are impacting the project. It could be delays, budget, shortfalls, resource constraints, scope change, new competition, etc. If it’s not obvious, do some pre-update digging with trusted colleagues to uncover possible red flags that might mean danger-ahead for the project. This helps to position you as a forward-thinking team member—one who is always two steps ahead on any task.
Say WHAT? The One Thing to Remember
Because you’ve established your WHY (setting, characters, and conflict), your audience will want to be assured there’s a way to address the problem. This is when you bring in your WHAT… the BIG Idea that directly addresses the conflict. Your BIG Idea is the one thing that you want your audience to remember—because they won’t remember everything from your update. It acts as a mental bridge to help bring your audience through the conflict and accept your *drum roll…* resolution (more to come on this). Here are some examples of a BIG Idea—notice that they’re short, concise, and don’t contain jargon:
“We need to invest more in programs aimed at keeping our top talent.”
“To reach tomorrow’s insurance shoppers, we need to build relevance during their buying journey.”
“Embracing sustainability will help us protect our leadership position.”
Give Your Recommendations Their Best Chance (and Save the Day!)
Interestingly enough, the biggest mistake many people make is jumping into the resolution too soon. How many of us have sat through a presentation that opened with the why-you-should-buy-from us type of format when we know little about the company (and they’ve expressed little understanding of who we are or our challenges)? By utilizing a story framework, we’ve provided signposts for the audience to understand where we are in the narrative. By the time we get to our recommendation, the audience can picture themselves in the story (setting and characters), understands what’s at risk (conflict), has a preview of what’s to come (the BIG Idea), and is now eager to see how the story resolves itself (resolution).
One tip is to break up your resolution into multiple “buckets” that are visually easy to scan and digest, and create a simple, conversational headline like, “Our path to better enablement” that helps signal to your audience that you’ve developed multiple paths to resolve the conflict.
Why Waste an Update Saying Nothing?
In the end, remember that healthy conflict allows for more creative problem solving, stronger ideas, and often more engaged colleagues. An update with compelling challenges strategically inserted into a story framework with a WHY, WHAT, and HOW becomes an update that coworkers lean into and look forward to.
Don’t just check the box — be an update hero. A decision-maker’s dream.