Storytelling, part 1

Oct 09, 2017

All of us have a story to tell, so don’t shy away from it in your professional life. It could be the key ingredient for your firm’s success.

Everyone loves a good story. That’s why we read bestselling books, see Oscar-winning movies, sit around warm campfires with good friends, and beg to visit our nannas and pawpaws (after all, they do share the best stories). Compelling stories have the ability to persuade, inspire, and, most of all, connect us in deeper and more meaningful ways.

I’ll never forget the time I went out on an assignment to cover a story about a middle-aged man who was being released from jail after being found wrongfully accused of murder. I was working for a large television station, fresh out of school and frightened out of my mind. I had never been to a jail, never met anyone in jail, and had certainly never come face-to-face with someone accused of murder. “Ask as many questions as you can,” my assignment editor told me before I left the station – not the easiest task considering I was one of 15-plus reporters who had been given this assignment.

As it turns out, I failed miserably. I wasn’t able to maneuver my way past all the other microphones and cameras to get close enough to ask the man (or his attorney) a single question. Amidst the noise of the more experienced reporters, however, I made eye contact with a young woman wearing a yellow dress, about my age, and who had a familiar look and a keen interest in the chaos. I walked over to her and introduced myself. Then I asked, “What brings you here?” I’ll never forget the words that followed. “My dad is the man being released from prison.” Fortunately, for me, the young woman agreed to an interview and it was her story that inspired and connected with our viewers. The night her story aired, our viewership increased by 20 percent.

But it doesn’t take a job with a television station, a journalism degree, or any other degree to tell stories – we’re all storytellers. On Monday mornings, we gather around the coffee maker with our co-workers and talk about weekend excursions. We tell stories of our personal brand during a job interview. We tell stories to our friends about why we passionately believe in a non-frizz shampoo. (OK, maybe not an example we can all relate to!) Regardless, when we tell stories we influence the behavior of our audience. Stories give us the power to move people, get them excited/motivated, and change the way they act. In fact, brain scans reveal that stories stimulate and engage the entire human brain, including language, sensory visual, and motor areas that help the listener connect with, and even agree with, the storyteller’s point of view.

Why is it then, even in the creative, innovative AEC industry, there seems to be a delay in embracing the not-so-secret weapon of storytelling? Over the past six months, I’ve been helping lead Little’s proactive approach to successful storytelling. One of our biggest challenges is that, while most everyone tells stories in their day-to-day lives, we somehow lose this part of ourselves when we enter the professional world.

This article focuses on tips for successful storytelling within your organization, and will be followed by a Part Two article focused on how to use those stories for marketing, business development efforts, and culture building.

So, how do you tell business stories? The simple answer is, with passion and purpose. In case you need more than that, here are a few tips:

  • Make it personal. Personal stories resonate with us and move us. Typically, we don’t tell personal stories at work or in our dealings with clients because, for the most part, these people are strangers. They are strangers because we don’t tell our personal stories. Break the cycle. Sometimes a personal story may cause you to be vulnerable in front of others which may seem counterintuitive in the workplace. Vulnerability, however, allows you to show your values which leads to more collaborative and more authentic relationships.
  • Keep it real. All too often, we find ourselves in a presentation excitedly talking about design trends we’re exploring or about an innovative project we just completed last month. We throw out terms like biophilic design, learningscapes, WELL, and hybridity. But without defining those terms, it’s likely our audience(s) will understand very little of what we mean. We may sound smart but if the goal is to be understood and remembered, we have to use more accessible words. Whether delivering a story verbally or in written form, the desired outcome should be to impress your audience with the ideas within the story, not your vocabulary.
  • Create a field trip. If I asked my kids to tell me their favorite part of school, they’d say field trips. Field trips are ways you can experience information at a much more profound level. They engage your senses, captivate your imagination, and make concepts real and tangible. A successful story does the same. Make your story descriptive and rich so that your audience can immerse themselves in what you’re telling them.
  • Provide an element of surprise. Everyone knows the element of surprise plays an important role in the excitement of a story. What you may not realize, however, is how important it is to its effectiveness. In my story at the beginning of the article, I have three surprises – the man accused of murder being released from jail, my failure in my assignment, and my discovery of the man’s daughter. Each surprise serves a different purpose. The surprise element at the beginning is meant to grab your attention. My failure represents a significant learning moment, and the discovery of the man’s daughter is meant to sear the entire story into your memory.
  • Stay inspired. Take notice of the world around you. What you’ll find is that there are stories everywhere. When you more consciously start to listen to and read stories, you’ll fuel and hone your own storytelling engine. You’ll notice what resonates with you as a listener and what causes you to lose interest. The world of podcasts is a great outlet for experiencing a myriad of stories and storytellers.

Your ability to package your ideas into a well-told story is your weapon. The AEC world is full of nay-saying clients who often want to think with their analytical minds. It’s your job to make your firm more valuable and more successful by helping your clients and your employees see the merit of your ideas, shared through memorable and remarkable stories.

Kelly Thompson is a senior associate and marketing communications manager at Little. Contact her at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.