Storytelling, part 2

Oct 16, 2017

Do you want to win a project, identify a new service offering, or attract a new employee? Pick the right medium and have at it!

Humans have been communicating through stories for more than 25,000 years. The medium in which stories were told was somewhat different – think cave walls – but this old fashioned, powerful tool has survived the test of time.

As mentioned in last week’s issue of The Zweig Letter, stories give us the power to move people, get them excited, and change the way they act. The success of storytelling, however, isn’t just hullabaloo concocted by market researchers – it’s proven through cold, hard science. Last week’s article noted that stories stimulate and engage the entire human brain. Psychologists and neurologists have found that when we hear powerful and emotional stories, our brain releases dopamine to help us remember the experience with better accuracy. During a character-driven story, our brain also produces oxytocin, a feel-good chemical that promotes connection, heightens empathy and motivates us toward cooperation.

With all of this research rooted in science and the increasing need to stand apart from our competitors, storytelling is quite hard to turn our backs on. It is important, however, to make sure you tell the right stories; a boring story, a story out of context, or one told to the wrong audience has the potential to backfire and cause confusion. It’s also not just what you say, it’s how you say it. When it comes to effective communication, the passion you bring to the story makes all the difference. Keeping this in mind, along with the tips for successful storytelling covered in last week’s article, consider the following mediums to convey your stories once you have them formulated:

  • Presentations. Presentations are critical in our industry – it’s how we win work, it’s how we share our innovative thinking, and it’s also one of the most powerful ways to tell stories. Unfortunately, too often our presentations are a deck of slides with weak visuals and an exorbitant amount of text. Instead of laundry lists of bullets, focus on your ability to tell an engaging, relevant story. Cognitive scientists say when it comes to presentation design, we can’t read text on the screen and listen to the speaker while retaining all of the information. It can’t be done. If you have to use slides to support your story (by the way, no slides is a viable option), think pictures. Choose images that paint a picture for your audience and don’t be afraid to use visuals that create an element of surprise. Remember, your goal is to get those dopamine and oxytocin chemicals stirring in your listeners’ brains.
  • Videos. Videos allow you to tell a story that words on a slide could never tell. Remember the infamous, yet politically charged, 2017 online Superbowl ad by 84 Lumber? This short video, incorporating a beginning, middle, and end, took you on an emotional journey of a mother and daughter making their way to the Mexico-U.S. border. While none of us would be likely to take a political stance in our own videos, the idea that can be borrowed from 84 Lumber is how we, as AEC professionals, can impact lives and be part of a collective memory. Instead of showing photographs of a project, talking about its square footage and all of the great program elements, tell a story through video that shows the difference that project is making in the lives of its everyday users. Videos take time to produce (although it’s much easier these days with smart devices), but have an irresistible power to fire our imagination and move our soul.
  • Social media. Social media posts are known for being short, concise, and ephemeral. Because of this, we often neglect to harness the power of our social networks to narrate our stories. This medium, however, has two important benefits – the potential to reach thousands of people (or more in the event that it goes viral), and the flexibility to include words, pictures, and videos. Did you know Instagram has its own “stories” feature? Have you explored creating a Twitter Moment? Or, as an idea that’s a bit more simplistic, have you thought about creating a branded hashtag to tell your story? At Little, we created #thisislittletome to curate the story of our culture and what it means in the eyes of our employees. There are countless ways to tell powerful, unique stories on social media. Go experiment!
  • Print materials. Whether a cover letter in a proposal or a project case study in a brochure, your print materials have the opportunity to tell stories, build relationships, and create lasting impressions. In this medium, words become so much more important. We’re often under the misconception that elaborate sentences full of industry terms are more professional. Unfortunately, those sentences are typically hard to understand and aren’t effective or memorable. Think about who your audience is, what their needs are, and what you’re trying to achieve. Position your content in the context of a story with shorter sentences, smaller words, and an active voice. For example, instead of a proposal cover letter that rambles on about why your firm is most qualified, try crafting a story about why the project is important to you or captivate the reader’s imagination with how you envision the project impacting the community.

So, what are you waiting for? Collect your stories and take time to hone them in both content and in delivery. Your story may be the key to winning a project, identifying a new service offering, or attracting a potential new employee. Isn’t it time you shared it?

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.