Tell hero stories

Oct 23, 2022

The next time you have a proposal or presentation kickoff, trust and empower your marketing team to do what they do best.

"A Giant Sunspot Has Doubled in Size in 24 Hours, and It’s Pointed Straight at Earth.” Did that headline get your attention? It was designed that way. It was the lead in a recent Newsweek article. It was posted alongside stories about the war in Ukraine, crippling inflation, January 6 fallout, and mass shootings.

In the end, once I slogged through five unnecessarily technical paragraphs, the last part of the article simply stated, “That said, it’s worth noting that an M-class flare would probably not be particularly disruptive in any case.” Ugh! What a waste of time.

Like so many people these days, I am exhausted by all of the negative headlines. They are relentless, frequently non-factual, and yet we consume them hungrily. The slang term for this is “doomscrolling.”

Most people are familiar with the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads.” That’s the first thing journalism students are taught. So, I experimented the other day when I opened the CNN, Fox News, and USA Today apps on my iPhone and scrolled down to the end of each page. Can you guess what I found (or didn’t find)? There wasn’t a single upbeat or feel-good story in any news source that day. Not one. Not even in the sports sections.

My point is that in the AEC business, we can control the narrative. We can share stories that make us feel good. Everyone loves a great hero or underdog story, right? So why don’t we write those instead of the typical, dull technical descriptions?

Inevitably, we sometimes must write about subjects as exciting as watching water drip or paint dry. However, with a bit of time and creative thinking from your marketing team, overly-technical topics can be made more exciting.

Have you read a typical proposal cover letter lately? I’ll bet you nine out of 10 random samples start with some variation of “We are pleased to submit…” And don’t get me started on the understanding and approach sections. Most of them read like procedural manuals coupled with little to no high-quality photos or graphics.

Good stories have clear starting points, middles, and conclusions. There is a buildup of momentum to the moment of resolution. Stories should be memorable, satisfying, and entertaining, even with tedious subjects. The goal is to make the reader the “hero” and guide them through the topic.

A good marketing team can do that, but without a change in mindset from the technical experts – the engineers, architects, or construction managers – the effort is doomed to fail from the start.

The other day I was thinking about a mentor and friend of mine, David Stone. He once shared an anecdote about a story he told during a shortlist presentation. His team started the presentation by saying something like, “Let me tell you the story of Steve and the Underground River.”

As he recounted it, the audience was captivated from the very start because it sounded like the beginning of a unique story. He spoke with such passion that he became the focus, not the PowerPoint screen behind him. In the end, the story was really about how the company handled significant water infiltration on a major project site, which had similar issues to what the client was facing.

They didn’t bring a dull, bullet-intensive PowerPoint, and they didn’t rehash the exact same information that was in their original submittal. They simply told a relevant hero story and how it applied specifically to the client’s needs. They won the job unanimously.

I never forgot that anecdote, and when the opportunity presents itself, I try to help my teams apply that way of thinking. In one example, we utilized the technique when describing the design of a new stormwater channel. When writing about the project, instead of the original title, “Newland Bypass Channel,” the marketing team retitled it “Moving a Mountain to Save a Small Town.”

The project was needed because areas along a nearby stream flooded regularly and damaged local businesses. The engineering solution involved blasting away a portion of a mountain to create an overflow relief channel required during significant rain events. Additionally, we added value by transforming the repaired stream into a riverwalk trail and park, at no extra cost, thereby benefitting local businesses with pedestrian traffic. Ultimately, the way we told the tale was as important as the project itself. The icing on the cake was later being awarded an Engineering Excellence Award by ACEC.

As a longtime marketing professional, I get it. It’s easier for technical folks to write what they know in technical terms, but that’s where trusting your creative team comes in. Wouldn’t you rather read about an uplifting hero story instead of the negativity we read each day?

The next time you have a proposal or presentation kickoff, stop micromanaging every aspect of the response and trust and empower your marketing team to do what they do best – to be creative.  

Kraig Kern, CPSM is vice president and director of marketing at WK Dickson. Contact him at

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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.