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The Story of Strong Communication

By: James Stuart, AHBL, Inc.

I come from a long line of storytellers.

My grandfather – a bonafide Colorado cowboy straight out of a Gene Autry song – had the uncanny ability to make a pot of coffee among friends last three hours without letting a sliver of silence work its way into the conversation. My grandmother on the other side was similarly verbose, often plying her trade by pulling seemingly random threads from thin air and weaving them together in a narrative which couldn’t have been told in any other way. With such a pedigree, it came as no surprise to anyone when I chose a life of stories.

But when I landed in the A/E/C industry, that identity was threatened, and I was left wondering if there was any wiggle room in the structured and procedural climate in which we chase new work. Make no mistake – design and construction are serious business, and they benefit from clear, concise communication, with none of the frills of a campfire saga. My formal education as a writer and communications specialist lent itself well to the demands of proposal work and business development. Even still, I couldn’t help thinking that the industry could stand to learn a thing or two from the raconteurs and yarn-spinners of the world. With that in mind, I set forth to understand how these traditions can overlap in service to better business communication.

The Human Element

The formal competition process has grown increasingly prescriptive alongside demands for more equitable selection. This is particularly true with regard to public work, which carries the additional burden of being accountable to the general public and regulatory bodies. For the most part, this has resulted in proposals that look the same – qualifications and experience laid out in a rigid structure with very little room for creative flourish. However, it is precisely because of this uniformity that a strong storyteller can gain an edge. All work – from federal contracts to private development – eventually comes down to the human element. Regardless of how far technology advances, human beings design, estimate, and build our world. Forming a genuine connection with these people is the end goal of any communication strategy. Charts, matrixes, and infographics can go a long way in conveying important information, but they lack the character of strong interpersonal communication. Instead, I have learned to seek out opportunities to intersperse my voice – and the voice of my organization – throughout my work. Cover letters, introductions, project approaches, and even personnel bios offer the chance to speak directly to perspective clients. The question then becomes how we do this in an environment which shuns excess fluff.

Classical Storytelling as a Means to Effective Communication

Storytelling is the original human tradition – dating back millennia before civilizations formed. With such a rich history, it may surprise you to know that every single story contains the same five elements: setting, characters, conflict, plot, and theme.

From these humble components, every good story you’ve ever heard takes shape. Interestingly, this formula is almost encoded within our DNA; whether you know it or not, you are likely to naturally incorporate them into daily conversation. For example, when you tell a friend a funny story about awkwardly bumping into an old flame at the grocery store, you have unknowingly conveyed a setting (grocery store), characters (you and the ex), conflict (awkwardness, unresolved feelings), plot (how the scenario unfolded), and theme (how you reacted or interpreted the encounter). This ability to construct a narrative has become so hardwired in our brains that there is no need to stop identify the components ahead of time.

Why then do we struggle as professionals to translate this ability to our work? It could be because we associate anything casual or easy with a lack of professionalism; it is the communicative equivalent of sweatpants and sandals. So we overthink our communication and it results in stiff, impersonal writing or speech that leaves the audience apathetic. People are programmed to expect these elements in every narrative, so if proposals or interviews are to be considered the story of your company, perhaps it would be useful to reframe our understanding of the elements of storytelling.

As you can see, these five elements translate easily to the vernacular of the A/E/C industry. When presented in this manner, it is clear that any good product – be it an RFP response, interview presentation, or even just a casual interaction with a client – must include this framework. Yet we often fall into the trap of focusing on one or two more than the others. If given the opportunity to speak at length about nifty technology or new processes we have at our disposal, why waste time talking about why the client is seeking a partner? Similarly, if our project approach has been detailed to the smallest technical specification, why take the time to introduce ourselves properly or discuss the end goal of the project? The answer is simple – context.

Context is King

The storytelling tradition is rooted deeply in context because it is a basic human need. We seek context because it helps us understand our place in the world and gives us a sense of security. The five elements of storytelling are all equally important in creating this security – throw out a key ingredient and the recipe fails. For this same reason, business communication must seek to deliver context by delivering a complete picture to the client. It is an exercise in mutual understanding; clients seek partners who understand the story of their project in toto. By taking the time to do this and outlining each element of the story before developing our content, we demonstrate our value in a way that resonates on a business level and a personal level. Furthermore, by mimicking the natural pattern of storytelling which has been passed down from time immemorial, many of the struggles of effective communication fall away – we speak and write more clearly, with less jargon and more content.

The nature of the A/E/C industry will always demand hard facts and figures, and I am in no way suggesting we replace the conference room table with a campfire (although I wouldn’t be against an uptick in s’more consumption). But as the industry continues to evolve, it is our responsibility to seek new and better ways to win work and develop relationships. While we might be looking ahead to try to spot the next big thing, surprisingly it might be lurking behind us, far back in our collective history. After all, what’s a good story without a twist ending?

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  1. Laura

    Feb. 25, 2019

    Nice story, James!


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