Storytelling for A/E/C Firms: Engage, Inspire, and Connect

When discussing ideas for a message strategy with clients, I ask to hear a story showing how the company stands out from the competition. Without hesitating for a second, the storyteller takes me to the heart of the firm’s success and distinction.

One of the big advantages professional service firms own, yet rarely use, is the power of their stories to connect and engage. Whether communicating via websites, project descriptions, videos, award submissions, blogs, or client conversations, most choose to play it safe. Why? Good storytelling requires us to take risks, and business communication is historically risk-averse.

Why Storytelling Works. Stories tap into our senses, emotions, and memories. Research on audience response consistently reveals that when information is relayed in the form of a story, people are more likely to remember it.

Our earliest learning experiences came from the stories read by our parents and teachers. The emotional power of storytelling continues in adulthood with the books, movies, and music we love. Think about the storytelling honed by every great preacher, journalist, historian, and ad writer. They take us to a place where journeys, doubts, obstacles, and resolutions come to life.

Getting Started. Begin by employing the classic methods of the craft. Storytelling techniques are universal and time-proven. Authentic stories use conflict and controversy to draw the reader or viewer in and spark engagement. Without these elements, it’s a brochure.

“One of the big advantages professional service firms own, yet rarely use, is the power of their stories to connect and engage with audiences.”

Sourcing your stories requires asking a different set of questions of the team and the client. What were the biggest risks and fears at the outset? Who were the key characters taking the journey, and what did they learn along the way? Did the experience change them, alter a conventional practice, or uncover a colossal lesson no one expected? Was there a key moment that turned the outcome from so-what to something unexpected?

Three Methods. There are several methods for telling a business story. The Classic is the most frequently used framework. It establishes a protagonist, often cast as the hero. There is the sidekick, loyal and sometimes conflicted. There is the journey, enlivened by the need to overcome big obstacles along the way, and finally the resolution. For most of our stories, the client is the protagonist and hero; we are the sidekick. This is hard for the all-about-me communicators. But it makes for a superior story when we can report on client success and our role in it. After all, where would Batman be without Robin, or Holmes without Watson?

Storytelling with Data is another great method. Here we use data and research to tell the story. Post occupancy metrics, noteworthy innovations leading to savings, evidence-based design, and research-driven success stories are well-matched to this method. Characters, plot, and journey are still important essentials; the data allows us to offer proof as part of the resolution.

The Dialogue Method allows us to bring the audience behind the scenes and eavesdrop on a key moment drawn from a project or company story. Show how a question or revelation moved the dial, turned skeptics into believers, or solved the unsolvable problem.

Each of these methods — and others — work well in both traditional and social media platforms. A data story, for example, can be told in 140 characters or a 2-minute video. Each method offers an entirely new opportunity for translating company knowledge and achievements into stories that will inject energy and authenticity into a content marketing strategy.

Choose one, find a story, and start connecting in ways the audience will enjoy and remember.

This article appeared in High Profile Monthly on Oct 27, 2015