Storytelling – the oldest profession.

Knowledge Architecture founder Christopher Parsons interviews himself on the power of storytelling as an applied knowledge management strategy.

You just equated storytelling to prostitution. Is there more to your statement or are you just trying to get us to read the story?


Do you care to elaborate?

Stories are the oldest means we have to share knowledge. You can look at religious parables, Greek mythology, or even children’s fairy tales for examples of how we have historically used stories to pass along knowledge and cultural values.

There is a great section in “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath on the power of stories. They explain why stories like David and Goliath and the Good Samaritan are far more effective ways to communicate than simply instructing others to “overcome adversity” or “help others in times of distress.” When we take the time to encode values, knowledge, or information in stories we make them “sticky” and inspire others to act.

Great book, one of the best I’ve read this year. Dan Conery of Newforma told me about it.

Any thoughts on how your readers can apply storytelling in their jobs?

Sure. Start telling stories.


Fair enough. I take your point. Here’s what I’m getting at. You don’t need a corporate initiative, storytelling committee, intranet, blog or wiki to get started. We knew how to share knowledge long before we had a printing press or the internet. Oral storytelling has a long and rich tradition. Sure, books, newspapers, magazines, the internet, web 2.0 are all are excellent mechanisms for creating, capturing, and sharing stories…but none of it matters if you don’t tell stories.

What kind of stories should we be telling?

This is a great question. An architecture or engineering firm is a business that designs buildings. If you don’t design great buildings, you won’t be in business long. Conversely, if you run the business poorly, there will be no buildings to design. So I’d start by focusing on stories that help people understand how the business makes money, where clients come from, and to understand how their efforts contribute to profitability, marketing, and sales. I’d also have an equal focus on stories that help to design better buildings.

I just finished reading “Open-Book Management” by John Case. Case asks you to imagine your business as a game and all of your employees as players. He argues that in most businesses, only a handful of players (top management) know the rules of the game (how the business makes money). Imagine what a football game would be like if only the coach and the quarterback knew the rules.

I’d argue that most AE firms run this way. Projects appear, bonus checks get distributed (or not) and most folks don’t know how all this “magic” happens. Employees are paid to design buildings, put together powerpoint shows, or close helpdesk tickets. A handful of individuals are responsible for running the business and ensuring the viability and performance of the enterprise.

Demystifying the “game of business” by opening the books and teaching basic business literacy might be one of the most powerful, untapped ideas for sharing knowledge that I’ve ever seen.

Can you give a specific example of business storytelling?

Absolutely. I started reading Anne Scarlett’s blog on AEC marketing a few months ago. One of my favorites posts is “Scarlett Letter #34: So how do you know one another? Diagramming your network. Part I of II.” Here’s an excerpt:

Well, it’s fun and inspiring for AEC leaders to educate your staff on how and why specific clients were won. {Notice I say client, rather than project, as that is the attitude we should always hold when thinking about new business}. I have a fairly forward-acting client that does exactly that by including ‘how we won this client’ into the agenda for their all-office quarterly meetings. A partner uses a flipchart to demonstrate in real-time how a specific client was won: who was involved; what was their role (buyer, influencer, informant); timing; and so forth. You can even share the origin of your relationship with the various players involved. For example, maybe one of the players was a vendor source that you’ve known for years, but never actually did any business with—proving that continuing to nurture contacts in your broader network can pay off in the longest run.

How awesome is that idea? “How we won this client.” Think of all the simultaneous benefits that this technique brings you, from your staff learning where clients and projects come from to seeing that you are out there marketing and winning work.

Look, I understand that suggesting to just “open your books” might sound a bit flip. Most open-book proponents recommend that you do this in an incremental, phased approach. Getting used to the idea of sharing sensitive information will take some getting used to. There is no doubt that this would be a sea change for most firms.

However, I think that Anne’s suggestion is pretty low-hanging fruit. Telling business stories doesn’t require much in terms of resources. You don’t need an intranet or a CRM to have a major impact on your business.

Win a project, tell a story.

How about design storytelling?

This is something our industry is really good at doing. We have loads of forums, lunch and learns, conferences, knowledge communities, and industry roundtables. A smart-ass revisionist like me might even call this “Social Networking 1.0.”

Proud of yourself?

Pretty much.

So where are the opportunities with design storytelling?

It would be great if we could capture and share more stories. The challenge is in finding the time to create the content, capture it in a story and then share it. The fact that we are all busy, mobile, and geographically-dispersed only compounds the challenge. It was one thing to tell stories around the fire when we had small villages, travelled as nomadic tribes, or worked on the farm…

I’m assuming this is where technology comes in.

Yes. But only in the way that systems like books, magazines, or television were additive to face to face storytelling.

Tools like e-mail management, personal video, screencasts, blogs and wikis mean that capturing knowledge has never been easier. Sharing stories has never been easier. And yet the plain truth remains…none of the new innovations matter if you don’t take the time to create, capture, and share your stories.

Any closing thoughts?

I should close with a story right?

I think you’ve kind of painted yourself into a corner.

I thought so. Well I’m going borrow a story which I hope helps to illustrate a final benefit of storytelling – leveraging yourself through a good story.

From the Arup website:

The Key Speech is required reading for each person who joins Arup or who wants to be reminded of what we are all about, and for those who want to learn about us.

On 9 July 1970 Ove Arup spoke to a meeting at Winchester, UK, of his partners from the practices around the world bearing the Arup name. His talk was in response to the collective desire to continue working together, despite the changes that would take place as the founding partners progressively retired and gave up ownership, handing over control to the successors they would choose for these practices.

The pre-natal name of ‘key speech’ for this talk has endured, in recognition of the fact that in it Ove both states the aims of the firm and analyses in his very distinctive way the principles through which they may be achieved. From time to time we have asked ourselves whether what he said in 1970 remains valid for us, despite the fact that inevitably some specifics about the firm’s organisation and individuals’ roles therein to which he refers in passing have changed over the years. On each occasion we have found that it does, and thereby reaffirmed our commitment to these principles.

You can read the whole speech here: Sir Ove Arup’s Key Speech.

Today we might record the speech as a video, embed it in an internal blog post, or tweet it. The fact remains that this is a powerful, powerful technique for knowledge management.

Thoughts or ideas on storytelling? Please share them in the comments below or e-mail me.


Posted: September 19th, 2009 | Filed under: General, Most Popular | 4 Comments »

4 Comments on “Storytelling – the oldest profession.”

  1. 1 Terri Rains said at 9:34 am on September 28th, 2009:

    I love the fact that people in the business world are really waking up to the way narratives work and how important storytelling is to genuine communication. Great post, thanks a ton!

  2. 2 KA BLOG » Blog Archive » KA Dialog #1: Knowledge management is squishy. said at 12:40 pm on October 16th, 2009:

    […] practicing what I preach, I’ll start with a […]

  3. 3 KA BLOG » Blog Archive » 3 things I learned about knowledge management from Seattle-based AE firms said at 8:03 am on October 28th, 2009:

    […] are using open-book management to promote financial literacy than I thought. A couple weeks ago I wrote that “… opening the books and teaching basic business literacy might be one of the most […]

  4. 4 Knowledge Architecture Blog » Blog Archive » “Game films”: Our latest knowledge management tool said at 2:49 pm on March 7th, 2010:

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