I want to tell you a story about two different types of communication. The year is 2002. A group of Silicon Valley billionaires is backing a new museum for the California Academy of Science. The money’s not a problem; the land’s prepared. The question is, who can build a building that turns the world on its ear?

After an intense search and deliberation, the competition was down to two, both great architects. The first was a Brit by the name of Sir Norman Foster. Foster was—and is—a giant in the field; he’s designed buildings around the world. You might know a building of his, a skyscraper in the middle of London’s financial district affectionately nicknamed “The Gherkin.” (Personally, I think it looks more like Buck Rogers’ rocket ship than a pickle) Foster’s competition was Renzo Piano, an Italian of equal renown. Renzo designed the George Pompidou Center, a one hundred thousand square foot building carved into the heart of downtown Paris.

Norman Foster—Authority in Action


The two finalists were asked to make a presentation in front of the Academy’s board. The first presenter was Foster. He came well prepared, with a beautiful scale model of his proposed design. Foster meticulously showed how each part of his model would interact; he spoke forcefully about the amazing materials to be used, the fact that buildings spew more toxins into our atmosphere than cars, and how imperative it is to design in sustainability. Each of Foster’s points was underlined by projected slides, and mounted renderings, moved this way and that by his army of assistants. When the hours-long presentation was over, the Academy’s Board was quite impressed, if not, completely worn out. Such attention to detail! Such authority! Such control over his subject matter! How could Renzo top that?

Renzo Piano arrived a day later. When he entered the presentation room he had no model, or even pictures of his model. Thinking that the model must be on its way, one of his hosts asked if he would prefer to wait a bit. Renzo smiled, and said that the only thing he needed was a large pad of white paper and an easel.

“But where is your model?” a Board member asked.

“Here,” Piano said, tapping his forehead.

Renzo Piano—“We are having a conversation.”


For all his accomplishments, the Italian is an unprepossessing figure. He is a small-framed man who holds himself in a relaxed and welcoming manner, and when the presentation began, Piano was silent for a while. He smiled and acknowledged the audience…then began to talk.

Piano spoke about the building as if it were his intimate friend. He suggested that this building would be alive in the same way that nature is alive. He spoke of how this building could breathe. As Piano said this, he began to draw pictures illustrating what he meant—not full-color, impressive renderings like Foster had prepared, but drawings, sketches really, that conveyed feeling. The audience began to see and sense the life force in these drawings. They hung on Piano’s every word, and learned as he, quietly but with great intensity, talked with, not at them. Honest to God, they began to see how an inanimate object could actually breathe.

Piano’s drawings were surprising, accessible, beautiful. He spoke about the power of beauty—that it was not sentimental, but a force equal to power and aggression. True beauty, rooted in nature its laws, was actually even greater than that, because it had the power to transform, to inspire. People in the room were able to see into his creative process; new forms and ideas kept spilling out until the entire room became a part of his narrative web.

As Piano finished, a stillness enveloped the room; the Board was leaning forward in their chairs. He had captured everyone’s imagination. He was so present, that the people in the room sensed something being born, right in front of their eyes. The audience didn’t feel cajoled or worn down or convinced; they felt thrilled, enthralled. Renzo Piano, with his broken English and Italian accent, brought light to that room and in so doing had transformed everyone in it.

The Power of Conversation

Need I say what happened next? Renzo Piano was awarded the contract. His California Academy of Science Museum now sits in the center of Golden Gate Park. Renzo had prevailed not because he was smarter than Foster—both men are geniuses—but because his style of communication worked more effectively.

Piano’s triumph wasn’t all about him, any more than a conversation is only about one person; it was the Board that decided. In the next update, I’ll tell you exactly how Piano won the day. Then I’ll explain how you can use this same type of communication in your own business.

Special thanks to: Ron Pompei at Pompei AD and Andy Klemmer at Paratus Group for helping me with the history of the story.

Harnessing the Power of Story/Brand to Create Revenue Workshop

Join Bob and Pat Pattison for their Harnessing the Power of Story/Brand to Create Revenue workshop on Wednesday, March 28. More info here: http://fv-mar-28-12.eventbrite.com/