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Empty Handed

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:


This must be Toesday


This must be Toesday

Recently a client of mine who once worked for a big firm told me an interesting story. One morning, she was summoned to a large meeting. After everyone had gathered, the COO spoke in a reassuring way, indicating that yes business was down, but no downsizing was planned. My client wasn’t buying it.

After the meeting, my client asked to have a word with the COO in private. When they were alone, she got right to the point. “So Jim—how many of us are getting laid off?”


The COO gawped at her. “How did you know?” “Every time you try to hide bad news,” my client replied, “you look down at your toes.”

Brain scientists and social anthropologists tell us that human beings are storytelling creatures. People are continuously transmitting stories—whether they know it or not. And the more aware leaders become of their hidden story giveaways, the more authentic, trustworthy, and credible they become.

Just imagine if Jim hadn’t looked down at his toes. Instead, he’d come forward and said, “As you know, the company is facing a downturn and, sadly, we will be letting people go. The leadership team has struggled with how best to tell you this. We felt that you deserve the most up-to-date, accurate information possible, which is why I’m giving it to you straight. We will be making every effort to help those who will be leaving the company.”

Even though this would be a difficult speech to give, it would preserve credibility for Jim and the company’s senior team. Credibility not only enhances a company’s ability to weather tough times, it gives all parties the maximum number of options. Who knows—perhaps in six months, the company will be able to re-hire some or all of the layoffs? Who would want to return to a company whose leaders deceived or patronized its workforce?

It’s precisely when tough messages must be conveyed that businesspeople must be most conscious of their storytelling. The right stories help leaders lead; and you can’t lead if you’re looking down at your toes!



There Will Be Stories

I was hired by the head of an oil company to help a particular refinery improve itʼs safety standards. Accidents had been occurring at an alarming rate over the last few years. This was well above the OSHA standards. The head of the refinery had tried to use financial rewards and punishments in a carrot and stick approach to improving safety. He monetarily rewarded the crews with the lowest accident rates while fining those who had more problems. He was confident that this would bring results. His motto was “Unleash capitalist principles to bring greater safety.” It sounded great but after a year of using his program, the safety record was only marginally improved.

I suggested that I be allowed to interview the crews with the best safety record. I wanted to learn what they were doing right. What I discovered was that the stories of safe and effective procedures were being told to everyone on the team. For instance, a problem had arisen when crew members needed to select specific tools for a job. New crew members could get confused or feel rushed in selecting the correct wrench. They were reluctant to ask too many questions for fear of sounding “dumb” Consequently oil lines were improperly being shut down with the resulting unexpected pressures and potential fires.

One resourceful crew member painted the needed wrench bright blue. This visual cue made clear which wrench to select, even for neophytes. The crew chief made sure that this story was told to everyone, especially the newer crew members. The chief also urged his team to collect more safety stories and pass them on. Top management working with each platform chief adopted the policy of capturing and telling success and safety stories. The last time I checked, the refinery had a zero accident rate after 14 months of instigating this program.

It is human nature that everyone wants to feel safe. Financial incentives may not help or even get in the way. Instead, I suggest doing three things. First share stories of what is working well in your company. Second, make sure these stories are told again and again to all members of the team. Finally, let your team know that stories of success are welcome and appreciated.

Change is tough in any organization. Make sure that positive events in your culture are turned into stories about how problems get solved. Then encourage that these stories be told with passion and frequency.



The Tail that Launched a Thousand Ships

These are tough times and most of us are being pressured to do without or do with less. So how is it possible that millions of people suddenly became concerned for the welfare of a single small brown and white terrier -so involved that the US Navy and Coast Guard were reluctantly pressured to send in ships and aircraft.

What force of nature could cause all this commotion? Why a story of course...

Bob has the ability to help you connect with your "Stories" - more importantly he helps explain in detail how to construct and tell the stories needed for all individuals and organizations. Prior to Bob's workshop I was struggling with the transformational description of myself and newly formed business. Bob's ability to "Listen" and connect me to my mind’s eye has allowed me to create a great and needed personal story. This newly formed story has the clarity and impact needed to help my clients and customers understand what our message is.
—Dr. Dale Deardorff Former Director of Strategic Thinking, Boeing

Join Bob in his Find Your Business Story Workshop on Sept. 22 and mobilize your forces:



NY Times Post: Tell A Story

NY Times article today stresses that successful businesses thrive because they have an exciting story to tell:

The only way to get good at telling your story and inspiring people with it is to practice. And it's even better to practice with people who understand how to give useful feedback. Come to Bob's Story Tune-Up Workshop and practice telling your story!

Less than 1 week left before Story Tune-Up Workshop begins, sign up here:



"From my muscles"

Ladies and gentlemen, it is nearly Spring and, according to ancient Chinese five-element wisdom, Spring is the time for new growth, vision and creativity. It is the time to develop new ideas and expand enterprises. As the purple lilac blooms, and tiny green seedlings push through the warm soft earth, take a moment and reflect: where do new ideas come from? Albert Einstein was asked this very question one beautiful Spring morning, while he and a reporter strolled through the campus of Princeton: “Where do your ideas come from?” Einstein stopped for a moment. “From my muscles,” he replied with a smile. “Yes, they come from my muscles.”

Einstein paid attention to processes and patterns that most of us dismiss or ignore. Muscles contract and expand; so, apparently, does the Universe. Einstein was a genius in the original form of that term: someone awake to the universal spirit within.