Storytelling: The Most Powerful Communications Tool in History

We are storytelling animals. It’s what differentiates us from our primate cousins. We are literally Homo narrativus. We use stories to assign meaning to our lives, transmit vital information and communicate with future generations. Without our storytelling ability, we would never have evolved out of the jungles of Africa.

Human history begins with stories, like The Bible, the Odyssey and the epics of India. These stories were so important that they were memorized and passed down countless generations prior to the written word.

Storytelling is an ancient and powerful tool that we all possess. The ability to process, remember and share stories is man’s oldest and best trick.

But we live in a dreary age of PowerPoints and TPS reports. Why can’t you remember anything from yesterday’s HR briefing? It’s not your fault; it wasn’t a story.

Lead with a Story

Paul Smith addresses that problem in Lead with a Story, a guide to using this ancient tool in the modern world. Storytelling is a skill that’s increasingly being adopted by major corporations trying to break through the clutter of messages that we’re all deluged with.

In a talk at the annual Federal Digital Communications event, Smith explained the power of stories to an audience of government communicators.

Storytelling is a skill that we can all learn. We literally grew up with it. What makes a great story? Great stories are:

1. Simple. What is the plot of Lord of the Rings? While it sprawls over hundreds of pages, the plot is really simple: destroy the One Ring. Great stories are simple, with a clear problem for characters to solve.

2. Timeless. Fads come and go, but the great stories are timeless. Boy meets girl, whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, or the latest Hollywood romcom, is one of the oldest and most commonly told stories.

3. Universal. While you may not speak ancient Greek, you can understand the desire to get home after a tough day (or decade). This is why a classic like the Odyssey is a universal tale.

4. Viral. Someone tells you a funny joke in the elevator and you immediately want to share it. Jokes were viral before the cat videos of YouTube.

5. Memorable. The story of Noah and the Great Flood doesn’t just appear in the Old Testatment – it is also a part of ancient Babylonian texts. Why? The whole world being wiped out with one survivor? That’s a great story.

6. Inspirational. We long for inspirational stories. While other ages had saints, we have business profiles of inspiring figures like Oprah, Steve Jobs and Howard Schultz. We read these stories of perseverance and success because we want to be inspired, looking for motivation to act upon our own dreams.

Good stories engage audiences. Rather than showing people a slide full of numbers, tell them what the numbers mean. Tell them how they matter to one person. Connect with your audience with stories of how people use your product or service.

For example, I had a job where I had to tell actors to be on time for a performance. I could’ve just yelled at them. Or just repeated the call-time over and over again.

Instead, I told them a story – The Tragedy of the Late Actor. The year before, one of actors was late. We replaced her. She didn’t get a chance to perform.

None of the actors were late. They remembered my message (don’t be late!) because I expressed it in the Tragedy of the Late Actor.

The reason is the human gift for narrative. Stories are how we remember information and direct our lives.

The next time you need to communicate something, whether it’s an article for the corporate newsletter or a message to your significant other, think about how you can make it a story. Write a beginning, a middle and an end. Have a clear protagonist, with a  problem for them to solve.

Tap into the ancient gift of storytelling – our most powerful communication tool.

Update: check out the slides and notes from the day’s presentations.



Earthquake Anecdote in Washington Post

earthquake screenshot

It began as a low rumble. I thought someone was moving furniture in my building but then it grew stronger.  I was being shaken, and for a few scary seconds I thought my apartment was going to split in two.

Then it stopped. Outside was a gorgeous sunny day. What happened?

I filed downstairs with my neighbors, none of whom knew exactly what we had experienced. Was this just on our block? I checked Twitter and saw that people from the around the Washington region were tweeting, “Earthquake.” Within seconds, someone had retweeted confirmation from the US Geological Society.

After I posted this anecdote on GovLoop, it was used in Washington Post article on disaster preparedness in federal government. The article highlighted the fact that informal networks, like Twitter, conveyed information more quickly and efficiently than official government channels.

DCWEEK Fires Up Techies

fire dancer at DCWEEK

What do fire dancers have to do with technology?  Attendees at the opening night party of DC Week had a chance to find out.  Digital Capital Week (DCWEEK) is a 10 day festival in Washington, DC focused on technology, innovation and all things digital in our nation’s capital. DCWEEK takes place in venues throughout Washington and runs from June 11th to June 20th, 2010.  The mission of DCWEEK is to strengthen the capital region’s digital economy via a ten day series of events focused on creativity, technology, entrepreneurship, marketing, content creation and innovation.

The week began with a party in Blagden Alley that brought together the worlds of art and technology.  Web developers, social media experts, writers, transparency advocates, government geeks, photographers and venture capitalists were inspired by bands, video displays, free beer and women twirling flaming hula hoops.  Set in a historic downtown alley, the party was a casual and creative affair where you could meet some of the brightest minds in DC.

But that was just the start.  DCWEEK continued over the weekend with CityCamp, an “unconference” that brought together local government officials and technologists, with the aim of building a better District of Columbia.

All week long, this festival of innovation continues with workshops on gaming, accessibility, communications, media relations and much more.  And since it’s not your normal conference, DCWEEK also includes happy hours, tweetups, a “schmooze cruise”, a flash picnic on the Mall and even a social media comedy show.

DCWEEK demonstrates that tech doesn’t have to be boring.  After seeing someone twirl fire, how could you not be inspired to try something new?

DCWEEK Fires Up Techies

2009 Highlights


It’s the end of the year, and the end of a decade. What were my favorite projects of 2009? What did I have the most fun working on?

Murder in Ocean Hall

I can’t help myself, I like to write fiction. People have asked me how I could leave my job and then spend countless hours alone, in a coffee shop, writing a novel. I’ve offered advice on setting a schedule and being committed, but the truth is that writing a book is a huge sacrifice and something that you must really, really want to do. And something that you must enjoy doing more then anything else. Continue reading “2009 Highlights”


Too much exposure to USAJOBS has really turned me cynical. Despite news reports on the need to recruit thousands of new employees, the main federal jobs site is a usability nightmare, unfathomable to even people who work on web sites, like me. While the site has few defenders, some have argued that it has to be that way, because it’s the government. Federal requirements dictate its complexity and difficulty.

There’s got to be another way! And there is. It’s the job site for the Congressional Budget Office. The site is a model of simplicity and common sense, where you can apply for a job in minutes, rather than hours. Let me spell out the differences between the CBO site and USAJOBS:

  • It’s all one site.You’re not bounced to a separate organizational site to complete a whole other application, like you would if you applied for a job with Agriculture from USAJOBS.
  • An easy password. You don’t need a complicated ten character password with upper and lower case letters plus numbers.
  • Upload or copy and paste your documents. Choose which is easier for you – either upload a Word doc or copy and paste your resume. You don’t have to enter information job by job. Supporting docs can also be uploaded.
  • No KSAs.
  • Job descriptions less than a page long, in plain language.
  • No confusing instructions to fax or snail mail in additional information. It’s 100% online.
  • It’s well-designed. The site makes excellent use of white space and provides strong visual cues for users, such as making the “Submit Application” button blue and placing it at the bottom of the right-hand menu.

Why can’t the rest of government do this? The site is not complicated, in fact it looks like it was designed in the late 1990s. But it’s simple and easy for visitors. It’s oriented around their top tasks, as good government sites are supposed to.

Looking at this site, USAJOBS makes even less sense to me.

Why Doesn't Government Use the Web to Organize Its Work?

I’ve been reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. It’s a brilliant book on the information revolution that we’re going through. He believes that this revolution is as momentous as the development of the printing press, which triggered the Reformation and religious wars. The rise of amateurs and the expansion of consumer choice has meant the end of seemingly unassailable institutions like newspapers.

Seeing how the world is rushing to adapt to the web, I had a practical question. Why doesn’t the government use the web to more efficiently accomplish its work? For example: Continue reading “Why Doesn't Government Use the Web to Organize Its Work?”

Friday's Links

Here’s what’s interested me this week:

Government 2.0: The Midlife Crisis
Hard truths about the difficulties of implementing Web 2.0 in government. 

It’s Time for Governance
Even more hard truths, this time about professionalizing web site management in government. 

Wil Wheaton Interview on Lulu
Interesting article on why a blogger went the self-publishing route. 

Apple Store Coming to DC

DCist Exposed
One more day to see this photo show at Flashpoint.

More Thoughts on Transparency Camp 09

Some more random thoughts about Transparency Camp 09. Here are my big take-aways from the conference.

Excitement: There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm among enlightened advocates of government transparency, fueled by the election of Obama and the mainstreaming of Web 2.0 tools like blogging. There’s a real can-do spirit, which is in marked contrast to continuing bad news about the economy. 

The Importance of Free Beer: How do you get people to hang out after the formal sessions of a conference, for a further exchange of ideas? You offer them free beer, of course (courtesy of Peter Corbett). I saw this at SXSW too. The convivial sharing of booze leads people to make connections they never would’ve made.

Twitter is Useful: This micro-blogging service was a great utility during the conference. Attendees tagged their tweets with #tcamp09, which enabled anyone (even people not at the conference) to see what attendees were saying about the sessions.

Macs are Everywhere: I was pleased to see so many Macs at the conference. The facility at GW had outlets at every table and wifi was available as well, which led to a proliferation of laptops, the majority of which were Macs.

Education is Needed: Advocates of open and accessible government need to learn more about the near infinite complexities of government policies and procedures. A host of rules limit what government can do online. Also, there’s not “one government” as Jeff Levy from EPA repeated over and over. Different government agencies have different IT policies and requirements. Pity the poor developer who wants to create a web application for all of government. 

As someone with a background in government and nonprofit web sites, I got a tremendous amount out of this conference. Attending events like this, you come away with renewed excitement about the possibilities of the web and a host of new ideas to explore.