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Storytelling for engineers and other folk

Ikhlaq Sidhu, Chief Scientist and Founding Director, Sutardja Center | August 27, 2013

As engineers and engineering leaders, we often forget the important role of “storytelling” in our work.  Usually, this takes the form of a myopic focus on our technology capabilities or markets served.  What we forget is that it won’t matter unless the concept is meaningful to people.  And stories are the medium that humans understand best.

Simple example:  every internal company pitch and every venture pitch is actually a story.  As noted by my colleague Ken Singer, Managing Director for Berkeley’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, pitches generally have a protagonist (the user), a villain (the pain they suffer), a setting (competitive landscape) and a resolution (your solution).  Facts are fine, but telling the story communicates your idea better and builds the brand.

In this article, I’d like you to think about stories at two levels:  1) the story that you tell to communicate your project and 2) the story that a company tells to build its brand.

Learning Lesson 1:

Marc Benioff, founder, chairman and CEO of salesforce.com talks about storytelling

Read “Storytelling Tips from Salesforce’s Marc Benioff” Story-telling-Benioff-Salesforce by Carmine Gallo.  Salesforce has been famous for building a software company around its “no software” story (since it is a service) and vilifying some giant software companies in the process.  We use this example in our Engineering Leadership Program, as first introduced to our program by Prof. Burghardt Tenderich, Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.  Here is a key excerpt:

“Tell classic stories. Most reporters don’t care about a tiny startup, and that’s why Benioff never positioned himself as such.  He told a classic David-vs.-Goliath story. “We gave the media something different.  We gave them something new. We always positioned ourselves as revolutionaries. We went after the largest competitor in the industry or the industry itself.  We made our story about change.  We were about something new and different that was good for customers, and good for the community.  We talked about the future”  says Benioff.  Although the media landscape is changing, Benioff believes there will always be a need for content.  The delivery model might be changing, but exchanging and sharing stories and information remains as important as ever.”

Learning lesson 2:

Then watch this clip (above) introduced to me by my colleague Prof. Tom Byers at Stanford.  He presented it in a program we taught (and publicly available at STVP’s E-corner).  The clip shows Jack Dorsey (a founder at Twitter and Square) describing his process for getting ideas out of his head, onto paper, and eventually into public communications of the company.

After reading the Gallo article and watching the clip, consider the following questions:

  1. How could you improve the story of what you would like to develop next?
  2. How should the story evolve once you show others?
  3. How do you achieve consistency in the story across others in the firm?

Posted by:  Ikhlaq Sidhu

Comments to “Storytelling for engineers and other folk

  1. The commentary offered by Jack Dorsey in the video is very interesting (out of your head, onto paper, and thus available for scrutiny, and also safe to be put into storage for later use). Story telling is also very much a part of writing a patent application. Words and pictures. A coherent story flow. Most importantly, being concise and being precise. And being broad and sweeping, as may be reasonably allowed.

    All too often, patent applications are seen as a last step, as in “Okay, now we have our product. Hmmm, so let’s write a patent application, and oh yeah, let’s write some claims”, like an afterthought, or a retrofit.

    The claims represent the framework and key elements of the story. The application fleshes out the frame. This should be happening sooner rather than later. Especially early on, the product may not be available, so what stands in its place, and what provides a place to stand when viewing and distinguishing from the prior art and the competition, are the drafted claims.

  2. Dear Ikhlaq Sidhu, I am a story teller. And over last more than 4 years have been trying to evolve a format. And yes, have been able to evolve and experiment and implement it successfully. I call my way of story telling “Creative Persuasion”. Having tried selling it to various corporate’s on employee engagement but failed. Cutting the story short – have implemented it successfully with various engineering colleges in India.

    The big challenge of engineering education in India is loss of faith in B.Tech.s of all kind. Probably the same in rest of the world. So the story telling revolves around “Invoke, Involve, Evolve”.

    The prime objective is to make engineering studies interesting and continuously involve the students into small and simple experiments and projects where they get simple shots of success and slowly develop their competence to evolve the desired objective of “Better Engineering Education.” Having started on “Creative Persuasion” almost 6 odd months back, the desired objective looks like achievable.

    Also seen the face book page of your university – it needs my skill set.

    It is a very simple tool – use face book to make engineering interesting.
    Do get in touch, there is much more interesting…

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