We often get asked “does storytelling work with finance folk, scientists or engineers?” There’s an assumption in their question that some professions only care about the numbers, the facts, and they don’t have time or an interest for stories. Well, nothing can be further from the truth, everyone tells and listens to stories–it’s a human condition. But as a business storyteller it’s important to understand that if you are talking to engineers then they are most interested in engineering stories. And these stories are often laden with data (if you are interested in data storytelling you might like this post from last year).
This show features an engineering story. It’s about a little-known near-disaster from the centre of New York City that was averted through the good work of engineers, lawyers, clients, insurers and city officials. I sometimes tell this story to engineers to get them thinking about what does it mean to be a true professional.
I first learned of this story from an article in the New Yorker. This piece is well worth a read (you can get the full text here). Contrasting the written version by Joe Morgenstern with my oral retelling gives you a good example of how much is left out. Select the moments to tell is perhaps the most important decision you will make when translating from written to oral. There are some events that just must be told such as receiving the phone call from the student, the retesting of the wind models, the realisation that the student was right, the discovery of bolts instead of welding, telling the client, fixing the problem. The rest become choices of dramatic effect such as the trip to his cabin.
How to remember a written story
You might think this is a lot of work just to tell a story. This view if common if you haven’t read a story and then retold it off the top of your head, no notes. But here’s the thing, when we ask participants to do just that in our workshops they find the exercise remarkably easy. We seem to be hardwired to make sense and remember a story.
A good way to get a written story converted to an oral story is simply to read it and really picture what’s happening, hear the sounds, take in the smells and tastes. Use all your senses. Then read it again and note the facts and figures, the names of people and places (you have to rote learn these). Then put the written version aside and tell the story to someone and notice what you include. That’s your first version. Now work out the point of the story and then tell it again prefacing the story with your point. Add it to your story bank (see below).
Morgenstern, J. (1995). The Fifty-Nine-Story Crisis. The New Yorker, 29/5/1995, pp 45-53.
For your story bank
It’s the 1970s
Citicorp is building a new headquarters in Manhattan
It’s a new design and 59 stories making it the 7th tallest building in the world.
For the design to work the steel must be welded.
In 1978 the structural engineer in charge of the building, William LeMessurier (what a great name for an engineer) gets a call from a uni student. Students says that building could topple if wind conditions are right.
LeMessurier is dismissive at first. But then starts to investigate.
Gets wind modelling redone in Canada. The student’s view stacks up.
Talks to the builders and discovers steel was not welded, it was bolted (they were trying to save money)
LeMessurier heart sinks. The building could topple and thousands of lives are at risk.
He goes to his cabin in the woods. Suicide?
Decides to fix it.
Calls the architect, client, insurers, lawyers.
They all decide to work together.
18 month plan worked out to replace all bolts with welding.
Work through the night.
The sky lights up from all the welding torches.
The Citicorp Center still standing at 619 Lexington Ave, Manhattan.
Welcome back to Anecdotally Speaking, a podcast that helps leaders and sellers find and tell great stories. That’s us isn’t it? That’s what we do, right?
That’s the plan.
This is episode7, Mark, can you believe it, seven down?
Yeah, look it’s quite an enjoyable process.
It is an enjoyable process because we get to relive and re-think about some of the stories that we’ve found over the years. But it also seems to spark other conversations for us doesn’t it?
Yeah, it certainly does. We like to have those conversations as part of the podcast; the listeners get an idea of the way we think about stories and the practices that we have and adopt in putting stories to work.
I had an interesting experience in the last couple of weeks. I heard about a CEO that gave a great kickass presentation and he told a story that was inside a movie and it was the movie, ‘Hidden figures’.
Oh, that’s the story about how all the African-American women who were mathematicians as part of the Space Programme.
That’s the one and the women were actually called computers. It was before what we know as computers were really prevalent. And so, NASA had a group of women (mostly black women) who were called computers.
But the great thing about this was the CEO who gave this presentation; it just had a great impact. I think it really showed a lot of people that storytelling can really work but it also reminded me of this genre of story; this idea of finding a story in a movie and to be able to tell that.
It’s one to keep an eye out for so I went and re-watched Hidden Figures yesterday and it was great to see a couple of things: one is the specific scenes. So, leading up to this great scene this particular woman is working in an area that is taking the next shot up in space and she’s doing all the mathematics associated with it but there’s no toilet for black women in that building.
So, she has to go about half a mile away just to go to the toilet. So, she’s running all the way out to the toilet and all the way back (because this is a high-pressure job she’s in). And the head, Al Harrison, notices that she’s missing all the time, so he starts to give her an absolute once-over, ‘what are you doing? You’re not here at your desk, you’re skiving off…’ and she blows up.
She says, ‘how dare you? You don’t realise I have to go for a half mile run there and back just to go to the toilet.’ but in the scene that comes straight after that, Al Harrison is so incensed by this that he goes to the block that has the coloured women’s toilets and he takes a sledge hammer and smashes down the signs. And once he gets the sign down on the ground he says to everyone around (there’s a big crowd gathered) something along the lines of, ‘there’s just one type of toilet in here and all our pee is the same colour’.
To me it just reminds me of the importance of symbolic acts in organisations.
How his action triggers a new story.
Yes. Absolutely. Anyway, that was a nice little scene for me out of that movie. But there are lots of possibilities in re-watching those movies. Find the really popular movies, the top 100, start to look at those, try to find some scenes because they’re the ones most people in your audience will recognise, understand, and know where you’re coming from rather than coming from some very edgy, out of left field movie that no one’s ever heard of.
So, what’s the story we’re going to talk about this week?
Well. We’re going to segue into a different type of story; an engineering story. I get people saying to me, ‘do engineers listen to stories?’ Of course, they’re no different to anyone else. People love stories regardless of the industry.
So, this is an engineering story and it’s set back in the 70’s. In the 70’s, Citicorp developed this brand spanking new big headquarters in Manhattan and designed it in a funky new way.
They had some design constraints: a church they had to build this building on top of. They ended up having the first floor (about 30, 40 feet) suspended in the air with these four pylons. It was a 59-story building—at that time the 7th tallest building in the world.
The structural engineer in charge of all that did a whole bunch of things to create a new way of building. Because there was a whole lot of stress and strain on how this building was built he had to put in things like a counter-weight in the very top of the building for any movement of the building, but he also had to make sure the steel was welded together in a way that was rock solid.
Anyway, they got it up, it wins lots of awards then in 1978 he gets a phone call in his office, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it’s a student. It’s now being studied as part of university degrees. The student says, ‘we’ve just done some wind modelling on the Citicorp headquarters and we’ve discovered that there’s a certain type of wind in certain situations that will put enough strain on your building that there is a small but significant chance that your building will topple.
William LeMessurier listens to this and just dismisses it out of hand, ‘saying that’s not going to happen’, hangs up on this guy and then starts thinking he should check it out. He goes up to Canada, to a modelling group up there and runs a bunch of weather models and realises there is a situation where this building can come down. He decides he needs to do more testing and he talks to the builders and talks about the construction methods. And he said, ‘one of the key things we have to do is weld all the steel joints together’.
It turned out the steel manufacturer was trying to cut corners and figured that just bolting them together would be sufficient and that’s when the red flags went up for this guy. He went, ‘holy smoke’, goes up to his cabin in the woods, spends the weekend thinking, ‘this is the end of my career, my reputation is absolutely in the dirt’—he’s on the edge of suicide.
But at the same time, he goes, ‘there are a lot of people’s lives at risk here’. So, he pulls himself together and gets in contact with the architect, who contacts the client, and then the insurers and lawyers get involved. You would imagine that group of people would be at absolute loggerheads wouldn’t you, Mark?
At each other’s throats.
But to their credit they realised that they needed to collaborate to sort this thing out and so over time, sorting out as many issues as they can they came up with an 18-month plan to go through the entire building and replace every one of those bolts with new welding.
Because the building was built with a shell around it, so you couldn’t see the infrastructure the welders could work inside the shell without disrupting the work that was going on (and they did it between 8 o’clock at night and 7 in the morning).
LeMessurier was being interviewed and he said when he flew into New York he would see the Citicorp building lit up with all those welders at night-time doing the work they needed to do get this job done. Anyway, the job was finished, totally saved. They kept it a secret for at least 20 years. It’s only in more recent times that that has come out.
You can still see that building in Manhattan. It doesn’t look like an impressive monument given the size of buildings these days but in terms of engineering it was a great feat in how to deal with a difficult problem.
So, that’s the story. I like to tell it to engineers now and then to get them talking about it. But let’s just talk about that story; what works and what doesn’t work, the bits in it that grab you or don’t grab you?
One of the bits I liked was that they actually worked together because that’s not what I expected. Lawyers at 50 paces and let’s find the person to blame but the fact that they collaborated and ended up finding a solution.
Lawyers breaking expectations—that’s a bit of a theme. Don’t know how long that will last. For me the thing that grabbed me was the humanity of it. You’ve got this structural engineer who’s built his career on doing the most amazing buildings and it’s potentially coming to an end and he’s got the point of almost saying, ‘enough’s enough’ and he’s going to do his life in but then realises no he can’t.
To me that’s a nice turning point in the story, one of those ones that give the humanity and people involved in those big structures being created.
I know you like telling that story but to me it’s not particularly clear. I can’t really imagine the building, how it looks, and what the problems are. It’s kind of a bit too technical.
A bit too technical?
So, maybe it’s going to work with engineers; it doesn’t work with me.
One of the things you have to do (and we say this a lot to the people we’re training), you’ve got to test your stories out. You’ve got to tell them and see what sort of response you get because you can tell a story and not have the sort of reaction you expect.
Maybe we’ll put one of those stories into the podcast—the ones that really didn’t work
Yeah, that’s a good idea. But that’s really good feedback to get an idea that different audiences will have different responses. Now imagine you were to tell this story, Mark, (and this might be a big gap to leap across) but where would you use this story? Where might this help you get across a couple of ideas?
When there’s a really big problem, collaboration is a great way to tackle it.
Yeah, absolutely. To show that it can be a multimillion billion-dollar type problem and it can be solved, and you can get the stakeholders on the same page and people’s reputations stay intact and good things can happen, so I think there’s that element.
What happened to the uni student?
They’ve done a bit of research to find that uni student.
I mean like I want to employ that guy.
Yeah, I know but no one can find him. His name has been lost in time because when LeMessurier got the phone call he just hears ‘blah, blah, blah, your building’s going to fall down’ and he just goes click. Doesn’t even ask what university he’s from.
He doesn’t know the university, his name, and it’s not like he’s got a mobile phone that records the number the phone call came from.
So, there’s actually a lesson there on just those small flag wavers who could be vital. I hope he went on to a great career.
The other way I use it too when I share it with engineers I get them to talk about some of the issues that spring to mind for them and also as a story trigger. And they usually have heaps of stories to tell. It just reminds them of things they’ve done themselves.
That’s an important point to remember; if you want people to share stories you just start by telling one first. It’s one of the most important ones; you have to set the example.
Definitely. Well, I think that’s all we need to say about my little engineering/ Citicorp story. I suppose now we have to give our rating. I’d love to hear your rating, Mark. What are you going to give it?
It’s not a story I’d use so I’m going to give it a 4.
A four? Oh my god—arrow to the heart. I quite like that story. I think I could tell it even better with a bit more practice and better understanding of the elements and trying to work out what to emphasise. I think you probably emphasise different things depending on the audience. But given that I think I’d still give it a 7. I’ve got a connection to that story and I’m going to keep working on it.
You do have a connection to that story; more power to you.
Well guys, thanks for listening to Anecdotally Speaking. And tune in next week for another episode on how to put stories to work. Thanks guys.
About Anecdote International
Anecdote International is a global training and consulting company, specialising in utilising storytelling to bring humanity back to the workforce. Anecdote is now unique in having a global network of over 60 partners in 28 countries, with their learning programs translated into 11 languages, and customers who incorporate these programs into their leadership and sales enablement activities.