The underestimated importance of storytelling for technical people

CAFOD HQ building, Southwark, London. Photo: V Cinquemani

A few years ago, in a quest to refurbish a 1960 concrete block on the BRE site in the most innovative and sustainable way possible, I had the good fortune to meet an extraordinary man and architect. He was one of those architects that wears black from head to toe, including black round-framed glasses, and carries around a stylish grey rucksack.

The difference between him and any other stereotypical architect (and I hope my architect colleagues will forgive me for this) was that Paul Hinkin was also a very sweet, very warm, very genuine man. He wasn’t full of himself, but rather, he was full of wonderful, creative ideas on how to make this world better, one passively designed building at a time. In an interview with Building in 2010, he said he hoped, within ten years, to win the Stirling prize for the first truly sustainable building.

Paul could tell a story.

One bright and crisp December day of 2013, he took me to one of the buildings he was most proud of, the CAFOD headquarter building in Southwark.

While we were walking around this very simple, but very purposeful building, he was telling me how the charity didn’t have a lot of money to spend on a fancy building, and how these constraints made him and his colleagues at Black Architecture think hard about how to make it very low impact on the budget. I still remember, five years on, his passion in telling me how the charity wanted an office that reflected their deep values, that encouraged collaboration, an office that was bright and flooded with natural light, and could save them precious money by operating efficiently.

He showed me the kitchen, located on an intermediate middle floor, to encourage people from different floors to actually come together and talk.

He showed me the bright, flexible interiors, with a light shelf all around to reflect natural light so that it could penetrate the open plan space more deeply than usual.

He told me about the concrete structure, whose thermal mass would absorb excess heat during the day and release it at night, helping to maintain a stable temperature inside without gimmicky systems.

His knowledge, his passion and the way he told me about the solutions he adopted in the building, were truly inspiring.

He treated that tour as a true performance, highlighting how these solutions, and sustainability in general, were making a difference to the world. He told me about the challenges, the characters (his illuminated client who wanted an inspirational, yet sombre building, in line with their ethos), the drama of managing to work with a little budget in a complex, heavily urbanised and expensive area, and the lessons learned for him and his future buildings.

I came out of the building in love with architecture again. When you battle every day with planning, narrow-minded technical teams and uninspired clients, it’s hard to see the value of your work, as an architect, and as a sustainability consultant. However, Paul knew how to tell a story, as compelling as it gets. He could win clients over with his natural, unpretentious charm, warm smile and ability to paint the big picture for them.

Since founding Green Gorilla, I’ve been advocating that sustainability consultants should learn how to tell a compelling story, if they want to differentiate themselves from their peers. At the end of the day, every average sustainability consultant knows the difference between an air source heat pump and a ground source heat pump. But can they get their clients inspired about adopting one of the two, instead of talking about coefficient of performance? Can they masterfully paint the bigger picture of how that particular solution will have a positive impact on the people that will occupy that building, on their health, even on their happiness?

Although I admit it isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone, storytelling has been the way that human beings have learnt from each other since the beginning of time. Technical details go above most people’s heads, like white noise.

But there is a way of learning how to tell a story, even for the most technical of consultants.

  1. First of all, the structure. Stories have defined characters, challenges, drama, unexpected twists and conflicts, a bigger view of why the story is important to your listeners, lessons learnt and finally, a ‘happily ever after’. If you are trying to inspire your client to adopt a certain solution, for example, circular economy in their project, tell them the success stories that have achieved remarkable results in that particular field – there are plenty of well documented case studies out there - who the players were, what problems they had to overcome, any anecdote that would make the story memorable, any twists that made the project nearly not happen, then what was the ‘happily ever after’, and what they can learn from that particular story.
  2. Second, perfect your story and practise. Write down the story like a play script, then rehearse until you are bored of it; this is when it becomes second nature and comes out completely naturally, like if you were telling a funny, or heart-warming story about your dog to a friend.
  3. Have a few compelling stories ready to be told, and keep your ears peeled for new stories to add to your repertoire – the news, your colleagues, industry magazines, and LinkedIn are full of them.

Unfortunately, my favourite architect and storyteller is no longer with us. Paul passed away very young and unexpectedly, less than a year after our tour at the CAFOD HQ.

But to this day, I haven’t forgotten the lessons that he, unintentionally, taught me: to let your passion shine through, and most definitely, how to tell a story.

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