Once Upon a Time: Planner as Story-Teller

I recently had a very interesting conversation with a Planning student. We’ll call him John – not for anonymity, but because I forgot his name (I’m a jerk like that). Anyways, John is about to graduate and is concerned that his unique skillset may not translate to a career in Planning. You see, John is a story teller. As he describes it, he’s good at the technical side of Planning, but his passion is writing and inspiring others.

Oh, John, do I have a job for you!

I’ve mentioned before that writing is a huge part of my job as a Planner. However, there are two clear sides to this. The first side is technical writing. This is getting your message across as succinctly as possible. When you’re writing policy documents, or anything that will be used as a reference document, you’re aiming for this style of writing. Bullets points, lists, tables, etc. are all your friends here.

Don’t discourage John. There’s another side. This is the side that will appeal to you, and quite frankly, appeals to me the most as well. You see, a huge part of Planning is convincing people that what you’re proposing is the right idea. This includes Council (who must approve the plan and any funding), the public (who can easily sway councillors if they’re unhappy), the client (who for many reasons, most likely cost, are against the idea) and the development community (who must be convinced that the plan is worth investing in). This is the same whether you’re working on large master plans, or preparing a few simple street cross-sections.

Much of the story is told by the fancy renderings that Photoshop whiz in your office turns out like it’s no big deal. However, these renderings almost always find themselves in a final report, and much of this report is… you guessed it… TEXT!

This is where you come in John. Someone needs to describe the work, how we got to this point, and why it’s the best solution. Maybe the plan shows a somewhat unusual street pattern, maybe the renderings even show a steep, tree-lined ridge along the road. What they won’t show however, is how the entire street network is located to embrace the existing topography, and that this is part of a larger commitment to an ‘environment-first’ approach for the project. Renderings also won’t show how this strategy weaves throughout many elements of the plan, or how the whole plan came together through collaboration with the public and local environmental groups. These things are all part of a larger story that needs to be told.

Sure you could just say these things, and this is often the way it’s done. However, by telling a consistent story, from the vision and guiding principles, to key recommendations and implementation directions, you’re creating a much more compelling document. More importantly, you’re creating a document that is defensible – where all recommendations are transparent and grounded in achieving a common goal (or goals).

The best part is that it’s up to you how you tell the story. You can be matter-of-fact, or you can be poetic. It really depends on what works best to sell the project. In your case John, if you’re as good as you say you are, you’ll likely find a niche in your office as the go-to guy when an engaging story needs told.

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