In the mid-1960s, Juan Trippe, CEO and founder of Pan Am wanted to double the size of his largest commercial aircraft. When Boeing accepted the challenge, Trippe placed an order for twenty-five of these imaginary planes.
Trippe wanted two things for his passengers: comfort and a convenient way to get them into and out of the aircraft. He believed that a double-decker plane–essentially stacking two Boeing 707 cabins on top of one another–was the best way to go. But Joe Sutter, Boeing’s lead engineer saw too many drawbacks with the double-decker approach. He preferred a side-by-side configuration.
Convincing the stubborn CEO to change his mind would take some work. Since Trippe and Sutter had butted heads before, Boeing decided to send the “more amiable” (Sutter’s words) Milt Heinemann to convince Trippe and Pan Am’s brass that the world’s first wide-body commercial aircraft would best fit the bill.
Heinemann opened his presentation with a layout of the twenty-foot wide main cabin. However, the drawing couldn’t convey a feeling for the cabin’s size because no one had ever experienced sitting inside a wide-body aircraft before. He needed a way to make the numbers meaningful, so he stretched a twenty-foot length of clothesline from one end of the boardroom to another, placing the execs in the middle of this vast space. It worked. Heinemann’s rope demonstration changed the course of the discussions and the Boeing 747 wide-body was born.
Milt Heinemann understood that symbols are storytelling elements that connect abstract concepts to real-world ones. Symbols provide listeners with a deep sense of comfort because of their familiarity. Few people have the ability to comprehend how scaled drawings feel in actual size, but everyone knows what it’s like to live in actual size. By using a common rope to demonstrate what twenty feet of space feels like, he transformed abstract numbers on a page into a relatable experience.
Business storytellers use symbols to convey complex ideas. What symbols can you use to better articulate your point?
Documentary: “747: The Jumbo Revolution,” YouTube video, 1:32:15, Smithsonian Channel, December 10, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V5i7L4HPrU.
Photo Credit: Photo of Pan Am 747 published by Eduard Marmet under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported