Ancient origins of the FAQ and storytelling

Our modern ways of communicating have their roots deep within ancient cultures. The ancient Assyrians used both FAQs and storytelling as communication tools just as internal communicators do today.

When I was nine years old my parents bought me a World of Wonder annual for Christmas and my lifelong passions for both ancient history and science began. I still have the book and it is one of my most treasured possessions from my childhood.

Later in life, as my career transitioned into a series of early communication roles, my interest in how the people of ancient civilisations communicated increased and this has become a source of endless fascination for me.

Ancient monuments and artefacts are impressive just as objects, but once you understand the messages they were originally designed to convey, their purpose is really brought into sharp focus. I was sufficiently intrigued by the inscriptions on The Rosetta Stone and other Egyptian monuments in London’s British Museum to learn how to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Being able to translate some of these mysterious texts has helped me really appreciate that our modern ways of communicating have their roots deep within ancient cultures.

On my most recent visit to the museum I enjoyed seeing the exhibition ‘I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria’. As a communicator, my favourite exhibits were some of the cuneiform inscribed clay tablets from the Library of Ashurbanipal, recovered from the ancient city of Nineveh (now in northern Iraq).

Like a modern library, the tablets were organised by subjects. However, I was delighted to discover a group of tablets entitled ‘Questions and answers’. Was this the original FAQ, so beloved by internal communicators, dating back to 700 BC?

Is this one of the original FAQs dating back to c.700 BC ?

Since my discovery of the library and its ancient collection of questions and answers I’ve reflected on what makes a really great set of FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions). Here are a few thoughts which fellow internal communicators might find useful.

Is an FAQ really the best communication option?

So, hands up everyone, aren’t FAQs the thing we pull together when we are feeling a bit lazy as internal communicators?

Before settling on an FAQ as your preferred communication solution it’s worth considering if there are any better ways of getting the information across to your audience. Perhaps a more visual method of delivery, such as an infographic or short video would work better for colleagues. These more elaborate communication tactics take a little bit more effort up front to create, but might deliver a better outcome and save you time spent dealing with follow up questions from confused colleagues later on.

If you are intending hosting your FAQ on a web page, will this be accessible to everyone who might need to see it? Are there remote workers with little or no digital access in your organisation who you should consider communicating with in a different way?

The times when I have used FAQs as a communication tool the most have been in change situations and for specific change projects. They probably lend themselves best to these circumstances, where a narrower topic or subject area means you can keep the number of FAQs down and manage them more easily to keep them user friendly.

Make sure the questions really are FAQs

Are the questions you are including really the questions people will ask most frequently? Perhaps asking some selected colleagues from your target audience what they think they need to know about a topic will help you decide what to include.

Questions which relate to a niche topic or which address an issue which affects only a small number of people are probably not good candidates for an FAQ. For these, more targeted and tailored communications would work better and stop your FAQs becoming cluttered. Similarly, anything which requires a very detailed explanation running to many paragraphs also shouldn’t find a home in your FAQs. I find that complex or abstract subject matter is better dealt with through more two-way methods of communication and not in an FAQ.

Categorise them

Just like in the ancient Assyrian library, consider categorising your FAQs into themes or subject headings to make them easier to navigate. For example a change project might have several different aspects to it such as People, Processes, Technology and Workplace. Group your FAQs under headings which your colleagues will easily understand, and they will find what they are looking for more quickly.

Make them searchable

If your FAQs are hosted on an intranet and there are a few of them, could you make them searchable using a search engine?

Help people scan them on a webpage

People don’t read information on a web page in the same way that they read a document or paper publication. On web pages people tend to scan the content quickly and home in on a particular area of interest and read this in more detail. Work with this behaviour by designing your FAQs to expand with a mouse click or a finger tap so only the question heading is initially visible. You could also highlight key words in the heading to make scanning easier.

Collapsing content on a web page also makes it look tidier, reduces scrolling and is less daunting than presenting a user with pages of very dense text.

Do you need to sort out some other communications content instead?

Are the questions you are including in your FAQ arising because some other communications content isn’t doing the job it should be? If something elsewhere isn’t clear, needs correcting or enhancing then sort that out rather than trying to solve the problem with an FAQ.

Manage them

There is no worse communication tool than an out of date FAQ. If, as I have done, you’re using them in a change project situation, keep them under review. As the project implementation progresses it is inevitable that some questions will become irrelevant and new ones will arise. Colleague feedback on other project communications is often a good source of insight to identify new FAQs that you could include. Keep your FAQ refreshed and relevant.   

Enable colleagues to rate them and provide feedback

These days we are all familiar with the feedback tools on websites that enable us to like, dislike and rate content (did this answer your question?). If you can build these features into an online FAQ this feedback will help you to manage the FAQ, and in conjunction with click rate data, help you decide more quickly which FAQs need to be retired, updated or improved.    

And finally….a reminder of the power of storytelling

The Assyrian exhibition at the British Museum was also a reminder of the power of storytelling as a communications tool stretching way back into history. Many of the reliefs on display from Assyrian palaces and civic buildings in Nineveh, Nimrud and elsewhere depict stories of battles fought and daily life in the ancient Mesopotamian world.

Teumman, King of Elam loses his head….literally!

With a bit of clever 21st century projection onto the reliefs by the museum curators, and some appropriate sound effects, the reliefs were transformed from being just a wall of inscribed plaster and stone into a 2,500 year old comic strip. As the story unfolded, the crowd of people in the exhibition, including me, were transfixed by the experience. We all just love a good story.


If you would like to know more about The British Museum or the ‘I am Ashurbanipal’ Assyrian exhibition follow the links. The exhibition is being presented until 24 February 2019 and the museum also has an extensive collection of Assyrian artefacts on permanent display.     

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