Story, Development, and Design

Storytelling is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the people taking it in to position themselves in the story, see its relevance to their current situation, and then play forward a narrative about their own role in the story of now. It’s a way of uncovering the complexities of a person’s world and designing within that context.

 

How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles.

 

So how does it relate to development and design? Story art and craft is one of the best and oldest ways to engage an audience. We approach every project, regardless of its size or scope, from this perspective. Not just story-first, but structure first. Just like screenwriters do or authors do. There are, of course, countless books on story art and craft, typically for writers, filmmakers, game designers and artists, but they’re rarely, if ever, written for the people who build websites, software, tools, services, etc. that are not necessarily art or entertainment.

 

Designers, product managers, developers, content strategists, they can all benefit from taking on a storytelling approach in the process of creation. Take for example the use of experience maps. The maps try to represent an actual example of how a person (or persona) went through and did something they wanted to do. The maps are generally chronological, moving forward through the hours of the persona’s actions one stage at a time. The phrase “experience map” came about because we tend to want to create tools most relevant to the job we’re assigned, but in practice we need to be agnostic of whether the persona is using digital tools or not, or a combination to tools. The map represents the journey a person takes from the idea of accomplishing something to having accomplished that thing in the end. We want to see how it all hangs together from the persona’s perspective.

 

There can be as many experience/journey maps for a particular persona as there are deviations in the way they do that thing. For example, if a persona was taking a commercial flight, there might be different maps for a business-related flight than a leisure-oriented flight. There might be different maps based on whether it’s a last-minute or urgent flight. There might be different maps for long versus short flights, flights where the persona has to get work done before landing, flights where the persona is scared of flying, etc. The relevance is that the mental model represents a set of states of mind (mental spaces) that a person might pop into and out of during this journey toward accomplishing a goal. The states of mind might proceed in a nice linear fashion. Or they might represent a more cyclical approach, where the person revisits a previous state of mind again to re-evaluate something, to continue something, or to address something new that has come up. And therein lies the power of storytelling. We are designing with the notion that the goal and the steps to achieving it are front and center. Taking this approach not only allows for better design, it ensures that the things we construct are tied into the broader ecosystem in which people operate.

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Story, Development, and Design

Storytelling is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the people taking it in to position themselves in the story, see its relevance to their current situation, and then play forward a narrative about their own role in the story of now. It’s a way of uncovering the complexities of a person’s world and designing within that context.

How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles. So how does it relate to development and design?

Story art and craft is one of the best and oldest ways to engage an audience. We approach every project, regardless of its size or scope, from this perspective. Not just story-first, but structure first. Just like screenwriters do or authors do. There are, of course, countless books on story art and craft, typically for writers, filmmakers, game designers and artists, but they’re rarely, if ever, written for the people who build websites, software, tools, services, etc. that are not necessarily art or entertainment.

Designers, product managers, developers, content strategists, they can all benefit from taking on a storytelling approach in the process of creation. Take for example the use of experience maps. The maps try to represent an actual example of how a person (or persona) went through and did something they wanted to do. The maps are generally chronological, moving forward through the hours of the persona’s actions one stage at a time. The phrase “experience map” came about because we tend to want to create tools most relevant to the job we’re assigned, but in practice we need to be agnostic of whether the persona is using digital tools or not, or a combination to tools. The map represents the journey a person takes from the idea of accomplishing something to having accomplished that thing in the end. We want to see how it all hangs together from the persona’s perspective.

There can be as many experience/journey maps for a particular persona as there are deviations in the way they do that thing. For example, if a persona was taking a commercial flight, there might be different maps for a business-related flight than a leisure-oriented flight. There might be different maps based on whether it’s a last-minute or urgent flight. There might be different maps for long versus short flights, flights where the persona has to get work done before landing, flights where the persona is scared of flying, etc. The relevance is that the mental model represents a set of states of mind (mental spaces) that a person might pop into and out of during this journey toward accomplishing a goal. The states of mind might proceed in a nice linear fashion. Or they might represent a more cyclical approach, where the person revisits a previous state of mind again to re-evaluate something, to continue something, or to address something new that has come up. And therein lies the power of storytelling. We are designing with the notion that the goal and the steps to achieving it are front and center. Taking this approach not only allows for better design, it ensures that the things we construct are tied into the broader ecosystem in which people operate.

 

Big Data vs. Insights

Over the last 20 years and the emergence of digital as a central element behind marketing and advertising, the industry had gotten smarter and smarter, creating an expanded set of new metrics: dynamic segmentation modeling, click-through rate, impression share, engagement rates, share of voice, bounce rate, etc. Even with these, it is still very hard to measure success in a clear, distinct way. With technology and consumer behaviors evolving as fast as they do, we face new issues every day, from different attributions models to cross-device measurements to connecting online activities to offline sales.

Out of this barrage of metrics grew the messianic promise of Big Data. Add to that the rise of business intelligence tools, and suddenly every agency, no matter the size, needs to have a data scientist. Don’t get me wrong, talented data researchers and masters of analytics have helped shape since the earliest days of advertising data scientists have revolutionized the advertising industry. However, the work has also left many in a situation where they are unable see the forest for the trees, let alone align metrics with creativity and business objectives.

As much as I love data, and I do love it, the whole Big Data movement has come with a hefty price tag. We have lost the ability to tell meaningful stories or insights in favor of huge reports filled with analyses and pivot tables. We have all the data can’t make sense of it in a new, dynamic, enlightened way that makes for advertising and marketing that make brands sing and become part of the broader social fabric. We can target the living hell out of people, but that doesn’t mean what we tell them resonates.

The data we use should help us to create the story, answer questions, and find moments of inspiration. Furthermore, the data should be a tool rather than an object we roll out in lieu of light-bulb moment. Too many agencies have fallen under the data spell and have forgotten to turn those results into stories that align to a client’s objectives and strategies. It’s like talking to a customer about product features (empty of emotion) without selling them on the benefits (the emotional hook).

Quite simply, we need to get back to delivering meaningful consumer insights instead of only data. Delivering insights means telling the brand what is going to happen in their industry, how something we did had an impact on their bottom line, or how we discovered something that will change the way they do business. Simpler still, an insight produces positive change, regardless of whether it comes from data, an interview, or a poem for that matter.

 

Presentation as Storytelling

The goal of any good presentation is to change thinking, to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness. The presentation serves to evoke a feeling in the viewers, whether a client or a project team, and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world. It’s about the story. As with the impressionist tale (see VanMaanen  1988), the story is recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events.”  An audience should be drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s).Brand-Storyteller.png

Selective packaging of information to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice, even though the precise empirical situations in which the information is developed is perhaps far less coherent or obvious than the concepts they serve to illustrate.This is doubly so when addressing the needs of business and design teams with distinct,
targeted problems and limited time.  Our editorial choices make points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters – we make learning sexy.

The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with clients and compel them to action. It should never be a series of bullet points. Why? Because a brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.  The same holds true for the client.  Through storytelling and presentation of symbolic codes, clients move from fixating on the product line and can rethink what the brand means in a wider context.

So what should we do?  First, strip it of text. The media tool is the comforting factor, not the content.  PowerPoint serves as a frame around which to build behavioral norms, but what appears on the screen should augment the story and add color. Second, just because you’re using PowerPoint, it doesn’t mean that you can alter the stage. A presentation is like a play – so why not do it “in the round?” Promote physical interaction and direct interaction between the audience members.  Finally, give people small tasks throughout the presentation so that they are not passive recipients of information but co-creators.  The more they engage the more they will take away.

 

Bless the Weirdo: Creativity and Innovation in Advertising

Peculiar is good, don’t let anyone tell you anything different. Having a skewed take on the world isn’t what you always want or need, but it is important to have free thinkers, dreamers, and mad geniuses in the company mix if you want to break though the play-it-safe realities of most businesses.

Back in the day David Ogilvy wrote a memo to his managers spelling out the characteristics he believed were central for the ideal candidate. “The person is ambitious. The person works harder than their peers—and enjoys it. The person has a brilliant brain—inventive and unorthodox. The person has an engaging personality. The person demonstrates respect for the creative function.” In other words, David Ogilvy was asking for someone dynamic, smart, and creative. Well who isn’t? But to me, the key words here are “unorthodox” and “engaging”. And whether you’re in advertising, product development, or probably any field for that matter, these two words set the stage for meaningful innovation.

The reason I say this is because take together they suggest an ability, and deep-seated need to break through boundaries and look at the world in an unexpected way. In an Ad Week article that appeared this week (and inspired my thinking), the authored phrased it this way: The person is confidently peculiar. And while I love and embrace this idea, it warrants a little deeper examination.

Regardless of the industry, but especially in advertising, lip service is given to the idea that collective thinking should be “inventive and unorthodox,” but it’s not always the case. Indeed, it rarely is. It’s a given, we assume, that people’s diverse points of view, training, interests, histories, and cultures result in original work. But sometimes that work needs to be influenced by peculiarity due to fear.

When we’re faced with the need to live in the question, most people, creators included, experience anything from unease to abject fear and paralyzing anxiety. From a purely biological perspective, acting in the face of uncertainty stimulates a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which is a primary seat of fear and anxiety. That sends a surge of chemicals through our bodies that makes us want to run. So when we start really letting the creative juices flow, we shut down or limit ourselves to staying within psychological and social parameters that are safe.

Additionally, we’re trained to be risk averse. Frequently, the people with power are in power because they are good at process. It’s their job to mitigate risk. And innovative thinking is the definition of risk. What that means is that when you really push the boundaries, you run the risk of being wrong (at least in the eyes of the people who often control your fate). Being wrong and the fear it creates stops us from embracing those strange ways of thinking that help us believe we can break boundaries, invent the next light bulb, and change the world. The result of all this discomfort and fear is that we often exclude the most inventive from the conversation and fall back on what we already know.

Which brings us back to the two words I mentioned at the beginning: “unorthodox” and “engaging”. By unorthodox I mean will to break with tradition, with social norms, with standard practices. These are the people who frequently drive PMs and Account people batty, but they’re necessary to challenge the status quo. Partly it’s to help break through the noise in the moment, but the unorthodox, the half mad, create a liminal state. When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.  Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. The result of turning the world on its head for a brief time is to create a “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. The unorthodox position creates a challenge to one’s self and sets the stage for more creative thinking.

Engaging means more than fearlessness and confidence. It means being able to captivate. Without a sense of security in their weirdness, these personalities would suppress the very thing that makes them interesting. But given the chance and space to embrace and even enhance their oddity, these characters are able to inject it into any particular creative pursuit of their choosing. This is what makes the story sing and gives life to the unorthodox approach to solving the problem at hand. Engaging doesn’t just mean entertaining, it means convincing, transformational, and true.

Put together, these two characteristics lead to re-envisioning the world. Because people like this stand somewhat outside the norm, they serve as catalysts and gateways to a creative space we’re often afraid to go. Keep the peculiar, the weird, the unrelenting close at hand. You may not see their value in a clear-cut way but the pay off can be seismic.

 

 

 

 

 

Storytelling, Presenting and Getting Past the Stick in Your Bum

The other day I was thinking about how to present findings to a client about what was, frankly, a seemingly dry subject. Numerous stakeholders would be involved and would range from the CMO down to brand managers, product engineers, etc. So, knowing I had a dry subject and a conservative audience, I decided to rethink the question a bit.  Was the goal to present findings or was it something more? The goal is ultimately to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness.  Any good  presentation serves to evoke a participatory feeling in the viewers and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world, as well as their processes. The report will come later, but the presentation is about changing minds.

That brings us back to storytelling. When we bring our research and strategic thinking to life, the story we weave is less a list of data points than an interpretation and distillation of a series of experiences, Details are selectively recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events”  (see VanMaanen  1988).  The audience is drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s) – in other words, a good story, and a good presentation, is a shared experience, co-created in the moment. Bore the audience and there is almost no chance of affecting change. Selective packaging to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice. What we present needs to illustrate, provocate and elucidate. This is doubly so when addressing the needs of business and design teams with distinct, targeted problems and limited time.  Our editorial choices make points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters – we make learning sexy.  And that means becoming marvelous storytellers.

So what do we need to do to make a good story? First, start thinking in terms of symbols and metaphor. Stories are conveyed through language, which is by definition a symbolic system. The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with clients and compel them to action. These symbolic dimensions that emerge in the narrative add value to brands by fulfilling culturally constructed concepts (quality, status, age, belonging, etc.). A brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.  The same holds true for the client.  Through storytelling and presentation of symbolic codes, clients move from fixating on the product line and can rethink what the brand means in a wider context.

Second, strip the presentation of text. You’re hear to talk and the image on the wall behind you is there to produce a response. Text, then, becomes a distraction unless you intend to use it as a visual manifestation of an idea (imagine a giant “NO” in lieu of something like a stop sign). The media tool we use, be it PowerPoint or something similar, is the comforting factor for audience and presenter alike, not the content. That means we can use the program for displaying images, visual cues and video, but we cannot let it become the focal point – it is like a set on which an actor performs. Don’t let it overshadow the actor.

Third, just because you’re using PowerPoint, it doesn’t mean that you can’t alter the stage. A presentation is like a play – so why not do it “in the round”? Promote physicality, discussion and direct interaction between you and the audience members. Give people small tasks throughout the presentation so that they are not passive recipients of information but co-creators. The more interaction, the more likely they will be to internalize the story you present.

Finally, have fun. It seems self evident, but it is perhaps the hardest thing most people find to do – they may talk about it, but they can’t actually do it. Remember, your role is to produce change, not recite facts.