#Weeknotes 7 (5 Mar) — What’s a story?
What’s a story?
That’s been on my mind a lot lately.
Communication has always been a distressing topic for me. I always dreaded language classes and had a fear of writing even until after Uni. Writing, speaking, and communicating just aren’t for me. That’s what I keep telling myself. It’s better to focus on a career that won’t involve any of that. Aha. That’s when I, the me over a decade ago now, decided that I will be a graphic designer. That way I can just focus on creating visuals rather than putting words on paper.. or screens.. or anything for that matter.
Boy was I naive.
Just when I thought that those mandatory language classes were behind me, I got tasked to use my meagre communication skills to convey the meaning and rationale behind my design work, and at times even pitch ideas to others. Gah.
As I transitioned my career into user experience design, it started to dawn on me that communication and storytelling would be the biggest asset to attain mastery in this field. Research is a huge part of user experience design. As designers, we would regularly engage with people to understand their relationships, behaviours, and attitudes toward the desired services and products to uncover opportunities for improvement. How do we communicate with these different groups of people? How can we convey the uncovered research findings? How can we instil confidence in our clients that they’re making the right decisions? How can we express the value of the work that needs to be done and the impact? All of that requires some decent level of communication skills.
It was clear that I won’t be able to escape my mortal fear.
And since I can’t avoid it, I suppose I’ll need to deal with it. In this case, learn to master it…which will probably take a lifetime. Or longer.
For most of my career, I’ve been approaching tasks that involve writing, presenting, and selling (ideas) etc, mostly as chores. Undesirable yet required to-dos. I’d reference what others have done before me and put in just enough to meet the basic requirements. In addition, I would often get caught up in how others would perceive me that I never feel confident presenting without a script prepared in advance. This usually ends with me feeling depleted and inauthentic.
I always admired TED speakers. I’d be in awe at their eloquence in conveying stories and would aspire to be just like them. A long shot I know.
It wasn’t until recently I found out that many of the people that go on to the TED stage weren’t natural speakers. Months before the scheduled talk, they’d work with the team at TED to help them to frame, practice, and deliver talks that would engage the audience. Apparently delivering good talks is trainable. Perhaps there’s hope for me yet.
So I began to approach communication differently.
I started to focus more on the key message I’m trying to convey and what I want the intended audience to take away from. Rather than focusing on how I can sound less stupid.
What makes an audience engage?
Emotions and relatability. It’s like the famous phrase:
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou
I especially love this quote because the devil isn’t always in the details. It’s about the whole experience. When I recall my strongest memories, like my childhood in Shanghai being raised by my grandparents. I don’t recall the exact road we lived on or the kind of clothes my grandma would wear. I do remember my grandma’s smell, and how much she cared for me, through the many meals she’d cook for me and the words of love and praises she’d shower me with.
Memories are inadvertently tied to emotions. The stronger the emotions, the longer they linger, and the clearer the memory gets engraved into our heads. Emotions not only help us remember moments in the past, but it’s also a great vehicle to transfer ideas onto others.
As part of my journey to be a better storyteller. I recently enrolled in the Transmedia storytelling course on Coursera. One of the lessons conveyed how we experience in two modes. One is through first-hand experiences and the other is through storytelling. They described storytelling as an act of enchantment. I like that. My ‘journey to be an enchantress’ just sounds way better.
On experiencing via storytelling, taking the audience on an emotional journey is the best way to get them engaged and to make them feel like they’re also part of the story, and in turn, the story becomes a part of them.
I applied some of this thinking this week when I presented learnings from my current project to my colleagues at work. I spent some time thinking about what I want the audience to take away from and how I can best convey the message to have maximum impact.
Through my research with people with Severe Mental Illness (SMI), I wanted to leverage the talk to get more people to understand this group of individuals. I thought if I can get people to leave the talk with a better understanding of what it’s like for someone living with SMI then that’d be a success. Instead of putting facts on slides and clicking through them, I created a timeline in miro (of course). I made a linear journey visualising the key stages that someone with SMI would go through in life, from coping before their diagnosis, to their journey to getting the right help and eventually left to manage their conditions on their own.
It was one of the few presentations I did with little prep and without a script. But I knew what I wanted to convey and I knew the subject matter well. Having a high-level structure was enough to help frame my talk. Seeing my colleagues engaged with many followup questions along with receiving positive feedback afterwards, further validated my approach. Instead of feeling the usual apathy with slight relief that the talk was over, I feel a new sense of hope and even achievement…along with slight relief that the talk was over.
So back to that first question. What is a story?
The more I think about it I feel maybe it’s about the transfer of emotions. Stories that matter tend to evoke some level of emotions. We are more likely to remember them and even change our attitude and behaviours because of them.. for better or for worse.
So maybe, in my journey to be an enchantress, the conveyer of emotions through storytelling, I’ll need to understand emotions better. Maybe with some help from the great ones. Like Elaine Fong, a designer by trade who delivered this great talk I heard while on my morning walk:
She talked about her mother’s end of life journey that enveloped me with deep emotions. Emotions like sorrow, perseverance, bravery and more.
So it IS possible to be a designer AND an enchantress.
To be continued…