Selling the story of your work

This is a story about creation.

This story is about your story. The story of the work you’ve been doing. The work you’re probably doing right now. And how to make that story clear and compelling, with a course of action.

I once took a public speaking class. It was my freshman year of college. In it, the teacher posited a simple framework: tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then, tell them. Finally, tell them what you’ve already told them.

Seems pretty easy, right? A simple way to embed a story within a story, maybe even to bulk up your own story.

But it’s totally wrong.

Nobody wants to be told, told again, then re-told. That’s literally being given a talking to – and lectures are rarely engaging. They are, by definition, one-way.

The way to establish an engaging story is to consider it selling.

Selling is not an inappropriate word in the context of design work. Even a design that is brilliant, timely, and original still needs to be contextualized with a little persuasion, a bit of unpacking about design decisions you made inside your head – in other words, selling. 

That public speaking professor was wrong, at least when it comes to design. Telling is not what you want to do. Telling is about you; selling is about the customer.

Telling is about features of your product or service – e.g., the fastest car, the best check-out flow. Telling is a bit cold and impersonal, and can sometimes differ based on who is doing the telling. When you tell a telling story, you are simply listing the facts.

By contrast, selling is about the benefits that your product or service conveys to the customer – e.g., the fastest car that helps you arrive safely in record time; the best check-out flow to make your purchase experience effortless.

Your customer will buy your product and sign up for your service based on what it does for them. They have a need, and you are suggesting that you can fulfill it. And once you capture their attention and interest – the promise of a better future, solved by you! – you will be able to establish trust.

And how do you do that? Start with why.

Why are you making this product or service? What motivates you to do this work? In what ways are you the perfect person to be solving this problem, fulfilling this need? This is a critical step that establishes your credibility, and requires you to be a bit vulnerable – especially since you will likely be in an environment focused around you and your content. Once you establish this credibility, though, it can be the basis for a wonderful, engaging story.

Here are seven elements of selling a successful story about your design:

  1. Start with why. It’s your central premise for doing this work. The passion you have about why you are doing this work conveys your credibility to solve this problem.

  2. Use clear, simple language that is easy to understand by anyone, with any job function – not just designers talking about design, or engineers talking with other engineers.

  3. Establish a great cadence of delivery. Speak at a comfortable pace – not too quickly, nor too slowly. And take breaths. The moment you pause, even for just one beat, you will (re)capture the room’s attention. Your body will thank you.

  4. Rehearse. Know your content, how it corresponds with your visuals, and practice selling the story over and over. You will want to rehearse so many times that you make it look easy.

  5. Sweep the room when you speak. Be inclusive, and make eye contact with everyone present. Don’t focus solely on the key decision-maker, your teachers, or your client; great input comes from everywhere.

  6. Be specific about what you want from the storytelling – is there an action to take or a decision to make? Is it due by a certain date? Would you like feedback on the whole thing, or a specific component? Knowing what you want out of the it before you go into it can influence the order of the narrative, or encourage you to highlight key points for a particular audience.

  7. Enjoy it. Smile. This is your opportunity to share all the great work you've done and get feedback about it — which will ultimately improve your product, service, story, and storytelling ability. It gets easier to sell a story the more you do it.

And here are seven elements, highly tongue-in-cheekily described, of what not to do:

  1. Be bored and passionless, since you’ve sold this story a hundred times before. You’re not excited about it, so you don’t expect us to be. Yawn.

  2. Be inconsistent in your slide design. Mock-ups that jump and jitter are your specialty. Pixel perfection? Never heard of it.

  3. Bristle at feedback. Nah, it’s cool – I don’t want to learn from your expertise, thanks anyway.

  4. Speak quietly, especially in a big space.

  5. Hide behind the podium / teleprompter / your notes.

  6. Use exclusionary words, such as obviously, so on and so forth, of course, and et cetera. Of these, “of course” is the worst – what’s obvious to you might not be to anyone else. 

  7. Use effects to distract us, since there are so many awesome slide transitions built in.

So now that you know the difference between telling & selling, and elements of how to sell and not sell your story, let’s look at how to create that story!

My Jewish mother loves to make her mother’s matzoh ball soup recipe. Except that nearly every time she makes it, she’s prepared to throw the first batch of matzoh balls away. Why? Matzoh balls are a challenging mix of ingredients, and a successful outcome is subject to many variables – the heat of the pan, the ratio of cooking oil or fat, the quality and freshness of the matzoh meal, how long they are refrigerated for before being fried up. So many little things to consider, and adjust along the way.

Similarly, the creation process can be messy. You may have scrapped ideas, many idle or unproductive hours, and many more hours pursuing iteration upon iteration.

Document it. All of it.

Capture the beginning messy part of the process – and every subsequent part. Take photos, make notes. Step back from your work at a regular cadence – daily, weekly. By the time you are ready to sell the story you have been creating, you will want this content to look back upon, edit through, and coalesce. It shows where you’ve come from, the journey you’ve taken, the ideas and paths you pursued – and didn’t. Documenting your process provides more ingredients than you need to ensure the end product comes out deliciously.

So then: here are ten steps to creating a successful story:

  1. Hello / intro / what we’re here for – start with the basics and set our expectations, particularly how long you are going to be talking, if there’s a Q&A at the end, or if you prefer to answer questions along the way

  2. Why: the current status, how we have been living, how the situation got this way

  3. Opportunity: why is this unsatisfactory, sub-optimal, bad or wrong, broken. Set us up to think: how could we have we been living this way?!

  4. What: what’s the big idea? What will life be like in this new, more ideal future state?

  5. Who: I’m doing something about it, I’m qualified / my team’s qualified because…

  6. How: How will it work, in stages, over time? What’s the plan (for now)?

  7. Where: What was your journey like to get here? What pivots and a-ha moments did you have along the way? And what will it take to get to this new future state? Funding, advice, or simplymore feedback? 

  8. Specifics: What are its benefits? What are the drawbacks?

  9. Now: what’s the call to action?

  10. And finally, my favorite: What question haven’t I asked that you’d like to talk about? This last point is an incredibly powerful way to open up questions, and get answers to important points that the audience may have been holding back on.

Many thanks to Simon Sinek and Barry Nalebuff for inspiration.

Ribbon Bed v1

Many years ago, for a bed design I created, I commissioned a sketch from an industrial designer and RISD grad Erik Askin. I told him of my inspirations and guiding principles, and he made some great suggestions about its structural integrity.

Cut to many years later when I found Green Piece Furniture, on Treasure Island, to work with me on its manufacture. The founder, Nick, developed a schematic drawing based on Erik's sketch. I visited his workshop a few times to see the work in progress, and to document the process of molding the plywood and adding the walnut veneer. 

Now that I have been sleeping on the v1 prototype since Summer 2016, and enjoy its smooth lines, I already have ideas about the v2... I’d be delighted to talk with a wholesaler about mass manufacture, wink.

The sketch.

The sketch.

The schematic.

The schematic.

One side of the mold.

One side of the mold.

So I think my floors are walnut, too…

So I think my floors are walnut, too…

Poem, 9/26

gather evidence
for your vast capacity
will the work of good

Time with family

On a breezy summer August evening In Manhattan, walking around Tudor Park with my Mom, a serious thought suddenly stopped her from walking.

“I’ve never seen a Tweet,” she said.

So I stopped too, and pulled out my phone to show her. “This is what it looks like on this device. It looks different on other devices — your phone, someone else’s phone, and on the web.” 

We sat in a small and beautiful public park in an area of the city I’d never seen, and I conveyed, using simple terms, the differences between Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook (where she is a user). I made it relatable: “If Gucci has 10 million followers on Instagram, how might they use Instagram to share…”

“The fall looks!” she erupted, catching on. “There goes catalogs.” 

The next morning, I received an email entirely written in the subject line: 

hi. trip home was uneventful. what a pleasure living here! 2 seconds to the train, taxis are available all nite long. very civilized. tonite was delightful, and i thank you again for a yummy dinner and great conversation. i really do hope you enjoy this coming weekend. please make sure to kiss jordan and the butchkalas for me and tell them how much i love them and miss them. safe drive down and back. looked up gazpacho recipe which i haven’t made in years and forgot how easy and appropriate it is for the summer. thanks for the suggestion. mommy wuvs you. xoxo

Small steps.

Today my Dad and I drove from New York to Washington, DC. About five hours of drive time, on a circuitous route he preferred, avoiding all major highways and cities between the two metropolitan areas. (I met him in Irvington and we took 287  > 78 > lunch at a Jamaican place in Harrisburg > 15 > 270, if you’re curious.)

Along the route, I saw only three signs I should have stopped to photograph.

A few times he pointed, slowly, gesturally, with his right hand, as if controlled like a marionette of childhood desire. Occasionally these gestures were accompanied by exhortation: “Dairy Queen!” — pronounced with just enough time to slow down without accident as the driver of his Subaru. And occasionally these gestures were silent. 

We stopped at a farm on route 15 that had great signage — great enough to entice us off the main road. Every few hundred feet there were serial messages attached to rusty bikes, leaning against miles of corn. So we bought corn, a dozen heirloom tomatoes all of the same size (lasagna on the menu tomorrow night), and sadly, too few deliciously drippy peaches. 

We talked about hip hop vs rap, and I played him a bit of Groove Theory and then a bit of Tribe. We left this particular inquiry at: “Is there any rap that’s more Barbara Streisandy…?”

We talked about newspapers vs newsfeeds. Where the news gets the news (hint: it’s Twitter). He refers to everything handheld as a “gizmo.” Even: “Is there a gizmo on that... gizmo that can tell me how the market did today?” The retired stockbroker, still checking in. I fetched it from the soon-to-be-deleteable apps I keep in a folder called Crapple. 

The most engaging of topics happened after lunch when he asked, during a long stretch of big puffy billowy cumulus clouds, if I thought that all our memories are stored in our brains somewhere. 

“Hm,” I said aloud. “Great question… Yes, I do think all experiences are stored.”

“Why?”

“Well, if you think about it, DNA has four times the computing power of the ones and zeroes that power computers.”

“Ya lost me.”

“Think of it this way: if you were cooking with just salt and pepper, you’d have limited range. Although you can do a lot with it, it’s still just two options. But instead if you had access to parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme… you’d have a different order of magnitude.”

 

Poem, 6/7

for Suzanne vega

 

to photograph a

bird in flight is like time stopped

the moment is gone

Ride highlights

I’m training for the ALC ride to LA this summer. More about that on Medium.com.

Training Ride 5, May 8: 58.2 miles. Tackled Mount Tam in the fog. What you can’t see can’t scare you. Brought plenty of snacks. Breathed it all in. (Not the snacks.) Paced myself and was in for the long haul. Was out all day but felt great when I got home. Legs are poppin’. Definitely got into a cyclists’ high towards the end – compelled to just keep going and going and going.  Coming down the mountain at 33 MPH peak speed is cause for laughter and elation. What a magical place to live, to bike, to be outside and alive.

Training Ride 5, May 8: 58.2 miles. Tackled Mount Tam in the fog. What you can’t see can’t scare you. Brought plenty of snacks. Breathed it all in. (Not the snacks.) Paced myself and was in for the long haul. Was out all day but felt great when I got home. Legs are poppin’. Definitely got into a cyclists’ high towards the end – compelled to just keep going and going and going. 

Coming down the mountain at 33 MPH peak speed is cause for laughter and elation. What a magical place to live, to bike, to be outside and alive.

Training Ride 3, April 24: 22 miles. Hadn’t been on the bike in two months, because moving and vacation, so in two hours I went from my new home up to Hawk Hill and back. Stopped a few times, because gorgeous.

Training Ride 3, April 24: 22 miles. Hadn’t been on the bike in two months, because moving and vacation, so in two hours I went from my new home up to Hawk Hill and back. Stopped a few times, because gorgeous.

Training Ride 4, April 30: 55 miles! Today with the incomparable and gorgeous @emmahazlett, we rode 55 miles, up Hawk Hill (without stopping, yay!), down the other side, through the tunnel, over to Sausalito for a smoothie, through Mill Valley, and halfway up Mount Tamalpais. You may be able to see that MapMyRide botched the last chunk of data between lunch in Sausalito and back home, so I adjusted it — and switched to Strava.

Training Ride 4, April 30: 55 miles! Today with the incomparable and gorgeous @emmahazlett, we rode 55 miles, up Hawk Hill (without stopping, yay!), down the other side, through the tunnel, over to Sausalito for a smoothie, through Mill Valley, and halfway up Mount Tamalpais. You may be able to see that MapMyRide botched the last chunk of data between lunch in Sausalito and back home, so I adjusted it — and switched to Strava.

Training Ride 2, February 28: 55 miles. Highlights include: 1500' elevation gain (Antelope Dam is at just over 5000'), fresh snow-capped mountain air, stopping for a sandwich on the way up and a beer on the way back at the Taylorsville market (great sandwiches, girls!), cooking dinner with the Pew family afterwards, and consuming back some of those 2600 calories I burned.

Wildlife spotted:

150 deer

40-5o cows

15-20 wild turkeys

5 geese

2 mallards

2 ducks with red bills, black heads, and white bodies

1 bobcat!

Training Ride 1, February 20: 40 miles (not pictured below: the 4.5 miles each way between my house and the origin point). Highlights include: Training with Joe and Darin, the views of the GG Bridge from the Berkeley Hills, lunch at the Oakland Farmer’s Market, taking the bridge bike path for the first time.

My books

This week I finished unpacking books I had with me since I moved to SF, and integrated them with ones that had been in storage for years. They all sit now in beautiful built-in shelves, in an upstairs fireplace’d parlor room of a 1890s victorian in the Fair Oaks neighborhood. I am happy that my books are all here.

I arranged:

  • Biographies. No surprise, I like people. Moss Hart (my namesake). Copland, Wilde, Anderson, Bernstein, Bacon.
  • Books on words. Compact OED, Handy MidEast phrases, Basque to English, The Meaning of Meaning.
  • Children’s books. Including some of my own from my childhood, and others I’ve picked up. 
  • Old books. Cute pocket sized Shakespeare, first edition Dickens, Oscar Wilde, illuminated Salome, illuminated Rubaiyat.
  • Art books. One whole shelf. Magritte, Sendak, Holzer, Sherman, Ruscha. Vernacular drawings. 
  • Design books. One other whole shelf. Tibor, Graphis, Millman, Pentagram.
  • Zines. Lots and lots of independent publication love over the years. Non. Might. Outpost Journal. Hello Mr., Jarry, Headmaster, Gum, Encyclopedia. Lots and lots of small books which I always am drawn to.
  • Fiction. Some from my childhood and other new fiction I would like to read.
  • Self. Books on spirituality in art, music, listening to the universe kinda stuff.
  • Business inspiration. Being nice, reworking, teams.
  • Poetry. Whitman, Rumi, Wilbur, Siken, Milton, cummings.

I’d say that paints a nice portrait of who I am.

Poem, 4/24

death is what it takes

artists and creators birth

ideas for living

Aww & awe

The aww of giving: Today I got word from my ol’ roommate, K., that she received an antique butler I shipped her. When we lived together in 1999–2000, she let me borrow hers (in perpetuity) as she left for New York, knowing it wouldn’t fit into her much smaller apartment. This morning’s first text opened: “moved to actual tears.” It marked the conclusion of a 16-year-old promise I kept, one she never knew at what point it would be concluded (if she’d even recalled loaning me the thing). I loved starting the day with pictures of her kids playing with the packing material, a jacket draped over the jacket holder.

The awe of receiving: When I got to work, I checked my email and discovered that one of my old friends from back east, M., had donated $500 to my ALC ride. I was speechless! And then energized, feeling that much closer to the finish line.

 

Poem, 3/6

a nonchalant man
not paying attention to
the puddle, splashes

Backing and forthing

To gain personal insights on my life over the past few years, I analyzed my time traveling between NYC, SFO, and PVD from September 2012 through last month. Even though I became a full-time San Franciscan in April 2014, it’s felt like I’ve lived here longer. I’ve been coming back and forth semi-regularly for upwards of 10 years. But June 2013 marked the first time I was in SFO nearly a full month. 

Poem, 9/19

The ocean says no,
no, no, no, no, no. Do not
leave your footprints here. 

Thoughts last night and this morning after meeting Elle Luna and being in a room full of empowered attentive people

With my pals Amanda and Allie, I went to an instance of Women Catalysts last night. 

  1. Your must is a form of self-care. Doing things you must do appears to the outside world that you are being selfish. You must turn that critique off, however, and dive in. 
  2. External critique is almost as loud as internal critique. They are both imposters. 
  3. It’s getting easier and easier to be distracted; this comes in many forms. What’s everyone else reading / sketching / dribbbling / thinking / listening to? Sometimes this will gratefully spurn a new direction for something you’re working on, but it will likely detract from your flow. Focus your attention!
  4. Doing the work / showing up is the process and the project. (Surprise! Road trips aren’t just about the destination!)
  5. I love how thoughtful Elle was in her responses. That pause before speaking made us all pay attention. 
  6. Being entrepreneurial, it’s easier to listen to your must, but it takes a board / advisors / friends who’ll go out with you for pancakes (but never waffle!) to keep you on track.
  7. Walking back to Bart with Amanda, we talked about both being lifelong learners who are constantly & consistently evolving & growing. Some people are stuck in one place, and they tend to be attracted to those whose energy feels exciting, but that can be a drain. Save some chi for yourself!

Meyer Lemon Sorbet and Jarry

I met Lukas Volger, one of the co-founders of Jarry, at a StartOut event in New York. We talked about my old place in the Mission, and what I was doing with the beautiful meyer lemon tree in my backyard — making meyer lemon sorbet, of course, and crafting a cocktail I call the Mission Sunset (recipe below). I conveyed my appreciation for harvesting the fruit each time I’d go outside to pick. Lukas asked me if I wanted to write a piece for Jarry, and I was absolutely delighted for the opportunity.

The piece is a conversation with my favorite cooking buddy, Stephen Willson, about food, family, and being gay. You’ll have to purchase a copy of Issue #1 to read the full text! 

I also Kickstarted the first issue. I’m happy to be a part of first successes.

Mission Sunset cocktail

one big ice cube in a double old-fashioned glass

add a few dashes of orange bitters, then add in:

1/3 part your brown liquor of choice (mine’s usually Maker’s)

1/3 part antica formula vermouth

stir

finish with 1/3 part blood orange soda

twist of meyer lemon peel around the rim and in the glass

serve & enjoy!