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. Use a quiet speaking voice, 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 your favorite – what’s obvious to you is totally obvious to everyone else, right?

  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 simply more 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.