Story Telling for Non Designers

We live in a highly visual world. For most of us, we simply do not have the attention span to invest more than 15 seconds on articles online or magazines. If there is too much “cognitive load”, it is harder to digest information. It is true that a picture tells a thousand words and using visuals and narratives is a far better way to introduce a new topic or idea. But what if you’re not naturally creative or design oriented, you say? Fear not! This article is dedicated to business people, technologists, project managers, clients and anyone who think they are not designers.

As I spent about 9 years as a freelance designer and have a masters in communication from Northwestern University, I spent a lot of time studying and observing how visual storytelling enhances our way of communication. One of the biggest challenges I see time and again is the ability to communicate your vision to others. Getting others to see what you see and ensure everybody is on the same page is key to the success for any project.

Whether you’re presenting a pitch or talking to your team members, crafting a sound narrative and using visual examples is a must. Here I’ll offer some of my learnings over the years.

Presenting your idea/concept to your team

The quickest and most efficient way to get what is in your head out in to the world is to put it down on paper. Use napkins, whiteboards, post-it notes, etc and just write or sketch down your thoughts.

I find that paper and pen works just fine. But if you want to get more high fidelity, you can use tools. You don’t need Photoshop to create simple user flows or comps. There are plenty of online tools such as Pixlr (online photoshop), Balsalmiq (UX), Pop (mobile prototyping).

Whatever method you choose, show things early and often. Share links, pin things on Pinterest, share research & analytics.. anything that can help the juices flowing.

For kickoff meetings, in person meetings are best but failing that, consider doing kick off meetings via conference calls rather than phone. That way you can share documents, links, etc.

Careful not to be too prescriptive or too vague. If timing is tight, it is better to be prescriptive than vague since there is no time to explore, but if there is time, being overly prescriptive will leave no room for creativity or innovation. At the same time, you don’t want to be too vague as that is not helpful. I hate it when clients give vague directions like “Make it look pretty!” or “I don’t like it.” This is not inspiring at all and could increase the cost of the project due to more time spent on going back to the drawing board and exploring blindly. So it’s a careful balance of being articulate and providing guidance/resources but also open to suggestions.

Pitches / Presentations

Now when it is time to present, the big question is how? High fidelity or big picture? It depends on the client and what the project is.

For average people, it’s usually hard to picture something they cannot envision. Whenever I watch HGTV’s Fixer Upper or Property Brothers, it amuses me how the clients are taken to old, disgusting houses and the designers and real estate agents try to explain the “potential” but they just can’t see it. It’s only when they are presented with those gorgeous 3d models that they are onboard.

This is the same for most clients. In order to gain buy-in, we have to paint the picture and tell a compelling story in the best light possible. It doesn’t necessarily have to be high fidelity designs or prototypes, but really, since there are so many free/affordable tools such as Invision that makes it easy and fast to turn ideas into prototypes, it is possible to do more. Not saying the solution is always to use Invision and create prototypes the first round. But whatever level of fidelity you decide to show, it should be the best method to tell the story. Visuals can be moodboards, sketches, or high fidelity mock-ups. The goal is to share your vision and be on the same page.

Apple presentations are very simple and minimal. There are no bullet points, no large amount of copy and mostly visual. This is how presentations should be. If there needs to be more data or information, that can go in the appendix where clients can peruse later. Or if there needs to be charts or graphs, consider simplifying them or use infographics. Daytum by Nicholas Feltron is a great free tool that create beautiful, simple infographics. Visuals don’t always need to be a drawing or graphic image. It can be typographic or a simple shape/lines, too.

You don’t have to be a designer to present a visual story. But words alone probably won’t get the idea across. Using simple tools such as pencil and paper or free/affordable softwares, it is possible to take a nebulous idea into a bit more real form.

The key to a good story is that it has a beginning and an end and a core message/takeaway. The best stories evoke some kind of emotion that can trigger an action or be inspiring.

So go ahead and bring out your inner storyteller!