Google Maps as a Storytelling Tool

Google Maps has been available in 3D in a browser near you since 2008. Since then it has only become smoother, and the Street View feature is fantastically rich.

In this article I would like to share how I use Google Maps as a story-telling tool for presentations, how I prepare and engage the audience with it.

I have recently had the opportunity to give a talk about Danish society. As a Dane living abroad in Japan on and off for the best couple of years, this is something I am particularly fond of doing as it makes me remember a lot of things, as well as gives me a chance to research what’s going on recently.

From previous experiences though, I find that it’s time consuming to prepare slides, and arrange them in a meaningful manner to give a strong story — slides can sometimes be as much a constraint as a support.

The Setup

Tell about Denmark — they said.

The audience was interested, but prior knowledge about Denmark was quite limited. I had an idea about this from the start, and I was weighing my options about whether I should give a thorough background presentation, and then show the sights one by one. This was my knee-jerk reaction, and the one that felt most..natural?

But then on the other hand I thought, what’s even more natural is that if these people were to go to Denmark, they would go on a plane, take the shortest (cheapest?) route and land in Copenhagen airport. Then, if I knew them, I would probably invite them for dinner at my house, show them the neighbourhood and then go to Copenhagen together.

Moving from numbers to experience opens up other perspectives on the talk as medium itself, so I went ahead and didn’t prepare any slides, but instead made a list of things to do and see that I would for any tour around Copenhagen, that I have done for friends numerous times before.

The Flow

So after starting off with a small, visual quiz, off we went.

Screenshot from — Japan is big

One of the feelings I suppose many of us get when we fly, is how big the world actually is. But then there’s also an issue about mental distances (how far or big something seems), as opposed to how reality is. In Japan, I feel this mental distance is often seen in how people consider inter-European travel as a much bigger feat than domestic travel in Japan. This has to do with a lot of factors of course, but to illustrate show how Denmark’s position with in Europe actually relates to Japan, I used to overlay Japan on Europe. Talking about flight time and pricing can of course give people an idea of the similarities, but showing it like this gives people a much more intuitive understanding, because the geography of one’s country is so close to heart.

Switching to Google Maps, I could then start the tour from the airport, and taking them on a pretty smooth and fun tour of Copenhagen. I can get into the points of the tour another time, but for now I would like to move into what the benefits about this way of presentation was to me and the audience.

The Audience as Traveller

If you’re telling someone about a thing, nothing beats showing them the actual thing. Google Maps in 3D gives you a chance to do just that, with countries and continents. It creates an instant connection, and it visualises the manifold differences a cityscape (or landscape) can tell, that would otherwise take very carefully selected pictures to otherwise illustrate.

A tool like Prezi can give (if well executed!) something of a similar experience to the dynamism of looking at Google Maps together, but Google Maps has the upper hand in terms of immersion and dynamism. The Google VR experience of Google Earth takes this to a whole new dimension, but that’s for an other time.

The audience can engage with the content on a much deeper level than (most) powerpoints. Not only because a given slide quickly becomes stale as you talk your way through it, but also because the red thread is almost physically spun before their eyes, as you fly over streets, water ways and forests. If it’s wrapped up in a familiar setting like travelling, you’re maybe less likely to fall asleep or look at your smartphone, simply because the story is peaking your interest about what’s next that a slideshow can not.

I also experienced some questions that were directly related to architectural and geographic features, that I would never have thought of showing in a normal slideshow, because they are hard to frame as important. But when viewed from above as I was making another point, they stood out to the audience who specifically asked about them. To me this shows that the richness of each frame in Google Maps allows the audience’s to take in much more information, and inspire them on a different level. Fun for them, and fun for me as a presenter.

The Natural Presentation

I’ve have during the years done quite a few public presentations, from university presentations, to conference presentations, work presentations, volunteer presentations and paid presentations. I really love it. But I have come to realise that when you make a slideshow, you are imposing something to memorise and learn. It is something to be overcome (through rehearsal and practice), but a barrier nonetheless.

By letting your guard down and coming at it with the clean slate of the city, you can open up your talk through your visual and spatial memory. When you zoom in on the 3D rendition of your house, you remember small stories from your childhood, a point about a difference or quirk that someone mentioned once, or some close by attraction that you otherwise may not have thought of talking about in a more formal and “proper” talk.

Through this your story make the city come alive, and by combining the street view feature with the map, you can make historic, demographic and social points pop out of the pavement — almost literally.

The talk also becomes more in-the-moment, because if you arrive at a short pause, or briefly forget your train of thought, you can ask yourself “where would I go next?” instead of “what was I going to say next?”.

All in all the preparation time goes down, while easy of presentation and audience engagement goes up.

I highly recommend this approach because it is simply fun. Feel free to comment if you have similar experiences or other tips for presenting in unusual ways.