Three Simple Suggestions for UX Authors and Presenters
Every year, I read dozens of book proposals and work with a similar number of conference speakers. And I find myself giving them the same advice, again and again, so I’m writing it down once and for all here. If you’re pitching a book or a talk — at least to Rosenfeld Media — here are three suggestions to keep in mind.
It’s a conversation, dammit
Learning is a social activity; if you’re crafting your brilliant ideas in a vacuum, no one will care because no one has been invited to care. A lonely garret might be swell for birthing fiction or poetry, but if you’re creating content for designers and researchers, you’d better be talking with designers and researchers while you’re doing it.
Think of books and talks as polished versions of conversations that are happening at scale within a specific community. Your content development process should be designed around that communal conversation (in UX, we’d call that, um, user research). You may even have to facilitate that conversation in order to move your ideas forward. There are lots of ways to do that — some a bit staid (like surveys), and others a total blast (start a podcast!).
Wherever that conversation is happening, your job is to capture, distill, and incorporate the community’s voices into your final product (for example, through anecdotes or interviews). While that may sound like a lot of work, I can promise you you’ll be far more pleased with the outcome. And by engaging the community in creating and honing your ideas, you’ll have made them cheerleaders for — even stakeholders in — the final product.
I + You = We
I’ve been using this dopey equation for a year or two, but it really works.
As the journey you’re crafting is a conversational one (see my suggestion above), you’ll want to create a sense of We with your audience as soon as you can. Because We are going on this journey together, and the sooner we’re all part of a common We, the sooner that journey can begin.
Get to We by first establishing the I in the story: who are you, the narrator, and why should anyone care about your take on things? Is it something about your experience, your creative genious, your unique perspective, or your brilliant success? Or maybe how you’ve survived some godawful and painfully embarassing failures?
Next, who is the You? Explain who you think your audience is, and the challenges you imagine they face. By showing them that you know them, you can show your empathy for them: make clear that you’ve been where they’ve been, have felt the same pain, and— through your shared journey — can help them reach the promised land.
Once you’ve connected I and You, you’ve achieved the We that can get started on that journey together. And you’ve created a term that will serve as useful shorthand through your book or talk: anytime you use the word We, readers or audience members will immediately pay attention, because they’ll know you’re talking about them.
Tell a story out of the gate
“But how can I get to We right away if I’m supposed to start out by introducing my meaty topic?” you ask?
By the time a reader picks up your book, or a conference attendee has shown up for your talk, they’ve already been introduced to your topic. They’ve already seen the title and read the session or back-of-the-book description, and they’re ready to learn more. They’re on the journey’s threshold — and what they need from you now is the assurance that you’ll be a good guide for the next 200 pages or 40 minutes.
Seal the deal by communicating two things: your expertise and your empathy. Show that you know what you’re talking about without coming off as an insufferable jerk that no one will want to go on the journey with. That’s where your own story comes in: by recounting your own spotty experience with your topic, you’ll humanize yourself and your expertise. Show that you’ve suffered the same challenges and pain your audience is struggling with right now — and how, in the end, you survived and thrived. They’ll know that if you can do it, so can they.
Some authors and presenters might feel anxious about showing their cards so soon — do we really want our audience to know that we’re not that much far ahead of them? Is it ok to be so… vulnerable?
Absolutely. Most audiences will take a helpful, slightly-more experienced colleague as a guide over an overly self-assured know-it-all any day. And let’s face it, most UX-related topics — at least the interesting ones that people actually want to learn about — haven’t been around long enough to accrue a priesthood of insufferable experts.
If you want to present your ideas with warmth and openness — without sacrificing the integrity of your thinking — well, that there’s my advice. Warm, open, and smart are the voice and tone we look for in Rosenfeld Media books and conference presentations. And we get there through through collaboration and iteration — the hallmarks of all good conversations.