Every year, I force myself out of my day-to-day activities to attend the Future of Storytelling Summit in New York. In a short series of posts, I’m sharing some of the lessons I learned this year. I hope you find them useful.
FOST LESSON 2: TO TELL A STORY, YOU NEED TO LISTEN
Once upon a time, I met a storyteller from Madagascar. She captivated her audience with crocodiles, tribal feuds and virgins discovering love in the jungle. When she climbed on the stage she wore her traditional robe. No shoes. No props. No Powerpoint. As she spun her tale, you could hear a pin drop.
After the event, I had the opportunity to spend some time with her. Knowing we would only have a few moments, I decided to make the most of them. “How" I asked. "do you take such a simple story and use it to silence a group of grown men full of their own importance?”.
Her answer was one of the most important storytelling lessons I ever had in my life. “You need to remember”, she said, “that you are not the one telling the story. The people you speak to tell it to themselves. In their imagination. All you do, is give them the tools, the ideas and the emotions that they can make their own.”
She continued by explaining that, as a storyteller, her most important skill was to listen and understand the picture the audience was painting for themselves. She watched their body language. Their expressions. Their eyes.
Based on what she saw, she adapted her tale. Would the crocodile take a little longer before the attack? Would it swim away? It all depended on the reaction from the audience and her intuition. While the core elements remained the same, she hardly ever told the exact same story twice.
NEW YORK, OCTOBER 2017
I was reminded of the Malagasy’s words at the Future of Storytelling Summit. In their own way, speaker after speaker illustrated that successful storytelling required listening.
Cartoon Network’s approach hinged on design thinking and rapid prototypes. Disney actively involved audiences in making their movies better. Eating designer Marije Vogelzang was more interested in the stories of the people eating her food, than the food itself. Colum McCann from Narrative 4 delivered a passionate plea that listening and empathy lie at the heart of every meaningful story.
To me, this struck an important chord. As a hard-core customer-centrist and empathic individual, I’ve always believed in listening. Sometimes to a fault. But in the world of angano (Malagasy for story), it is the only way.
Stories do not exist unless someone is listening. To make audiences care about your words, you have to start from their reality. This applies if you want to convince people of the business case for your idea or have them embrace your description of the Gash-i-Rah clan on the planet Khalu. You need to give them points of recognition which connect to their beliefs. Their desires. Their fears.
Once you meet them there, you can take them to any point of your story world, as long as you keep listening and continuously adapt your tale to the story they are ready to be told.
LESSON LEARNED: AUDIENCE-CENTRICITY IS KEY TO GREAT STORYTELLING
Bad listening is where many stories fail. Deliberate listening is what makes them succeed.
The good news is that with my customer-centricity training, I know how to do this. Generating insights, observing audiences and taking customers on an emotional journey are all part of the trade.
The bad news is that I remain human. As executives, talkers, writers, makers, we’re so eager to get our point across, that we lose sight of the ideas our audience are ready to accept. We use words that don’t resonate with their beliefs. Warn of threats they do not see. Promise treasures they cannot imagine.
As a result, we may rationally convince them of our point, but forget to win their hearts. They may hear about our crocodiles, feuding clans and virgins in the jungle. But they will never see them in their mind’s eye. I’ve done it more than once, and I’m bound to do it again.
So the lesson I learned, is that for every future story I tell, I will try to apply the audience-centric principle that it is not about the story I want to tell, but all about the story my audience is ready to hear.
This story first appeared on alainthys.com. If you like what you read and would like to get more, subscribe to my newsletter. It's full of articles, tips and other goodies.
Every year, I force myself out of my day-to-day to attend The Future of Storytelling Summit in New York. This is one of one of those rare events that don’t just inform, but challenge - even change - your belief system. After a week of experiential overdose, I'll be sharing some of the lessons I learned this year. I’ll focus on the ones which are relevant for brands and customer professionals. I’ll split them over multiple posts.
FOST LESSON 1: UX as we know it, just died
Every serious conversation about quantum physics has a tendency to melt your brain. It doesn’t make sense, and yet it is. So when my first work session at Fost started looking at the influence of quantum field theory on user interface design, I knew I could be in for a rollercoaster ride (OK, I’m a nerd, sue me 😃).
Jumping straight to the end of the story, the workshop's message was that we should forget everything we know about today's user interfaces.
Ever since the beginning, we have modeled digital interfaces on an industrial age paradigm. If you wanted a machine to do something, you had to press a button. This could be a physical button, a Siri command or a wave of the hand. But metaphorically, it was always “a button”.
Using this new paradigm, these buttons disappear. By installing a wide variety of sensors around us, our machines monitor our every move, micro-expression, heartbeat, temperature, pupil dilation. And just to be clear, our sunglasses, jewellery and clothes can all be machines.
This allows the development of probabilistic models that predict our intentions at the speed of our brain. In other words, the machines watch us and calculate the probability that we want to open a door, open a file or are in the mood for ice-cream. Once the probability is high enough, they automatically provide us with the things we desire. No commands. No instructions. No buttons. Only intent.
This can happen over short distances, but also across larger ones. Even at the other side of the planet. After all, if you think about vectors in a quantised field, space is a very relative concept. All that matters is the expression of intent/probability.
If this sounds like science fiction, it partly is. The technology is available today and all major players are working on it. But it does require 5G, a ton of sensors (IoT anyone?), more advanced AI and - as an AT&T executive observed - “a massive amount of processing power”.
Also, the ethical implications will need sorting out. If my primal brain says I want bacon, but salad is the smarter option, which will the digital restaurant menu show first? If I tell my vendor that I’m satisfied with the service, but my micro-expressions contradict this, is he allowed to know? If I’m depressed and consider killing myself, will the machines help me? Or stop me?
But all these elements will eventually be sorted out. Especially as first user tests indicate that after 20 seconds of usage, people have figured out the new way of working. They also prefer the intuitive nature and nanosecond speed over old-school UX.
So, there is still a number of years mileage in today’s user experience design practices. But the genie is out of the bottle and there’s no way we’ll put it back in. In my mind, UX has we know it, is a dead man walking.
What are your thoughts when you read the above? Good? Bad? Ugly?
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About this blog
Whenever inspiration strikes, I use this space to share my thoughts on customer experience management, storytelling or what ever else crosses my mind.