Owning Your Story
There’s a movement sweeping business, design, and communication right now. But it’s not a new technology, and it has nothing to do with people, patterns, or processes. What it has everything to do with is you and your story.
Storytelling has quickly become one of the most talked about topics in user experience and beyond—to the point that it’s almost cliché. Most of the ideas presented around storytelling are focused on simple reasons why storytelling is important and some marginal tips for telling a better story. The problem there is that we’re a step ahead of ourselves. We’ve gone straight to how to tell the story of an experience or a product and skipped over the crucial element of why we’re telling these stories in the first place. Before we focus on how to tell the stories about the products, businesses, and experiences we create, we need to first ensure we are making the right products—creating the right stories and experiences for people to participate in.
We’ve all seen new products described this way: “It’s like Pinterest for _________." This type of comparison is so rampant that there are actually websites like Nonstartr and IsThisForThat dedicated to making light of the trend. Entertaining tho it may be, this represents an underlying issue with the state of innovation and how it’s affecting the quality of the products we design and create.
In The New York Times article "The Creative Monopoly," David Brooks writes about a course that Peter Thiel is teaching at Stanford’s Computer Science Department. A key theme, according to Thiel, is that we often confuse capitalism with competition. “We tend to think that whoever competes best comes out ahead," Brooks writes. "In the race to be more competitive, we sometimes confuse what is hard with what is valuable. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value.”
Today, too many products are derived not from truly solving a problem, but from repurposing existing products in some slight way. It makes sense. It’s often easier to extend an existing idea rather than embark on the journey of mining a new one. But, if we truly want to make great experiences and products for people, we need to stop focusing on competing and start focusing on creating—creating products that are extensions of our own personal stories.
Ron Conway gave an excellent talk at Start Up School 2011 that focused on the qualities of a defining entrepreneur. A key trait he mentioned was that product visionaries must “own the mind of the consumer." Conway cited people like Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey, and Mark Zuckerberg as having the gift of intrinsically knowing what their customers are thinking before they do.
So how do you own the mind of the consumer? How do you own their story and create a great experience? I believe that to successfully own the mind of the consumer, you first must be the consumer. What you create must stem from your own personal story. You must live and breath for the experience, product, or business you are creating.
What people don’t realize about the creation process of great products is that, most often, these ideas are rooted deep in the life story of their creators. Twitter is one of my favorite examples of a product being completely birthed from someone’s life story. I recently listened to Jack Dorsey give an address to the Stanford Technology Ventures Program called, "The Power of Curiosity and Inspiration." I never realized the power of a personal story so clearly until I heard him speak about the influence that his life experiences had on the idea for Twitter.
Dorsey grew up in St. Louis, and has always lived in a city. Of his childhood he said: “I was surrounded by this urban atmosphere, and I just loved it. My first love was the city … it was a joy and wonder to me … that love and obsession was made most tangible by maps. I became obsessed with maps. I would wonder what was happening at a particular intersection or area.”
Dorsey went on to talk about getting his first computer and learning to program because he wanted to draw a map on the computer screen. Once he was able to do that, he used a CB Radio to access police scanners so he could see in real time what was happening in St. Louis—visualizing the pulse of the city as it lived and breathed.
Dorsey followed his passion for maps and cities by getting a job at the biggest dispatch firm in the world, where he wrote software to visualize New York City. He quickly realized that what was missing from these visualizations was actual people. So he created a prototype that allowed him to receive an email on his Blackberry and send it out to an email list. However, once it was built and he sent his first message, he realized two things. First, no one else cared and second, no one could respond. So he put it aside—great idea, not so great timing.
In a quest to understand consumers better, he went to work for a company called Odeo that, at the time, was focused on podcasting. However, according to Dorsey, no one at the company was excited about podcasting, nor did they want to be consumers of it. So the team challenged themselves to dream up something they’d really like to be working on. Dorsey presented his messaging prototype, and that was the beginning of Twitter.
I love this story because it provides such an authentic demonstration of the power of your personal story and the impact that your personal life experiences can have on the quality of the experiences you create for others. Before you can own the mind of the consumer, the idea must first own your mind—your story.
Recently, Michael Skok (an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist) wrote an article for VentureBeat that speaks to the notion of the product and experience you create being an extension of you and your personal story.
“At the center of that value proposition is you. What problems do you understand uniquely well? What can you deliver uniquely well? What sort of disruptive business model can you bring to bear?” he writes. “Be true to yourself and play from a position of strength. A little self-awareness can go a long way in crafting a value proposition with power.”
Last year I became fascinated with the idea of product stories and wrote about the idea of why storytelling should be applied to the product development process. Since then, I’ve watched the topic of storytelling spread across industries. I’ve spoken with technologists, filmmakers, venture capitalists, professors, and designers alike. Everyone is talking about storytelling. It belongs to no single industry—it has no borders. It carries power and passion and can evoke the empathy and emotion required to create a personal connection. I’ve become obsessed with the power of story. When it comes to the quality of the experiences and products we create, ultimately, if we aren’t creating the right story, then it doesn’t matter how well we try to tell it.
I don’t have a magical process for understanding your personal life story and identifying how it can influence what you make. But what I do know is that to see people’s stories, we have to stop being distracted by looking at each other and getting caught up on the thrill of competition. We exert too much energy trying to compete on execution. And, although there’s certainly opportunity there, we’re missing out on a chance to truly invent and to be inspired by the experiences and interests that we know best—our own.
So today, take some time out to consider your personal story. How can the passions, interests, and experiences in your life provide unique perspective? What has your journey afforded you to be an expert in? How have the challenges that you’ve faced equipped you with a deep understanding of a problem that needs to be solved? What experiences have influenced you the most? What ideas own your mind—from childhood until now? Study your personal story and allow it to help you create a better story for the people who use the experiences and products you create today and the ones you have yet to imagine.
Book photo courtesy of Shutterstock