What makes for compelling communication?
Whether it’s a data visualisation, a written story, or a Hollywood movie, you need to create something of lasting value.
I think that comes down to three things:
That sounds unbearably pompous, even as I type it, but should it? Most of us are conditioned not to talk in such grand terms, but it’s by creating work that has, in its own small way, those attributes that we create value for others and find value for ourselves.
Thinking deliberately about all three helps us to make the most impact with everything we do. Let’s look at each in turn…
Authenticity and trust are essential for your audience to give what you’re saying credence. That means being clear on what’s fact, what’s opinion, and what’s vision. Do your own actions support what you’re saying? Have you got the right experience to make your case?
Sometimes it means proving your argument, but it always means making sure you’ve tested your case properly. Do you know the margin of error for your data? What was the response rate?
Truth is not the opposite of lying, it’s the opposite of bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt’s classic “On Bullshit” explains. It takes work.
To be true, a story must be:
- Built on solid foundations
Aesthetics provoke “oohs” and “aahs”, but they’re not simply a case of style over substance. Beauty attracts attention, makes your message memorable, and creates value in its own right.
As John Heskett points out in “Design: A Very Short Introduction“, the idea of form versus function has led us to undervalue the importance of design as a deliberate act of creating meaning for users. Utility (what something does) and significance (what it means to us) are much more helpful concepts, and remind us that value is always embedded in culture.
One of the best ways to make your story memorable is to find a beautiful image, metaphor, or phrase that captures its essence. Bobette Buster, in “Do Story” calls this the “gleaming detail”.
To make your story beautiful:
- Polish and refine your first draft
- Remove anything superfluous
- Encapsulate the truth in a “gleaming detail”
Great stories are not just a sequence of events, they have a universal quality that makes them stand for more than themselves; they have purpose. The opposite of purpose is the dreaded “so what?” which you must pre-empt if you want your message to land.
Start by being clear on what you think the central point is. What is the heart of your message? What’s your product for? Boil it down to an elevator pitch or tweetable length, and polish that until you’re totally sure about it. Ask yourself what you would do, if you were in your audience’s shoes.
Be ruthless in removing anything that doesn’t contribute to that central message, however interesting or even insightful it might be, but spend time to explain the “why” as well as “what” of your message by sharing a passionate vision of the future.
To be purposeful:
- Focus on a clear central message
- Be clear about the action you want your audience to take
- Paint a vivid picture of the future you’re striving for
Truth, beauty, and purpose are the attributes which connect the disciplines I am most interested in aside from understanding customers—design and storytelling. Good stories and good designs are those which use all three attributes to add value to the world.
They’re not alone in relying on truth, beauty, and purpose. Anything we create, and I believe nearly all work should be creative, comes down to those three things. That’s why they’re as important for our own sense of value as they are for the recipient.
Everyone in the world of customer research talks about “actionable insight”, and that’s where I think this way of thinking is invaluable. Insight gives you truth, but it can’t do the rest on its own. You need to team insight with storytelling and experience design to drive action.