The storyteller's portfolio: keep a bank of attention grabbers

published3 months ago
4 min read

In your long, creative, and prosperous design career, you'll end up explaining particular topics to your colleagues over and over again.

What we'll cover: finding the right story to tell about a topic so that you grab their attention at the start.

In Pacific Northwestern Canada, there's an archipelago of islands called Haida Gwaii. The indigenous people there tell of their ability to speak the language of ravens, recently lost to the effects of colonialism. Ravens are a central part of the creation myth in northwest-pacific culture, and often play the role of trickster in stories.

When people did speak the ancient raven language, the advantages were bountiful. A raven could tell you where the salmon were swimming, if there was a hungry bear ahead, or if someone was in trouble out at sea.

Even if you don't believe the idea that Haida people shared a language with ravens, we can easily imagine there's a use in learning the different kinds of (sometimes human-like) sounds they make. Maybe you really could tell where the salmon were by listening carefully.

Perhaps, telling stories about speaking and listening to ravens gave children this useful lesson: they would know that paying attention to raven sound would give them advantageous information about the world. Hear someone simply mimic a raven call, and you could easily forget it. Hear a story about ravens saving someone from a bear, and the next time you're traipsing through the rainforest, you'll actively pay attention to what ravens might be telling you.

Stories don't have to be taken literally to be useful.

Attention grabbers

OK, this isn't an email about ravens: did you catch what I just did there? I started this email with an attention grabber - an unexpected little story that speaks to the themes of this email. Attention grabbers are a great way to start a presentation.

Humans have told stories to teach and communicate since ancient times, we're hard wired to pay attention to them. And attention is what we want, particularly near the beginning. Get their attention up front, and you're on your way to avoiding death by screens.

Many successful presenters start their talks this way. Let's look at an example attention grabber that I've returned to a few times, and how it applies to design.

Small details, big expectations

Let's say that you've really sweat the details on a seemingly small part of the design, but stakeholders are expecting to see a big change to lots of the experience in your presentation. Through your research you've realised that a small part of the design was having such a huge impact, that you needed to to focus. You've gone for depth, not breadth.

Tell the right story at the start, and you can:

  • Manage expectations - i.e. why you've changed such a 'small' part of the experience
  • Grab the attention of the audience at the beginning
  • Show them you're focussed on business impact
  • Demonstrated the importance of design

There's a true design story that does all this, courtesy of Jared Spool.

The $300 million dollar button

(Go read the article for the full story, but here's a short version). A big ecommerce retailer (likely one named after a river!) noticed that one screen in their checkout was causing a $300m annual loss. Users just wouldn't complete their purchase. Jared and the team at UIE usability tested the checkout, and it turned out a single button was turning them off.

At this point when I retell this story, I'll often ask people to guess what the button was.

The button was 'Register': and when people encountered it, they'd say things like "I'm not here to be in a relationship".

The product team removed the need to register, and voila, an extra $300m dollars was earned, just by changing a single button. They moved registration to after a checkout was complete, and many users registered anyway, to save time on the next purchase.

Let's pause for a moment and consider all the various lessons you can draw from this story:

  • Users care about their problems (buying), not yours (tracking)
  • A single word on a button can mean the difference between success and failure
  • You can't understand why this is happening unless you listen deeply to users
  • The fix to a big problem can be deceptively simple
  • Design means much more than aesthetics

So knowing these lessons, any time you need to make one of the above points, you can start a presentation with this story, and make it relevant to your work.

Build your bank of attention grabbers

Whether it's a presentation or just a water-cooler catchup, stories help us communicate and persuade. To use them, you need to be able to find them, remember them, understand the lessons they offer, identify which ones are useful to your current situation, and then tell them well.

You've likely been exposed to dozens of useful stories in your ongoing quest to learn more about design; now start thinking about how you might use them in future.

Some additional things I've learned when keeping your ear-to-the-ground for useful attention grabbers...

  • The best ones are often outside of our industry. Cast a wide, curious net in what you consume.
  • Stories don't need to be about a product or design, or even contemporary: consider Jared Spool's use of the stone soup fable.
  • Lots of people are making decisions we'd consider product design without being designers themselves - startup founders being one obvious example - so go read and consume some great examples.
  • The things that make you sit up and listen are a useful indicator of a potential attention grabber. I've frequently opened my talks on voice design with this fact that made me go 'huh!': Aristotle predicted a future where we'd be able to speak to machines two-thousand years ago.
  • I've lost many, many useful stories to the lack of an ongoing list. Don't be like me; keep a spreadsheet somewhere and add to it when something stands out!

In summary: bookmark useful stories you consume; use them later as attention-grabbers to help you engage and explain.

Death by Screens has much more about how you use attention-grabbers, including a few types other than stories. I've even ranked the types from easy to hard.


NOTE: Don’t hesitate to tell recycled stories, as long as you credit people. Presenting in private isn’t an originality contest (presenting in public is a different story).

Tell great stories about your design work.

Death by Screens: available now in paperback or ebook

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