Close your eyes and imagine you work as a story designer for brands and start-ups. A dream job, isn’t it? And a hard one. As a recent McKinsey report has it, design is more than a feeling, more than a department, more than a phase, more than a product.
Now open your eyes and meet Vinish Garg who is actually working exactly what we’ve just described – he designs stories and experiences – within and outside companies, doing a lot more than just designing content. In his own words, he is a guardian of an intent. Building brand narrative strategies, Vinish helps customers live their story in the product story. As challenging as this may sound, there is even more to what Vinish does. He owns a digital agency, vhite and he loves making products. Also, on Medium, he gathers experts from across the content strategy industry and does remarkable work on asking them all things content, UX and the nitty-gritty of designing experiences and interactions across platforms.
With a background in product documentation, content strategy, UX design, Vinish brings the power and the feel of telling tales to disciplines usually thought of as dry and in a way far from the velvet touch of storytelling.
A touch I wanted you to experience. So, here’s me in this Dialogue, trying to learn as much as I can from Vinish and his quest to meaningful narratives across companies.
I hope you will enjoy the depths!
Vinish, what’s the best pattern to follow for weaving a beautiful brand narrative?
The most beautiful way to start weaving a brand narrative is to set up a canvas, pick a few characters, with camera on, and see how the protagonist of the customer story walks in. The first goal is to identify why we all are looking at this hero? Why are we all working for this hero, in different roles, with different skills, and sometimes at different locations? The answer to this why gives a high-level orientation to the brand narrative.
In the last few years, I have worked with many startups who were at the idea stage, or at prototyping stage, or who had gained traction and looked for growth. Every single time, I prepared myself to confront the founders and the product teams, to question and fight their understanding of why they were doing whatever they were doing.
Except for one or two exceptional cases, the founders have less than fifty percent clarity of what they want from their product? And their thoughts and vision do not align well with the product teams. For example, their versions of an ideal and paying customer’s story are often misplaced.
I start with the itch that this ideal customer cannot scratch or is afraid to scratch. It follows with identifying their status quo, their constraints, and why would they listen to anything new (a new product). I am not wearing any hat at this stage – neither of a content strategist, UX designer, nor of a storyteller. I am merely a guardian of an intent. This is where minds in marketing, design, branding, need to start working. To inspire a hope in the customer. This trigger is the sum total of promise that brands make in the landing page message, in the product onboarding, in the pricing strategy, in the welcome email, and all such interactions by the customer. So the pattern is to identify the hero and make their story resonate with product teams’ skills and vision, and let the hero take ownership for the course of action for their ultimate triumph. And it is a living story forever.
What holds the threads of UX design, UX writing, content strategy and a marketing perspective together?
It is with the hero in their story. This hero is fascinated by the brand promise somewhere. Their eyes are shining for a minute. Even if they are not too sure, they are hopeful. Of a favorable outcome.
So they hold the design, content, marketing, sales, support, and the brand’s community position, together. Since product teams make this promise, they need to guide the hero, advise them, and show them the way. Note that the heroes can easily drop-off anytime because they have choices. So it can be a win-win for the hero and the product, but it can quickly be zero-sum as well.
I often take percentage in my use cases. For example if a decision is to be made for or against an additional field in an online form, I would go for it even for five percent (besides A/B testing or any other quantitative method used). We are finding heroes inclusively. Out of anywhere. Of course with an eye on business goals.
How do you explain “Content strategy” to your seven-year-old son?
My son, Naman, turned seven this August. I always tell him to build strength in his mind. So for instance when he gets upset over something or is about to cry, I tell him that we both need to work together to make his mind stronger, even before sorting out the issue. The next moment, I co-relate this strong mind with common sense.
I believe that kids can be in a good space to understand content strategy, if they know that a strong mind (brainstorming, questions, whys) and some common sense can really save the world from a lot of crap that is wrapped in technical debt.
I tell him that whenever you want to do something, use some instrument, watch TV, color a shape in laptop, or read a book – there are people who had worked to design that interface. And there is lot of common sense required to design it the way so that you like it. At work, this collective common sense by many people is what we call as content strategy.
What do you teach your son re: “social media”?
First time when I thought of telling Naman about Twitter, I took him to a park in our neighborhood where a few kids were playing, a few others were in an argument, and another kid was crying in a corner.
I told my son – “We as individuals may have different ways to think, to react, and to respond to certain situations. Most of our actions are a form of expression of what is there in our minds. For example, when your mother serves you your favorite Pasta, it is her way to express her love for you that day.”
“Likewise, Twitter is way to find people you admire or want to know, to exchange messages and learn from their experiences, and to share your love. Merely a form of expression as I said.”
He is on Twitter now, and he logs in only in my supervision.
You got a series of conversations with content strategists and technical communicators. What is the common thread during all these interviews that runs through the talk about content and design?
The entire series has been exceptional for so many reasons. All the guests bring their own perspective in context of what problems we are trying to solve for businesses – which ultimately works in favor of the customers and all adjacent audiences.
One common ingredient that I found in virtually all conversations has been – Be Prepared to Invest. For example, Lauren Lucchese talks about investing in research, Jess Sand talks about investing for big picture perspective, Scott Abel talks about investing for exceptional customer experiences, Cruce Saunders talks about investing in value-driven structure, Joe Gollner talks about investing in content systems for future positioning and maximum processability, and so on.
We can see that in all cases, it is about making right investments for the processes, regardless of the size and scale, or industry, or location of the organization.
What’s the story behind your Low Volume Thoughts Medium publication?
As I said earlier, I tend to question a lot in product meetings, though with valid use cases and references. We often see that a product team puts in days and months of efforts only to see that the hero walks out of the story in the middle of the story. The hero loses trust. Sometimes they have no clue of what to do unless they are hooked to another brand promise. I need a way to talk to this hero who walks out, or to speak on their behalf. They do not understand the language of technology, or churn. They are semantically rich in emotions, some baggage, and the bias.
Low Volume Thoughts is a way to lend voice to these heroes so that we have a reference to see how many engineering teams worldwide are contributing to the massive technical debt every minute. We talk about plastic waste in oceans, and there are people who are doing amazing work to stall the plastic waste growth in water bodies. Likewise, I thought of this voice for the heroes who walk out of the product story. Since the story is not about glamor, I keep it in low volume.
It is also true that not all product teams accept all of my opinions and voice, positively. So sometimes, I use LVT to voice out that unfulfilled promise of my own hero.
What do you find most fascinating about making a product?
When I own a product fully, I feel as if I am a certain Mr. President with a cabinet to support me, to address concerns of real people who have elected me by choice in the hope that I would do a job for them
The fact that I can actually delight people across borders, geographies, and languages, is so fulfilling. Something, not even a country’s PM or a President can do.
I am fascinated by how powerful I feel, to make a change in one man’s life, for a daughter’s dreams, for a traveler’s vision, or for a retailer’s ROI targets. This ability and power makes it so fulfilling. And I do not actually need to contest for a chair in the state elections. No?
As a side note, and astonishingly, it is perfectly acceptable to fail as well, even with things at stake, for careers and customer goals in case of product makers, and for questionable administration and rights in case of presidency. We have enough evidence in either case.
Favourite example for a successful content strategy?
At enterprise content scale, I often admired IBM’s content. Andrea Ames shared a few background stories on the Intelligent Content Conference blog (the reference is not available now), and also in this post on Content Marketing Institute.
At a smaller level, I use the classic case study of Making of The Language of Content Strategy. It is so small, and yet so powerful.
Favourite failure of yours?
Well, I do not evaluate failures by returns or rewards. To me failure is about missing the bus when it invited me to board on and it actually held my hand but I was looking somewhere else. For example, once I scheduled a Clarity call with Ryan Hoover but I missed it inexplicably. That was my favorite failure because it just happened out of nowhere. In a way, it was a miss but I had nothing to learn in this experience.
Favourite low volume thought?
Well, I cannot even pick my top ten in this list. It is like asking someone to pick their favorite artery in the body.
The audience can pick their favorite low volume thought for what best resonates with their own narrative. For me, this Medium publication is a stage that gives equal space to all the heroes.
Who’s gonna interview the interviewer?
And this is the part where Vinish got to ask me a few questions.
Vinish: Your quest and curiosity for semantic web and the depth in your writings smell of an algorithm-seeking process-driven frame of mind. How would you channelize this mind while preparing your favorite new dish in the kitchen? How will the hero inside you violate the cooking semantics to design your favorite dish?
Teodora: What a crazy question. Thank you so much for asking. You sensed right, I have a tendency to simplify and structure. To chase simlicity in every “complex” structure I see. First because I believe there is an inherent structure in everything and it is always very simple, next because this saves time, effort and needless tortures and last, because it is an immeasurable pleasure to build bridges acorss seemingly distant fields.
Now, to get back to your two questions and my kitchen. The truth is, I can’t cook to the extent where I become a master who wants to violate semantics. Not at all. I don’t want to vialote anything, I just want to creat plain structures that serve as containers for inspirational mesh-ups.
So, I do a lot of planning. I have a board with magnets (a DIY one) where I link the weekly menu to nutrition needs, availability of seasonal products, budget of our family, time for buying the things, time for preparation, connections to our schedule…, relations to time when I will cook with my three-year old Alexander etc. And of course all the planning doesn’t mean that we don’t break the rules and violate my own plans. We have this 10 % (ok, sometimes 100 % :)) time when we can break the rules, if we feel like and eat some cake for dinner. Just like Pipi the Longstocking. Of course, Alexander always feels like breaking the rules. And this is where I do a lot of semantics and I hope the Gods of writing will forgive me that I use my talent for words to persuade Alexander about different things – e.g. beer for kids (that’s lemon juice mixed with a frappe mixer and some sugar or honey), not exactly beer but the equivalent of beer in your world. Which I know is total propaganda, but I can’t let myself give him his daddy’s beer … So that’s the answer to your second questions – the hero inside me is that mommy that tries to build healthy eating habits into a toddler who loves, loves, loves cake:
Vinish: If you get a chance to have lunch with a content professional (strategist, engineer, manager) in your favorite restaurant in your favorite city, whom would you pick, and why?
Teodora: :) I don’t want the meeting to take place in a restaurant. I want to have a stroll with these people in the park, so that colliding mind ecosystems run parallel to the Web of Life. These are the most fruitful encounters, I believe.
- Doug Kessler. Because I want to see how his mind makes connections real time. All the things I have seen from Velocity Partners – are beautiful, smart, inspired and … grounded.
- Mike Atherton. Because he knows so much about connected content and he has a sweet spot for retro :) [ref. Designing Future-Friendly Content ]
- Woody Allen. Because of the way he does cut and paste (see below), which is an integral part of any mind-soul patchwork :) [what text on the Web is] . Also, because, you know, they way he does text, films and sense-making. :)
Vinish: I read about your book The Brave New Text. If you get a chance and skills and funds to make a movie on this book, for the same message, which actor is best positioned to represent the brave next text?
I don’t see it as a movie. Maybe more of a performance or an installation (the type of this art project) But let me try to immerse in your vision. It will be a black and white movie and the actress will be Cate Blanchett! Why? Because she played Bob Dylan , she will be able to play The Brave New Text too.
Instead of an Epilogue
Now back to Vinish and his deep understandings of brand narratives, I want this question and his profound answer to be the final accord in this Dialogue:
Vinish, what is the sound of a high volume silence? :)
The mouse click or the screen tap on 10 while rating a service out of 10. For its founders, it is equivalent to their baby’s first smile. It makes their day, and sometimes life too. This silence is beyond any dB scale.
You can find Vinish on:
For another dose of Dialogue’s inspiration, browse the other beautiful people I talked to in search of meaning: www.teodorapetkova.com/dialogues