Create space for storytelling: The value of the “outsider” perspective

I wear many hats at Tremendousness, and one of them is as a “Consultant / Facilitator”. This label is fairly generic and many of you also may identify, in one way or another, as a consultant (or as a chameleon).

So what does “Consultant / Facilitator” mean  in the context of visual storytelling? Sure, we provide advice and opinions to clients, but the majority of my  role is focused on extracting, rather than imparting, subject matter expertise. I focus on finding ways to engage individuals and teams to talk simply, openly, collaboratively, and, of course, visually, about their most complex subjects. In doing so, with support from my Information Designer colleagues who are experts at visualizing content, I am able to highlight and extrapolate a simplified narrative and/or set of key messages from an otherwise challenging jumble of internal subject matter expertise. 

We believe (and have seen firsthand, many times) that the combination of facilitation, content synthesis, and visualization allows teams to more quickly articulate and align around what matters most.

For the moment, though, let’s table the visualization component. What is it about the “consultant / facilitator” that is important? Why is this role needed, particularly when you have a group of very experienced experts already at a company? Can’t they just work with a visual artist to tell their story? I could list many reasons, but I’d like to focus on one that is central to our value proposition: When clients hire us to explore and explain their complex ideas, we are afforded the very unique position of being brought in as objective “outsiders”.

Much of our value comes from our ability to walk into a room filled with senior executives and subject matter experts and lead a conversation on a subject that, in all likelihood, we don’t actually know much about. This allows us to freely (and sincerely!) ask questions that they themselves may not consider—often due to lack of time, unclear ownership, or fear of appearing ignorant in front of  peers, subordinates, or superiors. 

Here are three ways that I take advantage of my “outsider” role. In fact, I think these approaches can help anyone be more intentional when collaborating with their teams to develop an impactful story.


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1. Be curious, not questioning

It’s easy for me, as an outsider, to approach complex information with an unencumbered and curious mindset, since typically I have no history with the content and only limited knowledge of the people and/or politics involved. However, I realize that for groups that regularly work together, this ability to be objective and dissociate from the day to day can be difficult. It requires a conscious and intentional effort by a leader to create a safe space for curiosity. It requires what Zen Buddhists call “the beginner’s mind”.

I recently came across an insight from David Marquet, a former U.S. Navy nuclear submarine captain, that I think is relevant here. Marquet is now a speaker and is the author of Turn the Ship Around! Turning the Followers into Leaders, and while his musings are focused on leadership development, I find it valuable when considering ways to empower a team to open up and speak freely (whether you are their ‘leader’ or not).  

“Walking the ship, I would ask the crew questions about their equipment and what they were working on. They were skeptical about these questions initially. That’s because normally I would have been “questioning,” not curious. I would have been asking questions to make sure they knew the equipment. Now I was asking questions to make sure I knew the equipment.”

When you’re leading a group, trying to get them  to align around a story, it’s crucial to leave preconceived notions about “the right answer” at the door. If you have a story that you want to tell, your tone can easily come off as “quizzing”, and the discussion becomes an exercise in getting the group to validate your thoughts and arrive at the same answer you might already have.

But when you begin with a truly curious frame of mind, the conversation is much more exploratory, and the group can focus on uncovering the bigger picture that previously may have gone unseen. Now, everyone has a unique contribution or perspective to add to the discussion. Rather than lead the team to the answer you want to hear, ask the kinds of questions that will allow new insights and directions to surface. You may be surprised by what you discover.


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2. Start by “framing”

Focusing a group can be difficult, particularly when everyone is a subject matter expert and brings a unique perspective to the table. As an “outsider”, I have no choice but to ask the framing questions up front, otherwise I have no way of organizing the goal of the conversation or type of responses I get from the group, and things can easily get out of hand. However, I often see that these questions are given short shrift with internal groups, especially when running their own discussions.

Typically, this is due to the (incorrect) assumption that everyone is already aligned around a common objective for the project. When it comes to storytelling, it’s always important to start by framing.

There are three fundamental framing questions that go a long way toward setting the tone and structure for an efficient, focused, and truly collaborative brainstorm —and I start with them every time, without fail:

  • Who is your audience for this story?
  • What do you want/need them to do (or do differently) as a result of engaging with this story? (Read more about Who/Do here.)
  • What key questions should this story answer for them?

If you can answer these questions up front, it will focus the group on a specific challenge: narrowing down their content and expertise to achieve a set list of objectives for a target audience. This also will allow you—as the “Consultant / Facilitator”—to vet content and ideas as they’re surfaced. Is that content relevant to our audience? Does it help answer one of our key questions? If the answer is no, set it aside and move on. If the answer is yes, investigate how it might relate to other information on the table.

If these framing questions are overlooked it could result in conversations that, while interesting, are prone to tangents or end up being dominated by the strongest voice in the room. This will do little to simplify an otherwise complex topic.


3. Ask dumb questions

While it’s common to say “there is no such thing as a dumb question”, I find this sentiment is not often taken to heart. As an “outsider”, I’m honestly not afraid to ask the dumb questions (which I will here on out refer to more kindly as the basic questions): Can you tell me what that acronym stands for? Can you tell me what that actually looks like in real life? That sounds interesting, but what exactly is that thing you are all talking about?

Usually, these questions are greeted by laughs, the occasional blank stare, and the “well, I guess we don’t actually know” response. Just because something is common vernacular, doesn’t mean everyone understands it, relates to it, or can describe what it means. And it’s often these small nuggets of basic information that, when explored, can lead to richer conversations about core content that has taken for granted, but is crucial for the intended audience to understand.

Also, these nuggets of information are where visuals play a core role, because basic information typically is the most tangible. Visuals co-developed in or after the session can anchor your story to relatable examples and features, and these elements then ground the more complex or conceptual elements. For example:

  • An acronym may stand for a group of people, so ask: Who is included in that group? How many people are in it? Are they scientists working in a lab and wearing a lab coat, or sitting at a computer? (Draw this information out, figuratively and literally.)
  • A proprietary or specialized tool may look a certain way, so ask: What is recognizable to your audience when you say “data dashboard”? What does that dashboard look like, or what should it look like? Does it have two parts or 12 parts? (Again, draw it out.)

When working to explain a complex subject in a simple way, it’s critical to question every aspect and every assumption, even the most basic things that you presume everyone already understands. Remember that as a subject matter expert with years of specialized training and/or experience, you are likely much more informed than your intended audience. This is probably why you’ve been tasked with simplifying your message in the first place—it needs to be understandable to people besides yourself.

So give yourself, and everyone in the room permission to ask the basic questions, the questions that might seem “dumb” at first glance. Model this behavior yourself and show that these kinds of questions are not a matter or ignorance, but of curiosity. And lastly, take advantage of the opportunity to draw out the basic components of your story, because it’s the easiest place to start and helps make the hardest parts more understandable.


image (1)While you may not have the opportunity to be a perpetual outsider like us here at Tremendousness, challenging yourself to be a bit of a chameleon and act as the occasional “outsider” can lead to unique insights that fuel your personal growth, elevate your capacity for leadership, and uncover new insights for your team/organization.

Just remember:

  1. Be curious: Channel the innate desire to learn and know more—go in with a “beginner’s mind”.
  2. Be consistent: Stick to a consistent rubric for collecting and organizing information by asking fundamental “who/do/what” questions up front.
  3. Be aware: Accept and understand that you (and in particular your audience) doesn’t, and can’t be expected to know everything. It’s better to start with the basics.

After all, that’s how great things get built.



*Feature image: Photo by Tambako the Jaguar / Flickr