Dreamworks, Twitter veteran sells storytelling with storymapping

James Buckhouse, the director of content at Sequoia Capital, visited the JSK Garage recently to talk about stories. Before he joined one of Silicon Valley’s largest venture capital firms, Buckhouse created digital products at Twitter and designed animated films at Dreamworks. He understood the power of storytelling, but he emphasized something that we as journalists often neglect: It’s not enough to know how to tell a story; you have to know how to sell one, too.

Storymap for a Twitter Mirror

James Buckhouse’s storymap of a “Twitter Mirror”.

Buckhouse demonstrates this through what he calls a storymap. There are different types, which he describes in further detail in this post, but it is essentially a design document that gives life to your vision, helping colleagues, engineers, designers and/or managers understand your idea at a glance. It’s not a memo or a final product, but rather a mix “between a storyboard and a treasure map,” describes Buckhouse. You don’t have to be an artist to create one. (You’d be surprised how much stick figures can convey.) But a clear visualization of the project is the path to buy-in.

Creating empathy

An essential principle of creating a storymap is empathy. We all have hopes, struggles, desires and goals. Understanding those motivations is essential to designing a storymap and ultimately selling your idea. The goal of any project or product is to deliver value to people. They are at the heart of what we do, so we have to humanize our message. It could be through illustrations like storymapping or just simplifying the way we present our ideas.

I learned this firsthand when Buckhouse challenged all of the JSK Fellows to pick four words in 60 seconds to describe each of our journalism challenges. While the clock ticked away, I thought about my project to preserve and analyze digital news archives. I’ll be the first to admit that digital archives sounds a bit dry, but what I’m really concerned about is knowledge.

Archives are not just reams of broadsheet gathering dust in the basement. To me, they embody a newsroom’s collective wisdom. Without an understanding of the past, journalists struggle to contextualize the present – making it difficult to determine what is truly news. I could go on, but I came up with the four words “restoring knowledge, empowering journalists.” It may not be the perfect title for my journalism challenge, but the exercise is poignant. Like storymaps, we need to convey to our audience the essence of what we’re trying to achieve. It doesn’t take much, maybe four words or less, but it can make all the difference.

Read more about Buckhouse’s design story work.