You couldn't be blamed for being skeptical about a presentation titled "Why Stories Matter." After all, if there's a concept marketers have milked in the last three years, that concept is storytelling

But one presenter at last week's Boston Design Week promised that his take on storytelling would be nothing like that. Nope. If anything, chief creative officer Rodrigo Lopez of Neoscape, an 85-employee creative agency based in Boston, suggested that his talk could potentially be a storytelling takedown: 

From a marketing perspective, the terms "story" and "storytelling" have become appropriated and misappropriated, used and abused, and in many cases reduced to mere clichés. Designer Stefan Sagmeister went as far as calling "BS" on all those people (designers in particular) who have anointed themselves "storytellers."

Thus with high hopes I attended the talk at Neoscape headquarters, inside the gorgeous Jamestown Innovation and Design Building (a space which will soon be home to Autodesk's new maker space).

Better presentations, through drinking games.

To begin, Lopez introduced the audience to Neoscape, a 20-year-old company specializing in branding and marketing for real-estate and architecture clients. 

Then Lopez defined one of the company's ongoing creative challenges: finding branding and marketing solutions that can differentiate its would-be clients from the pack. "We force ourselves to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis," he said.

To that end, the company is always trying to stimulate its already high levels of in-house creativity. Lopez then shared Neoscape's fun, new method for doing just that: a game any team can play with nine Sharpies, foldable paper, and nine willing participants. It's a game Neoscape plays sober, but that you might recognize as a classic drinking game.

Pictionary plus Telephone equals big fun.

Here's how it works: The nine participants sit around a table, each with a Sharpie and her own sheet of foldable paper. Neoscape uses 5.5 x 5.5 square cards from Paper Source. The cards come in packs linked by perforations, and that's important: Each participant needs nine connected pages that are easily foldable at the perforations. 

Once everyone has marker and paper, a moderator calls out a single word. One word Neoscape has used is "park." The reason? One of their potential clients, for whom they were prepping a sales-pitch presentation, owns a property near a park. 

As a first step, participants fold their perforated pages, accordion-style, so that only the first page of the nine is visible as a drawing or writing surface. The remaining eight pages should be folded up and hidden beneath this first page. 

Once the moderator calls out "park" or another word, each participant has one minute to compose a single park-related sentence with her Sharpie. When the minute expires, all participants pass their nine perforated pages to the left. 

Now each participant has a nine-pack with one sentence on the top sheet. The next task--which participants have two minutes to complete--is to draw a picture illustrating that sentence, using only the Sharpie. Participants should draw this picture on the second sheet of the nine-pack, so that, if the accordion were unfolded, the illustration would appear below the top sheet with the sentence. 

Once these two minutes expire, the packets are folded so that only the illustration on the second page is visible. Then all the packets are again passed to the left. Participants now have one minute to compose a single sentence on the packet's third page. This sentence must describe only the illustration just drawn on the packet's second page. This is why the folding is important: The first page is now hidden.

The game continues in this fashion until all nine pages are filled up with an alternating sequence of sentences (five of them) and drawings (four of them). The time allotted for a sentence is always one minute. The time for an illustration is always two minutes. Participants can view only what was drawn or written on the previous page. 

Ideally, when the exercise is over--after a mere 13 minutes--your group will have nine different vertical storyboards to display, not to mention a whole lot of smiles and insights about the challenges of everyday communication.

Laughs, lessons, and takeaways.

When my table of nine attendees at Design Week Boston played the game, Lopez asked us to use the word "scandal" as a starting point. 

Almost immediately, you got a sense of how perilous communication can be if you don't specify what you mean to everyone at every given second. For example, some at the table wondered aloud if Lopez were referring to the television show Scandal. One Inc. scribe had a fleeting thought of an '80s rock band. Some minds went to politics, others went to sex, still others went to cold-blooded murder. 

But with only one minute to act, each of us promptly composed a simple sentence and passed our books to the left. My sentence was a brief description of Oedipal incest, which I thought nothing of--our topic was "scandal," after all--until I realized my teammate on the left would not only have to illustrate the act, but process the fact that it came from my mind. 

The lessons therein are numerous. For one thing, a game like this can add fun to an office brainstorming session, if your culture and colleagues are the types who can handle saucy topics and verbiage. 

In addition, a game like this can stimulate out-there ideas that might not rise to the surface in formal settings, where colleagues will hesitate to drop their boundaries. Lopez says that the game's prompts and interactions help people "extract ideas they might not have thought about themselves."

For example, the game helped Neoscape create a sales-pitch presentation for a property near a park without resorting to clichéd stories about strolls in the park. "Maybe 10 percent of the material becomes usable," says Lopez. "But the other 90 percent is a great conversation starter.

"And in our industry, it's easy to fall into the trap of selling access to one thing or another--whether it's a park or the subway or a neighborhood--in the exact same way," he adds. "It's easy to just rinse and repeat what you've done previously. This game offers you a chance to blow it up a little. And the first ideas are always the craziest." 

The game offers two other important lessons: One is the value of simplicity in communications, and the other is to be mindful of the risks of miscommunication among individuals on the same team. 

For example, when you have to illustrate a sentence in two minutes with a single Sharpie, you resort to the basics: stick figures, recognizable symbols like hearts and flags and celestial bodies. Likewise, with only one minute to write a sentence, you keep it plain: Most sentences worked like photo captions or relied on quotation marks, capturing what one stick figure was thinking or saying. 

With only one or two minutes to communicate your message, you don't have time to get elaborate. Therein lie the risks of miscommunication. They are the risks that occur when you play the kids' game known as telephone: An initial whispered sentence about a dog morphs into something about a horse after nine whispers.

A similar distortion can occur when you play Neoscape's game. The good news? You'll have a storyboard documenting exactly how the message got mangled.

For instance, one of the "scandal" storyboards began with a sentence about a famous White House indiscretion.

The last sentence read: "The gingerbread starfish was finally rescued from the bugle boys."

Published on: Apr 3, 2015