Be Playful and Authentic When Sharing Your Story

As a Design Director at IDEO, Jenn Maer is a creative leader, brand strategist, and storyteller. Jenn is happiest when creating stories and projects that bypass the brain’s radar and go straight to the heart. She leads IDEO U’s Storytelling for Influence course.

We sat down with Jenn to hear about her storytelling process and her career as a storyteller.

Playful, Authentic Storytelling with Jenn Maer

Tell us a little about yourself and what you’re doing at this point in your career.

I held a bunch of random jobs out of college because I didn't have any clue what I wanted to do or what I was good at. I was a liberal arts major, women's studies with an emphasis in literature. While searching for what I might want to do in the real world, I found an ad in the paper for sales at my favorite radio station. I stumbled my way into a career because I liked the music. It was the first alt-rock station in Portland and I thought, "Oh, this will be a great way to get free concert tickets.”

Eventually, I met this amazing guy named Austin Haugh, who was a creative director at a radio boutique. He became my mentor. He taught me everything he knew about advertising, and slowly but surely I went from being on the account side of things to being a copywriter. I worked for about 10 years in advertising and eventually found my way to IDEO. I switched from being an advertising copywriter to more of a brand strategist and storyteller at IDEO.

I was at IDEO almost 10 years. I left this past year to be the creative director at Omada Health and I’m now transitioning back to IDEO.

What was the transition like going from traditional advertising copywriting to brand strategy at IDEO?

Terrifying. In advertising, it’s a competitive industry and you tend to keep to yourself. You work in these little duos and pound out your work. You literally run to the copier when things are printing and grab your ideas before anyone else can see them so you can present to the creative director and ensure you get the credit. You can imagine coming into IDEO, which is a more collaborative, open environment where people want to see work in process. People want to think out loud, put ideas on the wall, and everybody shares and says, "Who's idea was it? We don't know." I was like, "Oh, my god. This is crazytown.”

"When you think creatively, you’re opening your heart and mind and you're relating to people as humans."

For many writers, it's a solitary pursuit. It still is for me in many ways. To think out loud, post-it a story out, and have people pushing and pulling on the material the entire way was a big leap of faith and scary for me initially. It took me a year or so to get used to it, and now I can't imagine doing it any other way. I still put on my noise-canceling headset and go into a room where no one can touch me for a while when I need to crank something out. But now when it's time to tell a story or figure out a presentation, I can't imagine doing it without the help of lots of people.

Tell a story about a creative team you were part of. What helped that team thrive?

When you're working with creative teams or on a creative project, it's easy to fall in love with your own ideas. You have this vision of how something should go, and people will come to you with a completely different way of thinking. You have to be open and realize, this isn't what I had in mind but it could be better. Opening yourself up to alternate perspectives and different ways of approaching projects is essential.

Any specific projects where you had a set vision and someone else's vision ended up changing the whole course of it?

Probably every project. There's so much push and pull in bringing things to life. I was working on a project at Omada that I failed at miserably. It never saw the light of day. We had this idea for an animated video piece that we worked hard on and brought to the point where it was ready to be delivered. It was 98% done and we were sharing it with key stakeholders (probably a little too late in the process). They weren't feeling it, and we were confused by their reaction. We had been sitting on it too long.

There was this sneaky suspicion in the back of my head that something wasn't quite right, but I’d spent so much time and invested so much effort. Finally, I had to admit, if all these people are saying it doesn’t make sense to them, there's something wrong. I had to get out of my ego's way and address it. Make the changes or kill it. Because of timing and budget, it wound up getting killed. It was painful to see it die but I knew it was the right decision. We should have shown it to people earlier in the process and spent more time thinking through the story, the characters, and the fundamentals. We took the first idea and ran with it as fast and hard as we could because we were trying to deliver something amazing with a limited budget in a short amount of time. That failure would make the next project better.

Tell us about a team project that was a success and the impact you were able to have.

The greatest success is Bedsider because it has tangible real-world implications in the lives and health of women in America. It was a project I worked on for about seven years at IDEO. The way we told stories with Bedsider had an actual effect. It was sex positive and spoke to people in the tone of voice they could understand and relate to. It wasn’t just a source of information but a brand that you wanted to associate with. People cared about Bedsider and people paid attention.

There was a year-long scientific study that found women who used Bedsider are less likely to have an unintended pregnancy, less likely to report a scare, and more likely to consistently use birth control. It was the first time in years that those statistics were moving in the right direction.

"It's life changing to allow yourself to loosen up and let ideas flow."

What do you attribute to Besider’s success?

Bedsider wasn’t delivering anything you couldn't find anywhere else. We were just telling stories in a different way. We used language people could understand and relate to instead of sounding medical and jargony, or cold and distant, or hinting at what we were trying to talk about but not really talking about it. We took things head on. We created real user stories of women who had used every form of birth control we were highlighting. If you wanted to get an IUD, you could hear from three different women who had an IUD and talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Not just, "It's great, you'll love it," but also, "Here's the stuff that sucked about getting an IUD. Here are the things that were challenging about it.” Instead of making a medical decision based on some weird object you can't relate to, you could make a decision by relating to other people’s stories.

Also, the use of humor was incredibly important. Your health is too serious to take so seriously. We can all have a laugh and a smile, and that sense of humor and authenticity lowers people’s barriers to receiving information. You can get a smile and relate to it in a different way and remember it in a more significant way.

Why do you think the world needs creativity now more than ever?

Creativity makes the world a better, more beautiful, more friendly place. When you think creatively, you’re opening your heart and mind and you're relating to people as humans. Creativity is an incredibly human thing. When we get too stuck in our heads we wind up acting in ways that can be harmful. You need to balance that head and heart, and creativity is the link between the two.

What’s something you’re working on now with your personal leadership style?

I'm working on asking more questions. I went through a leadership training recently where we talked about how important it is to lead people by allowing them to answer questions for themselves. There was a big chunk of my career where I wanted to have all the answers. You'd come to me for advice and I’d tell you what to do. And when I told you what to do, suddenly I felt great about myself because I’d solved the problem for you.

But that takes away your ability to learn how to solve the problem yourself. In learning to ask smart questions, you're giving people that agency back. You're helping them think through things and come up with solutions. It’s a way of helping people realize they have something to contribute. They can think of solutions on their own and don’t need all the answers handed to them.

"The most important thing to remember in storytelling is that the basics of a good story have remained the same from a caveman sitting around a fire to crazy VR technology."

If you had a magic wand, what would you do to design a world where anyone could build creative confidence to solve real world challenge?

My magic wand would zap people and allow them to feel playful and get out of their stiffness into a receptive space where they can smile their way into solutions. When you look at designs and ideas in the world, you can almost feel when a creative team had fun creating it versus when a creative team has tried to follow the rules and be rigid. There's a joy and a pleasure in solutions that feel like they've come out of a happier place. It sounds weird and hippy and California to say, but it's rooted in being open and allowing ideas that create connections with people as opposed to trying to herd them like cattle.

Is there anything you've found in working with groups that helps zap some playfulness into people?

As a leader, it helps if I allow myself to show that playfulness, to joke around with teams, to have fun and get people to loosen up. This gives others permission to be vulnerable in the creative process. People often feel when they come to work and put on their suit, it's like putting on armor and nothing will show through. But allowing yourself to be human and vulnerable in the process and admitting what you don't know and saying when you've had a crappy day changes everything.

I heard this great storyteller, author Sherman Alexie, an incredible American author who was speaking on the subject of storytelling. He said whenever he tells a story, the first thing he does is make himself vulnerable to the audience. In that moment of vulnerability, all of a sudden everybody else lets their vulnerable selves come forward. It's like, "Oh, my god. He's human, too.” Because we're all just these scared, flawed humans inside. We get to work and in this weird macho way, we try to not to let it show. Over the course of 10 years at IDEO, when I practiced this vulnerability with clients they realized, it's life changing to allow yourself to loosen up and let ideas flow.

Are there any resources on storytelling you recommend?

I listen to and watch as many different kinds of stories as possible. I don’t follow a specific storytelling method because I find them to be too prescriptive. There are so many different ways to tell stories. I'd rather get inspired by great stories and listen to different tones and approaches that I might try and incorporate myself.

There are a bunch of great podcasts on Gimlet Media, which is a startup media company founded by the guy from Planet Money. All the stories are quite touching and serious in some way but also delivered with this levity that's wonderful. I take inspiration from the way they’re able to talk about something deep but also make it fun.

Are there any practical things that have made you a better storyteller?

Practice, practice, practice. I'm an obsessive practicer. There are different schools of thought. I recently taught a storytelling class with a friend who’s a professional comedian, and her approach is, "You want to know your story but you don't want to over practice it." While I, on the other hand, practice until I could do it in my sleep. It comes down to your personal aptitude and how comfortable you feel in front of people. I have terrible stage fright, so practice is my security blanket.

My number one recommendation is to read whatever you’re creating aloud to yourself. Your ear is more talented than your brain in terms of judging rhythm and flow. You can't discern flow when you're staring at a computer screen. It's too hard to feel. For me, feeling the story is better than dissecting it on a screen.

Final thoughts on storytelling?

It's easy to be distracted by trying to be different, by trying to determine the next leap forward in storytelling and what new technologies you should use to convey your story. Put all that stuff aside and tell an amazing story. Get that down first, and everything else is just a delivery mechanism. It's like, "Should I use a fork or a spoon?" It's all going in your mouth. The most important thing to remember in storytelling is that the basics of a good story have remained the same from a caveman sitting around a fire to crazy VR technology. It's about the narrative, the compelling character, the single driving idea, making people feel things, and being personal. These elements are always going to be the same no matter what technology comes along. Stay focused on the truth of your story.


Create a great brief, better understand your audience, prototype your story, and hone your narrative—learn the craft of storytelling. Check out our Storytelling for Influence online course.  

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