If a picture is worth 1,000 words, an experience is worth 1,000,000
How it build super-powered teams and create unforgettable presentations
Words…images…experiences…all are important parts of our lives at work and more broadly, regardless of your role in an organization. I thought it might be worth exploring these a bit, individually and their relationship to each other.
What’s interesting about each of them—words, images, and experiences—is that usually each of us is a bit more comfortable and/or competent with one of them vs. the other. By that, I mean maybe the writers among us are different from the artists or photographers who are also different from the event planners and party geniuses. And yet, all three of these factors are critical on a few dimensions—our ability to convey a point, to persuade, to be credible, to lead a team, to create a feeling and get others to see what we can do, to effectively sell a product or service.
I’m guessing you might be saying to yourself, “Yes! I deal best with things on paper or in a Word doc format.” Or perhaps instead, “I’m addicted to PowerPoint or slides that enable me to show a story around what I’m thinking.” Or maybe you’re neither of those things and hate having to pull together content, but love the art of presentation or food or performance and can easily get your head around everything that goes into that to achieve something amazing.
Let’s take Women at Work as an example. The first thing that happened was words (because that’s where I’m most comfortable). While writing a draft of Men@Work, I realized that words alone would be flat and boring and lack a missing piece if I didn’t engage with a genius who could layer in images to bring it to life, to give it a feeling, to create a “brand” around all of it. Luckily, the gods brought brilliant watercolorist and graphic designer Danielle Rose Fisher and me together. Danielle’s been able to create the images of my dreams, to perfectly complement what was in my head but I never had the ability to say, being the first yin to my yang.
For several months, Danielle and I made great strides in building out the book and the first stages of the Women at Work website, but became stuck for a few reasons—most significantly that neither of us were able to bring things together in a holistic way to create a complete experience that provided “chapters” in a book that could effectively stand on their own while also telling a full story when consumed together. While we had so many strong ingredients in place, it felt a bit like a good cake that had absolutely no icing—ergo, it might have been good if you had the guts to taste it, yet it looked relatively flat and risky just sitting there as it was.
Enter Annie Sinsabaugh stage left. Annie is an experienced editor, content strategist, and media producer who now leads up one of the most popular shows on public radio. Annie immediately dug into the project, saw the missing pieces, and helped “un-stick” us, having a vision for exactly where we needed to go—she saw the experience that we could create for working women around the world. She saw all of the pieces of the content puzzle and was able to hone every last one of them, both at a micro-level (making everything I’d drafted significantly better) and a macro-level (introducing new genres of content and tying everything together in new, compelling ways). I’m not sure how she does it, but she’s always able to understand what’s in my head and make it better, even when I do a sh!t job of explaining myself. Meanwhile, she reins me in when I cross the line and get a bit too edgy (one of my many fatal flaws ☺). Finally, she unblocks both Danielle and me when we might otherwise just throw in the towel, turning into the leader of this cool expedition with the kickass flashlight that’s showing us the way.
If you’ve had a chance to check out Fashion@Work and the extensive watercolor imagery brought together with the core written content to create a unique experience, you can probably imagine what went on behind the scenes over the past year to create something like that. It definitely was a labor of love for all of us.
Anyway, my reason for telling the behind-the-scenes story of Fashion@Work and the Women at Work team more broadly is for two reasons:
Underscore the importance of well-constructed teams.
Emphasize the success ingredients for your creations and deliverables.
On the first point, I wanted to bring to life the power of assembling a diverse team with different, complementary strengths and genius to create something awesome. This is the stuff of professional utopias and moments of cognitive euphoria that’s possible in life when you create magical chemistry with the right group of people whose personalities and perspectives overlap just enough on a Venn Diagram paradigm but not too much. When this happens, each sees the vision for where the “thing” could go, but each also takes the group to a place that none of the others saw exactly.
While the Women at Work team is undoubtedly one of my favorite examples of this dynamic, it’s definitely not the only. One of my biggest joys in life has been assembling teams like this to do great things, take on stuff that’s never been done, dive into the things that look hairy and ugly to everyone else, and create something amazing that no one else saw before you did it but blows them away once you achieve it. Figuring out how to do this effectively—see amazing opportunities and/or tough challenges and assembling an “A” team to address or achieve them—is one of the most important keys to success and happiness at work (and probably life more broadly). I call it “human portfolio optimization.”
One more thing that I think is worth noting—I’m advocating for this whole magical teaming approach as an introvert who loves nothing more than working alone and who also has very little patience for people, places, and things. I know there are others of you out there who might relate to that, so if you want to bond over the struggle, I’m happy to do a joint therapy session. ☺
On the second point—emphasize the success ingredients for your creations and deliverables—I was hoping to break down the key pieces and then build them back together with another story. Again, the three magical components of any great output includes:
Sometimes, it’s the way you put together #1 and #2 that creates #3 as a byproduct or result. Sometimes, it’s additional “special sauce” layered into #1 and #2—the Annie Sinsabaugh factor ☺—that creates the much-needed icing on the cake. The challenge around all of this is that it requires:
Time and foresight
A village—i.e., more than one person (usually)
Thoughtfulness, attention to detail, and iteration
But when it’s warranted, girl, is it ever worth the effort.
Beyond Women at Work, I wanted to convey another story from my day job where this came to life. About ten years ago, my boss and then head of our business unit within one of the world’s largest tech companies, asked me to take on an innovation initiative. The goal was to leverage entirely new capabilities from a technology platform and apply them to create new capabilities for retailers such as Walmart, Nordstrom, and others. Rather than the big, clunky enterprise software applications of the past, he wanted to usher in a new era for business tech that delivered more of a B2C, or business-to-consumer, experience for workers that was more engaging, intuitive, and seamlessly part of their everyday lives like the technology we use every day on our phones. A solution for this challenge needed to present a very different strategy vs. a typical B2B, or business-to-business, approach that often requires employees to work in “green screen” forms that are flat, boring, and onerous.
Fast-forward a few months and a small team of us, which included a spectacularly optimized cast of characters—the creative artist, the fresh thinking UX designer, the entrepreneurial prototype builder, the brilliant engineering leader, and me as the product manager—got to present to an executive team evaluating new investment initiatives. Rather than the same old slide-focused business case, we decided to mix things up with the following:
Set the stage—Welcome to Microappetizer Grille!: The core capability we’d developed were called “micro-apps” (à la little applications), so we made up a whole fictitious restaurant called Microappetizer Grille.
Look and act the part—Creative costumes: To carry out the restaurant theme, we dressed up in ridiculous aprons (I got one for my partner that said “Mr. Good Lookin’ is Cookin’” and he got me one that said, “I’m with stupid” ☺).
Never underestimate the importance of tangible branding—Props & swag: We made awesome oversized paper placemats that featured Microappetizer Grille branding and read like a big menu that told the story of the project and detailed the applications that we had created, the things they could choose for themselves to cook up something awesome as an end user to make their job better, faster, more fun. We also accompanied the menu-placemats with branded water bottles to complete the scene.
Behold the power of eye candy—Demo show & tell: We fired up our new prototype creation and brought to life what the platform could do with real micro-apps already working while developing new ones on the fly right in front of them.
So, what did all of this achieve?
Using the combination of words + images + a bunch of Annie Sinsabaugh-esque special sauce, we created something that added up to a pretty extraordinary experience that surprised, delighted, and captivated our audience. We achieved something that built credibility and investment in our project in the moment and in us as individuals and a team more broadly. Figuring out how to create an experience, to create a feeling for people that lasts, is a pretty magical moment.
Writing this has made me realize a few things:
I wish I’d done this more in my career: It’s definitely not easy, but totally worth the blood, sweat, and tears.
It only works with a dream team: At least in my experience, the only way I’ve achieved something magical like Women at Work or the Microappetizer Grille is by teaming up with a whole bunch of yins to my yang, the ones who can do all sorts of things I can’t, see things I miss, build on my ideas and give me new ones too.
Achieving this is the closest thing to professional heaven on earth: It’s what makes work worth doing and achieves the somewhat elusive but euphoric combination of form and substance.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but an experience is worth a million. I can’t wait to find my next opportunity to achieve something like that again.
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Christina Van Houten is the founder of Women at Work. Based in Boston with her husband and two teenage sons, she has spent the last 20 years of her career as a senior executive in the enterprise technology sector. Prior to evolving into tech, Christina founded a women's athletic apparel brand and served in several public interest roles focused on community and economic development. She started working at age thirteen and hasn't stopped since. She’s eager to help women find their way to the best possible life they can achieve.