Storytelling For Engineers

If you’ve ever launched a campaign on Crowd Supply, you know that we ask you a lot of questions about your users and how they’ll interact with your project. Some of these questions might seem kind of odd, such as “What monsters does your project slay” and “How is your project a hero to your users?” Don’t worry, we’re not trying to make your project into a video game or fantasy novel. There’s actually a method to our madness! This post will try to explain that methodology. This will require visiting some territory you might not expect to find in a blog that’s more typically about interesting open hardware projects and their creators: namely, the realms of critical theory and philosophy of knowledge (epistemology). We’ll do our best to be accommodating tour guides so no one gets lost along the way.

Our first stop is a look at the notion of “consumption” in a socio-economic sense. By that, we mean the act of exchanging money (or the pledge of money, in the case of a crowdfunding campaign) for a desired good or service. At the root of consumption lies the human emotion of “desire.” As we all know, desire has both an intellectual, logical, objective component (“I need that socket set in order to fix my bike.”) and an emotional, irrational, subjective component (“I love the color of Park Tool socket sets”). In order to successfully enter a market, a product needs to appeal to both. How does one do that?

The answer is, we tell a story about it. Story, or narrative, is a strategy that humans employ to make sense of their world. When things and events are shaped by stories, we are more likely to see them as real or true, and to interpret them in the light of that story. We do this in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of things, from politics to a ball game. We have political “mavericks” and sports “underdogs”, stories we know so well we can shrink them to a single word.

But what do we mean by stories? Considered formally, abstractly, a story is a narrative where a hero faces challenges, derives a solution, and moves events towards a conclusion where the hero ultimately succeeds or fails. So by “story,” we don’t mean just “making stuff up.” We mean organizing and framing actors and events into a coherent, meaningful timeline. Creating a story is literally the process of making meaning. Stories establish belief.

But what does this have to do with successfully launching, say, an open hardware software-defined radio? Simply put, the most successful campaigns are those that tell a story about their project and its users. There are a few ways to do this, but basically you need to show how your project can heroically help your user overcome their problem. You need to show your user you understand what they need or want to do, appeal to both the emotions and the reasons why they need or want to do those things, and then establish how your project will help them attain success.

Aeroscope to the rescue!

In other words, by telling the story of your project, you present it in such a way that your backers believe in it. Belief is important not just on the level of the individual, but also because shared belief is an essential part of building a community. As we know, building a community is vital to the health and vigor of an open source project. Building a sustainable community is another reason why it’s important to remember you’re not making things up to tell your story. You’re framing and organizing the facts and events of your project using in a story. Community members see themselves in the story, which builds and coheres the group.

All of this might sound hard, which might be one reason we very commonly hear creators say “I’m not good at marketing, I’m an engineer.” But the truth is, you already know most of the story, it’s the story of why you decided to launch the project. You felt a need or saw a reason for your project to exist, it solves a problem you had or have seen other have. Above, we pointed out that we know some stories so well we can reduce them to a word. A great exercise you can do to start articulating the story you want to tell is to try to explain your project in a single sentence.

  • The Ajax software-defined radio is the first SDR that’s accessible to non-technical users.
  • The internet is dangerous and passwords can get stolen, but the Password Shack provides hardware protection tied to your thumbprint.
  • Zorch: A utility knife for all those times you needed one, but didn’t have one.

In each of these examples, the project is framed by showing how it solves a problem that afflicts a particular group (“non-technical software radio users”, “users of cloud-based password storage”). Like a maverick, the Zorch knife heroically rides out of the sunset to the rescue of someone who needs a utility knife to succeed at a task. Okay, you get the idea. And now you know why, when you start a campaign with us, we’ll ask you a bunch of similar questions and exercises, all designed to help you discover that you’re better at “marketing” than you think.

Now, let’s get to work writing the story of your project!