Features

Our Secret Weapon

Communication alum Kevin Brooks ’82 is proof that stories aren’t just magical escapes from reality; they empower us, connect us, and even help us build better products. Stories, Brooks says, are our secret weapons for good.

By Sean Corbett
Photo by Porter Gifford

One quick tale from the mouth of Kevin Brooks ’82 and you know there’s something special about the way he weaves it all together.

You won’t need to know he’s a storytelling performer to pick up on his meticulous attention to detail, annunciation and verbal animation. And you won’t need to know about his extensive professional history with using that passion for storytelling, teaching and coaching to bridge the communication gap between the world of the designer, writer or filmmaker and the world of the client or audience. He has the innate ability to bring everything about the creative process back to the seemingly simple concept of storytelling.

“We do change the world through story,” he says. “If you know someone’s story, that person is no longer ‘the other,’ that person is no longer a stranger. If we can tell our stories, if we can express them, then we can more easily see the commonalities we share with one another. That changes individual worlds and it certainly does change the world.”

Brooks recalls the days of 1960s television and the chilling truth that certain stories remain untold for too long. “There were no black people on television, except for very selected views. This is why it wasn’t until the ’80s, when there were shows like the ‘Cosby Show,’ that people said, ‘Oh, this is really groundbreaking because it shows a family doing what they do, being funny. And they happen to be black.’ And that was the revolution—that they were ordinary.”

Stories make up everything we do and know in life, Brooks says—whether we’re out with friends or in the office. And it’s more than just casual hallway chatter: through these conversations, we come to know a person’s story and can consider their point of view. The next time we write a report, complete a design or write out directions, we can deliver a better product because we’ve come to understand the audience.

“There are a lot of lawyers out there and startups who really have absolutely no product, but they have a story,” he says. “And people give them money so clearly these stories are good enough.”

Brooks’ early college career at a New York engineering school hadn’t quite clicked, but he found his niche after transferring into Drexel’s communication program. He credits much of his writing ability to the wide variety of communication and filmmaking classes he took at Drexel in the late ’70s and early ’80s, while he was also tutoring his classmates in computer programming. Although he was preparing to become a technical writer at the time, Brooks became increasingly aware of a connection between his passions for film, computers, algorithms, writing and design. Instead of choosing one of these subjects, he took classes in each of them.

“I didn’t understand why I had to choose,” he says. “I was writing this computer program and it had this visual structure and this logical structure, and it output something, and I thought, ‘Hey, that sounds a lot like a story.’ There’s an audience that’s going to experience the output of the story, or the movie. So computer programming and filmmaking are the same thing, just with different tools.”

With that in mind, he says Drexel afforded him the “freedom to explore a vision. And they believed in me. They were able to help me with this vision, so I could follow these passions as far as I wanted to.”

Brooks has since allowed these passions to seep into every aspect of his life, guiding him from one project to the next: from completing a master’s degree in film production at Stanford and a PhD in media arts and sciences at MIT, to serving as User Experience Product Designer at Motorola and, presently, as Senior Industrial Designer at Hallmark Cards.

It was while studying at MIT that Brooks began to seriously piece together the elements of storytelling for his dissertation in computational cinematic narrative construction—essentially a software program called Agent Stories that could handle “meta-linear storytelling,” as he calls it. The audiences he had in mind for the software were television producers, writers and filmmakers, each looking to write from multiple points of view, attempting to write a narrative in which “everyone sees him or herself reflected in the story.”

To gain more perspective on the subject, Brooks jumped into a supportive community of performing storytellers in Cambridge, Mass., led by an eccentric but extremely thoughtful man named Brother Blue. Through the group, Brooks learned about the craft of storytelling firsthand and discovered what he says is the most important element of the process: listening.

“The storyteller’s job is to facilitate the story more than to tell it,” he says. “They’re facilitating the story process: every audience member is actively creating a story, and the storyteller’s job is just to tweak and make inputs and inform and direct the story. The audience does most of the work.”

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In his work with companies like Motorola and Hallmark, Brooks evaluates leading technologies, listening and telling stories to steer innovative product design.

He breaks down the entire creative process:

“When you go into a potential client’s office, you listen to them, you listen to the stakeholders, you listen to the people who wrote the check, or will write the check. You listen to everyone as they tell you what the problem is, or what you’ll have to solve for. If you’re a smart designer, you go listen to others afterwards, like lower-level engineers or other people around the company who touch the process or product. You talk to users. You listen to all of those stories. And when you’re back in your office with your team, you tell those stories back to each other. Then you design multiple solutions and present those solutions to the stakeholders of the company. At that time, you know you’re going to include a story of some sort with each design. You know the designs will not speak for themselves: you need to speak for them.”

Brooks explains that there are multiple stories to tell for a product to be successful: the story of making the best possible product, the story of adopting it in the marketplace—it’s just a matter of choosing which one to tell and what part of the company’s identity will be reflected in that story.

“You can’t just say, ‘This design is going to save the world,’” he clarifies. “You have to say, ‘Here’s the story that will let everyone know our product is going to save the world. And here’s the story that will convince the curmudgeon down the hall that this is a great product, because, you know, he never signs off on anything.’”

“If we can tell our stories, if we can express them, then we can more easily see the commonalities we share with one another. That changes individual worlds and it certainly does change the world.”

At Hallmark, Brooks is able to push himself to new creative limits. His chief reason for joining the company, he says, was their long-term financial investment in innovation: “They listen well. They adapt. It’s fun to tell stories about what Hallmark can be, about the products that can come out, about how easy the products are to use.”

Teaching storytelling, he says, can be just as inspiring, if not more.

“Everyone is this vessel of incredibly rich experience. When they are given the tools to leverage and harness that experience in a new way, they take off. Creativity is really an outgrowth of personal passion. Creativity is an outgrowth of who you are. It’s putting yourself into your work and valuing that uniqueness.”

Brooks illuminates the dual nature of the story: to both empower and connect.

“There are people trying to solve the Middle East crisis by getting the stories out, getting the artistic expression out into the world. You need two things. You need the stories to come out and you need people listening.”

He is quick to re-emphasize that stories are not only the fabric of our culture; they are our secret weapons for good.

“When a community wants to come together,” he says, “they tell stories. When they want to change the nature of their community, they start telling stories of success, or celebration, or identity. Suddenly you have something stronger to fight for, to change their world. And that can radiate out.”

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