Finding Your Voice

First, a request: if you haven't looked at, or maybe even filled out, my survey about failure, I'd really appreciate it if you did. It only takes a few minutes and I'd love to get some different stories and perspectives for something I'm working on:

Thank you. You are very nice and everybody says so. Now, on with the post.

I have a challenge for you.

  • If I asked you to design a Tableau dashboard in the style of Jonni Walker, could you do it?

Actually, let me rephrase.

Could you relatively easily describe what makes it distinctively Pooja’s, Rody’s, or Filippo’s?

Or, let’s take another approach.

  • If I said, “________ just posted a great new viz to Public about baseball,” is there a most likely candidate in your mind for whose name goes in the blank?

  • What if the topic were “crazy multidimensional maps,” then who would it be?

  • If you see a dashboard with bright, popping colors and distinctive display fonts, talking about music or video games, do you have a pretty good idea who the author is?

All of these Public authors, while completely distinct in tone, style, and topic from one another, have the same thing in common.

They have found their voices.

And they are not the only ones, of course, but just the first few that came to mind.

For me, the end goal of being a Public author is not simply to “get better.” It’s to get to a point in the development of my own abilities and in my own knowledge of self where I can contribute something of value to the world—not just our Tableau community—through strong, distinctive messages, visualized effectively, memorably, and uniquely.

To accomplish that, I will need to find my own distinctive voice, just as some of our friends and colleagues have. But is it possible? Can I, or can any of us, just DECIDE to find our own voices too, or is it a fool’s errand?

I believe it is possible, for myself and for all of us. But to do so, I think, requires a commitment to following a path; a path that most of us are already on.

Maybe finding your own voice is something you also aspire to do. If so, let’s think about it together.

Keep in mind that there are very popular, very distinctive Public vizzes out there that may, for some viewers, define the style of their creators. For example: Adam McCann’s Beatles Analysis; Kelly Martin’s Birdstrike ; Skyler Johnson’s The Spells of Harry Potter; Robert Rouse’s US vs. THEM; Shine Pulikathara’s IronViz winning Weekly News; or RJ Andrews’s Endangered Safari.

While I love all of these, as many of us do, and they all speak to their creators' talent, technical acumen, and creativity, I don’t necessarily consider them to be definitive representations of their creators’ personal styles. I can look at the interactives or a static version of the graphic and say “YES! I know that viz, it’s famous. I can tell you right now who created it.” I can’t say “YES! I know that viz. The person who made it is known for making products that look like that, or that talk about that topic.”

Yas, It’s My Crahft, Dahling

As a former drama kid, it used to really annoy me when self-important actors and actresses would talk about “working on their *craft*.” “Hey, Hollywood,” I’d think, “you’re not learning how to make lace, here. We aren’t doing artisanal Shakespeare. You’re just standing in front of people pretending to be someone else and saying words that you memorized. We can all do a little make-believe. Don’t get too full of yourself.”

Along the same lines, I’d pshaw at comedians who would talk about the need to perform constantly for years, at every venue possible, for no money, because it took the better part of a decade to get any good at it. “Yeah,” I’d think. “If you’re terrible. People who SHOULD be comedians are just FUNNY. Funny in the bones, as they say. It shouldn’t, and doesn’t, take 10 years to figure out what’s funny.”

But see, I was wrong. It actually DOES take a long time to get good at something creative, and that’s because the “creative” part comes at the end of a much longer process. I didn’t realize at the time how important it was to become technically proficient FIRST. Without that proficiency, you don’t have the ability to communicate your message and express your creativity effectively. Only with that solid foundation in place will you be able to demonstrate your unique idiom to the world.

Look: I’ve seen some old Louis C.K. standup. It’s…not great. Generic observational material. But 30 years later he’s universally respected and has a point of view, and an act, that nobody else could replicate or imitate. It’s distinctively his.

So how do we find our own voices?

1. We practice the basics until they’re second nature.

Practice and repetition, like playing the scales or working at open mic nights, will improve your skills. Although I have hypocritically been slacking at participating, that’s why I really like Andy and Emma's Workout Wednesday. It’s such a great way to force yourself into competence—nay, excellence—at a wide variety of technical Tableau Desktop skills. It demands lateral thinking and a complete understanding of the workings of the software, and is impossible to accomplish without learning at least something new every week.

The commitment, the repetition, the habituation to self-improvement on a regular basis is essential to building that muscle memory. Sorry to sound like a LinkedIn motivational post, here--the ecosystem of which I have a WHOLE LOT of feelings about—but it’s undeniably useful in giving yourself the strongest set of core Tableau capabilities possible, since it doesn’t rely on your work requirements, your personal interests, or your easily accessible datasets.

2. We start to put ourselves out in public.

Here’s where Makeover Monday is helpful, in that we are using the technical skills we’ve developed, but adding in analytical and design elements. Once we’re comfortable with the capabilities of the software—and in what we can push it to accomplish, beyond what seems possible—we can now start to test our own analytic abilities, and our own design eye. We no longer have a specifically dictated result to match as we do in Workout Wednesday; but what we do have is a community of people with varying levels of experience, ability, and interest in all the three pillars of dataviz skill (technical /analysis/design). We see where we are good, where we can improve; we see what comes easy for us, and what’s difficult; we see which pillars we enjoy more than others; we see where the community stands in relation to us; and we see what kind of feedback we get.

I liken this to the comedian who starts to play paying gigs, or maybe opens up on the road for a more established comedian. It’s the point in our development when we are learning how to be a professional and where our unique skills and interests truly are. We may not be finding our true voice yet, but at least we are starting to learn how to talk.

3. We begin to experiment.

This can still be done in the context of larger endeavors (like Makeover Monday, or IronViz feeders, or other community projects), or it can be done completely independently. This is when we start to directly challenge ourselves, by adding new self-imposed requirements and limitations. For instance, we take on a project and decide, for THIS viz, I’m going to:

  • Create a way to represent the data that I’ve never seen before; or

  • Only use a single color; or

  • Limit myself to one annotated chart; or

  • Try longform storytelling; or

  • Do it in 20 minutes or less; or

  • Design purely for mobile; or

  • Incorporate other technologies.

Additionally, this can be done using data that you procure, vet, clean, and shape on your own. Now you move into finding topics of particular interest to you, that (hopefully) you can analyze and present in a way that makes them of interest to other people.

This will surely lead to some final products that don’t feel like your best work, and/or don’t feel like “your” type of visualization. But that’s unavoidable, because trying things outside of your comfort zone will sometimes lead to endpoints that you’re uncomfortable with—if you’ll pardon the pun, by design.

In the stand-up career version of your development, this is the point at which you know that you can put together a pretty solid and funny, if unremarkable, 5- to 10-minute set that will work even in front of complete strangers. You’ve gotten very comfortable with the tools of the trade and you know what audiences respond to and don’t respond to.

In a data viz sense, this is when you’ve learned how to identify good data from bad data, how to run analyses that are sincere and unbiased, and how to present your findings in a clear and (if necessary) persuasive manner. You read The Big Book of Dashboards and you nodded along in agreement and understanding. You even feel comfortable providing feedback to other people.

4. We hear a voice.

Eventually, we look back over our visualizations, and we see that we have certain tendencies, and certain elements that persist across much of our portfolio. We identify the work that we remain proud of and the work that we’d never do the same way, and we start to figure out which pieces represent our skills, interests, and aesthetic most accurately. We see what pieces we didn’t genuinely care for or didn’t put our best effort into, because the data or the story didn’t resonate with us. We see which ones we keep looking back at again, which ones we’d put in a “Favorites” gallery if we had one.

This is our voice starting to make itself heard.

This is the point in time when we should listen to our voice, and refocus our efforts on understanding what the essential elements of it truly are, and how we can amplify and refine our work to reflect that unique voice.

Does your voice have to do with the theme, the techniques, or the aesthetic?

The answer is, it could be any or all of these. It might be, as with Jacob Olsufka and Allan Walker, that your unique voice is predominantly identifiable by the themes of your work, even though there’s still a common design language that runs throughout your portfolio. It might be, as with Pooja, Rody, and Filippo, that your visual aesthetic and technical skills define your voice. Or, as with Jewel Loree and Jonni Walker, it could be a combination of theme, aesthetic, and technique that distinguishes your work.

So, Mr. Smart Guy, what do you think YOUR voice is?

I don't know yet. I'm not at that point in my development. As I said, this is a journey, and a lot of us are on it, and we're going at different speeds, and along different pathways. Maybe a lot of us are on this journey and never really thought about it. But the point wasn't to talk about how *I* found my voice. It's about how I'm looking for it, and how I think we are all looking for our own voices, and how there are people we can point to as examples of, "THIS is what it looks like when someone finds their voice. THIS helps me know that it's possible to achieve."

And sure, to some people, data visualization may be a hobby, or a profession, or a tool in a larger kit; but to me, and maybe to some others who have bothered to read this far, it's more of a vocation. This particular journey is not about "how can I be a better professional," or "how can I serve my customers better," or "what do I have to do to become more popular?" It's more about, how do I make my love of this artistic form meaningful in a greater sense? What distinctive perspectives do I have to offer the world?

Overwrought? Maybe. Maybe for some. But not for all.

I think I’ve found my voice. What do I do with it?

Sing, you fool. And let the world hear your song.

*The 2016 version of Rody, before he took a curves hiatus.

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