Unserious

Season 1 Finale and Human-Centered Storytelling with Micah Vono

December 14, 2023 J.B. Skelton and Molly McMahon Season 1 Episode 6
Unserious
Season 1 Finale and Human-Centered Storytelling with Micah Vono
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Embracing failure as a force multiplier for growth and creativity is a core belief here at Unserious. So in this our final episode of the season, we journey back to the origins of our podcasting adventure, reflecting on some of our favorite moments and valuable insights we learned along the way. In this episode, Unserious producer Micah Vono joins J.B. and Molly to talk about storytelling and narrative building from his unique angle of human-centered design. We talk about our hopes and dreams for the future and offer a sneak peek at what we're thinking about for next season. Join us as we celebrate new beginnings and let us know what suggestions you have for Unserious!

"Being able to take that step back and say ‘this thing that I’m working on is not me’ is table stakes for producing great work.” - Micah Vono

0:12 Intro
1:24 Learning and Growing Through Podcasting
4:36 Great Moments From Season 1
12:41 Hire, Fire, Boss!
15:48 Storytelling for Humans
22:24 The Future of Unserious
27:43 Outro

You can check out more of Micah's work at micahvono.com and connect on LinkedIn.

Mentioned in this episode:
- Julie Zhou on loving the problem
- Storyteller Sarah Kuck of Present Medium Productions
- Dieter Rams' Ten Principles for Good Design 

Follow Unserious in your podcast app, at unserious.com, and on Instagram and Threads at @unserious.fun.

Speaker 1:

This is Unserious. Beginnings aren't just about starting something new and exciting. They're also about learning, about falling on your face and getting up to try again. They're about remaining humble and sometimes stumbling into surprising successes. When we set out to make a podcast earlier this year, we wanted to create something useful to share the brilliance of our friends and tell a broader, cohesive story of how we think about managing and leading today. We wanted each episode to work as a standalone lesson, but we also wanted them to build upon other episodes so that there was a greater meeting to the whole season. Today we're going back to the beginning, and our guest isn't so much of a guest, since he'll be editing this conversation on the backend. We're joined by our producer, Mike Avono, who is no stranger to new beginnings. Mike has been a multidisciplinary creative leader, straddling content and operations at places like Facebook, Best Buy and the National Salon Chain Reaches Corporation, with a special focus on design and entrepreneurship. He spent five years leading internal storytelling for Meta's ads and business product team, traveling the world many times over to capture compelling business stories to influence product mode maps. Welcome, Micah.

Speaker 4:

Welcome, Micah.

Speaker 3:

It's so nice to be here for once.

Speaker 4:

It's really great to have you Get on in here. Buddy Magic Micah has arrived.

Speaker 3:

Oh my God, Magic Micah.

Speaker 4:

Actually, you've always been here like pulling the strings and making everybody sound awesome.

Speaker 1:

And that goes right to the start of this, molly, you and I started talking about a podcast at the beginning of this year and actually started into it in earnest in May, june, and then we started recording conversations and they were so bad they were awful. The worst. They were awful. We were such like. We were terrible interviewers and we didn't know how to edit.

Speaker 4:

And I didn't know if our friendship was going to last it. I was like, oh wow we do so many good things together, but this is not it.

Speaker 1:

This is not it, and I realized that we had a missing ingredient that we needed, and that was. That was my Cofono, who brought order to our chaos and rained us in and is able to shut us up and get us off of a tangent and really drive us towards a through line for each of our stories. So that has, that has been what has made unserious work. But, micah, I'd love to start with you, like you've never worked in audio before, what was most fun to learn and discover as you began working in audio?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, I mean, my initial thought was that this wouldn't be too far off from video, which I've done quite a bit of and I've done with UJB. But when we lose all of the visuals, the way you tell the story turns out to be a lot different than video. I learned through some wonderful mentors it's actually more powerful to not say everything out loud and to use the medium of the visual to say the thing for you. You don't need a person to say you know, and then I was sad, when you can show a visual of the person who is sad, right, it's more powerful. In audio you don't get that and it's a fun challenge.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, I think that you are one of the most talented storytellers that I know, that you are able to bring out like the personality they essentialize, down to the most important themes, and weave it all together in a way that emotionally connects with audiences. And I'm curious like what is your art or craft around storytelling?

Speaker 3:

I mean, in a lot of ways storytelling is not that different at all from other types of human-centered design. It's understanding your user's needs and context and what might be interesting or helpful to them. It's mapping it to what might be possible. And then it's expanding possibilities by recording lots of great stuff and lots of ideas that might go nowhere until you decide to consolidate those ideas into something that's really crisp and works for everybody.

Speaker 4:

Was there a favorite story or through line that you heard this last season? I mean, I'd love to hear this from both of you guys.

Speaker 3:

actually, oh boy, I had a favorite moment, every single person that we talked with. And much like Molly, you had your professional crush on everybody that we spoke with and I thought the same thing I'm like. Well, I could be that I could be Ryan Majeski. I could be Courtney Catlin. I want to be Mary Michael for a living when I grow up.

Speaker 1:

And I never really.

Speaker 4:

These are all people. I dream of being these folks when I grow up. Or I just fell in love with everybody. In the middle of the episode there was a moment where, all of a sudden, I was like I love you, please tell me more. You're spectacular.

Speaker 1:

I totally agree. I loved meeting new people and hearing like Denise blew my mind, mary Michael blew my mind. It was fun reconnecting with Ryan and just getting the story of what's been. We knew each other 20 years ago but we really haven't been in touch and so just hearing the incredible impact that he's been having over the last 18, 19 years has been really fun. Long way for the wine shop. Long way for the wine shop and just like such amazing wisdom that our guests had.

Speaker 4:

How about you, Micah?

Speaker 3:

I felt like there were always moments where it was like either God that's validating or God that is challenging. I guess maybe, if I had to pick a favorite moment, I have never heard a more precise and specific and strong point of view on, like, how to get your creativity back is Mary Michael Brinkel.

Speaker 4:

Oh yeah, I would just say, I would just reflect back that like it is about returning to your younger, self and it just goes back to play and you get back to that and you've got yourself your creativity back.

Speaker 1:

I think she was. Yeah, that was just like so clear headed, yeah, yeah.

Speaker 3:

And as a parent to you of a small child, I'm like it's really, it's that simple as reconnecting with who you were as a child, and I kind of intentionally don't reflect on the past. I avoid nostalgia, and it's actually ever since. That episode has made me kind of lean into it a little bit more.

Speaker 4:

Oh, I love that. How about you, JB? Was there like a moment or a story that really stuck with you?

Speaker 1:

Ryan talked about his work as a magician and the way that he manipulates audiences to create magic Manipulation for good but I thought it was a really interesting and honest explanation of how that moment of surprise and delight, how you create that magic is this manipulation of your audience?

Speaker 2:

I was a magician for 20 years. A lot of magic is convincing people to make a free choice when really they're making a predetermined choice. You can work all these things into like UX and UI design, and also into management and leadership.

Speaker 1:

It was really interesting and I hadn't thought of it that way.

Speaker 4:

I think about that as just being very intentional, being really clear about what you were doing and why, which I think that goes back to what Micah was sharing about that human-centeredness of that so many folks shared on our show. I am neighbors with Denise virtual and so I get to see her all the time at the coffee shop where she drops wisdom bombs. I'm so glad she was able to come on the show and share her brilliance even more widely.

Speaker 6:

It makes sense to not just think of what am I doing for the individual user I have in mind. It makes sense to think of the user in the social context. What's the team behind them? What's the community behind them? Where are they when they're interacting with this product or service? How do we, as designers, start to create a practice that takes all those things into consideration, because they really do impact the experience of using the products and services we build?

Speaker 4:

I would say some really fun moments for me were getting the chance to reconnect with Courtney Kaplan, who was my coach, just that permission to meditate in meetings and all.

Speaker 5:

I would do is realize I'm in a meeting room with people. I don't need to clench my jaw, that's not helping. I don't need to hold tension in my shoulders. They aren't doing anything. In this meeting I can actually fully relax my body, still pay attention and participate. Follow my breath, participate. Follow my breath, participate.

Speaker 4:

And then, at the same time, lauren Cook. Give me the weird man, my work, naturally will always skew to that whimsy.

Speaker 3:

I think for my team I push to give me the weird.

Speaker 4:

I want bonkers in my briefs.

Speaker 1:

She was so unbridled she's so cool, like I like.

Speaker 4:

Can you imagine if you had a team with all of these folks from the mysterious podcast working together Like I think most problems in the world would be solvable and it would be a team that would take really good care of each other in that challenging process. And so I think our hypothesis in this podcast that folks in our network and people that we work with are best in class in what they do and haven't had the opportunity yet to share how extraordinarily gifted they are professionally and I think that is been one of my favorite parts is getting to learn from these folks about their everyday amazingness and solving complexity in the work.

Speaker 1:

There's so many people who need a platform. And it's really an honor to be able to provide a platform.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, yeah. I feel like there's a lot of podcasts where and this is totally fine but where you go like, go grab a big name, an author, a celebrity or whatever we all have a lot to learn from, but there's a bit of a popularity bias to say that those are the only people that have we have a lot to learn from, right.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, we talk about Adam Grant and Bernay Brown all the time.

Speaker 4:

Oh my gosh, exactly, there's like a lot of podcasts every day. Yeah.

Speaker 1:

It's not hard to find them.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, who made them possible right?

Speaker 4:

Yeah, ted, I mean yeah, and I think. The other thing is, I do think a lot of the folks who joined maybe don't care that much about platform. They just want to do good fucking work. That's right. Like so many, one of the big themes was friendships on teams. They just want to do great work with good people and feel good at the end of the day about doing that work. And feeling good could be like it was impactful or it was creative or it was joyful or it was complex and we figured it out. It could take a lot of different forms, but yeah, I think they should be heard and seen so much further than the inner workings of their teams, because they change lives.

Speaker 3:

That's right. You mentioned Ryan and Denise. Both of them hit on the topic of what's good for the world. Yeah, and what is the ethical thing to do, Like like JV? When you were talking about Ryan using the magician sort of powers to exploit the human, you know the way the human brain works, but he's doing it from a super ethical standpoint, Absolutely. And Denise's conversation about like the smartphone has also really stuck with me. What can a smartphone solve for a person is a really different question from what does a smartphone do to the rest of society? And like those are the kinds of people we need to hear more from.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, absolutely Back in a minute with more on Sirius.

Speaker 3:

Um, for Hirefire Boss. Does anybody else have any other ideas?

Speaker 2:

Yes, yes, yeah.

Speaker 4:

Oh, boy, okay I understand that it's a matter of like a magic time.

Speaker 1:

You might be familiar with this game that we play, called Hirefire or Boss.

Speaker 2:

Shall I explain the rules.

Speaker 3:

No, well, maybe for our listeners.

Speaker 1:

Okay, well, we're going to give you three names and you have to pick who you would hire to work on your team, who you would fire and who would be your boss Genius.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, I wonder who came up with that game.

Speaker 1:

I don't know.

Speaker 4:

It was a little piece of Micah magic.

Speaker 1:

So the first category is Dude Chefs. Oh boy.

Speaker 4:

We love a good Dude Chef.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, we like a good Dude Chef. Yeah, so does the world. It doesn't Like an open fire self.

Speaker 3:

Open fire Francis.

Speaker 1:

Malman. Francis Malman First. Second. Jose Andres, oh God. Third, anthony Bourdain, all three near and dear to my heart. Okay, jose Andres should be everyone's boss.

Speaker 3:

Oh yeah, he's a lovely person, like hands down, and he can actually scale work. That is exactly right, like he can actually operationalize and move and he leads with heart. One of my great moments in life, I was served Hamon Ibarico by Jose Andres. What In one of his restaurants At a South by Southwest event in Austin, texas, when I lived there. How lovely, oh cool.

Speaker 1:

When I was in DC running the wine shop. That was the early days of Haleo, which is his first restaurant in DC, and we shared a lot of the same staff. So I have a lot of respect for him and it's been fun to watch him like go global, I mean like he's working with the UN and stuff. I mean it's pretty incredible. Okay, so we have a boss.

Speaker 3:

We have a boss. We fire Francis Malman because Francis Malman can't even walk into a building. I don't think he exists inside buildings, I think he exists. He appears when a fire is built by the riverside and you say his name two times and Francis Malman appears.

Speaker 4:

We throw a little like salt in the fire and he emerges.

Speaker 3:

And then, yeah, I think like, hire Bourdain and you do the best you can with that. You hire him, you make him your star, you do what he tells you. How about you guys?

Speaker 4:

He'd be your buddy and you could go motorcycle riding on the weekends together and sample food and drink some beers and throw some axes or something.

Speaker 3:

So authenticity is like the biggest thing that I would want in somebody on my team Right and he's kind of house this brand.

Speaker 1:

He's an incredible storyteller and really finds a story in food that's unusual and different. I think I would. I don't disagree with your selections at all, yeah.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, okay, all right, we warmed up.

Speaker 1:

We warmed up.

Speaker 4:

Yeah Cool.

Speaker 1:

So I want to dig a little more into the storytelling here, because this is really, I think, where you shine, micah, and this is a brand new podcast. We have, like, a very limited understanding of who our listeners are. We don't have a lot to go on in terms of insights. Who are we speaking to? Is there a persona that you have in mind?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, I mean, the proxy persona is our guests themselves, because our guests are part of our network. The listeners of our podcasts are part of their network. So it's a lot of people that are working on high stakes work, design forward, creativity forward and, have you know, they've been around a bit. They have something to say. So I think it's important that we treat our audience with a lot of respect. They don't need to learn from us, right? But I think in elevating these voices, it might give them something to think about, these really smart people who are listening to our podcast. That might change the alchemy for them and make better decisions in their career too. Yeah, totally.

Speaker 1:

This is a great segue into that, because it's once again. We go off-piste. Every single one of our conversations starts with a plan but ventures off into the woods fairly quickly. How do you adapt a narrative to fit the reality of the conversations?

Speaker 3:

that we have. I mean, what's reality is kind of a big question, right? I think one of the things that I learned in video production is that you know you might spend three or four hours with a person, getting to know them, getting to know their story, their motivations, their challenges, and every one of the things that they said is true, and yet there are a zillion different ways you can tell that story. So I think that the approach is the same. Where we plan for it to go off course, we plan for the fact that we're going to record for 90 minutes, for a 30-minute conversation, because we're going to find the bits and pieces and the through lines that tell a story. Back to the human-centered design idea that fits the needs and context of our listeners, our perceived listeners. I think, for the most part, most of our conversations have fit what we set out to do in the beginning, but there are many times where we change the topic because what came up was more interesting and compelling.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, Do you ever find that there's a struggle between what we want to get across and the stories that are guest-spring? And when there is, how do you reconcile that conflict? There's always a struggle.

Speaker 3:

That said, I don't know if I'd call it a struggle as much as I would a dance Fair enough Okay.

Speaker 4:

What kind of dance?

Speaker 2:

Are we?

Speaker 4:

talking polka? Are we talking modern ballet, hip-hop?

Speaker 3:

Waltz is probably a good one. It's a give and take right, yeah, and it's a call and response, and it's like I'm feeling this right now and now we're going to change approach. In the end, it's still a dance, but there's an alchemy component to this that every conversation is different. Even if you put the same people and the same conversation two days in a row, the next day would be totally different. Okay.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, what are the?

Speaker 1:

Are there frameworks that you use to develop narratives and stories Like how do you, how do you do this? Yeah, yeah it's.

Speaker 3:

It's about removing everything unnecessary. Like I haven't always been a producer Okay, I haven't always been like good at editing things, even though I think I've always tried, even back to like Childhood VHS recorder.

Speaker 4:

Yeah.

Speaker 3:

I've had a lot of great mentors and a lot of time spent in my own personal learning Sarah cook of present medium. I used to work with her quite a bit. We would. We would always work so well together until it came to post and she was like removing all of these Amazing quotes and I was like keep them in. And she's like, no, take them out. And I think it's you know, I don't know if you can see it, but like Deeter. Deeter runs the designer, deeter runs from Ron and all of the yeah, his ten principles are with me. They've been with me for decades on my wall. Removing everything unnecessary is one of the the key principles there. Good design is understandable, good design is useful. Good design is as little design as possible and in the designing of the conversation we remove everything that's not necessary. We make the conversation understandable, we make the conversation useful and we make the conversation as few words as possible.

Speaker 4:

Oh my gosh, I love that you've got Deeter on the wall with you at all times.

Speaker 1:

We'll share a link to that in our show notes.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, yeah you know, I think it's often we call it like killing your darlings. You sometimes have to kill, yes, your most favorite part of your story to simplify and connect emotionally and make something Digestible to someone else, and so it may be something that you love but you're like it just doesn't fit anymore and so that killing the darlings process I feel like you might have to you there's often like grieving and Squabble over over that being able to take that step away and say this thing that I am working on is not me Mm-hmm, I think is table stakes for producing great work.

Speaker 3:

Yeah one of the things that's really stuck with me that I've read this year is from Julie Zhu, who's an author and former VP of design at Facebook, about falling in love with the problem and not falling in love with the solution. If you fall in love with the solution, your blinders go on. You start to put this thing up on a pedestal and when the market conditions change, yeah the solution doesn't apply anymore. Right, but if you fall in love with the problem, then you keep looking at new ways of addressing that problem, and I think there's an application here for for the storytelling work that we do elegant way of thinking.

Speaker 1:

Yeah.

Speaker 4:

Relevant authentic keeping pace ability to shift. Yeah, yeah right.

Speaker 3:

So even on serious right, or even a conversation where we're like I'm falling in love with these people, I'm falling in love with the conversation, falling in love with the house, but what's the quote, what's the underlying problem? That on serious Solves for right and that's going to change over time.

Speaker 1:

What do you want this to become? What do you where?

Speaker 3:

do you want to see this going? I mean, on serious, couldn't be better timed in my opinion. It's 2023. Yeah, we're post pandemic ish. We're in the thick of a huge change in the way of working, in the way of who's working, in the way of how those people are treated and. I would love for the idea of on serious lowering the stakes, taking a different outlook on what work is and what how it fits into our lives. I'd like it to be a reset button for how we work post 2023. Hmm, our lives are now richer. Our work is not the only part of our life. Hmm, it's an important part of our life and we're passionate about it, but we have other things too.

Speaker 1:

Oh, how about you, molly? What do you want?

Speaker 4:

on serious to become like I think about on serious, as being a place of refuge, a place to rebuild your creative spirit and mojo. I want it to be an experience that resonates and let's folks know that they are exceptional too in what they do and can show up as Like, show up with their full expertise and life experiences in in problem-solving, but they don't have to give their full selves I to work. I think it's an opportunity to learn from maybe this is a little cheesy but kind of the unsung heroes of the professional world today. The folks that we were bringing on are the ones who lift up leaders, who guide the toughest decisions that companies and nonprofits and governments have to make. They are the ones that team members at the same level or at different levels come in and seek their wisdom and expertise from. So I think it's a chance to give these unsung professional heroes the opportunity to be seen and recognized for the really positive impact that they've had on their teams, their work and their communities. I feel recharged, I feel energized, I feel a renewed sense of optimism in these conversations, and so I'm hoping that we're able to scale beyond our networks to the next network out.

Speaker 1:

I think that's really beautifully said.

Speaker 4:

What about you, JB? What are your hopes for the future of Unserious?

Speaker 3:

JB, I got one on a call. You're the one that came up with the idea of Unserious. You came up with the idea of a podcast.

Speaker 1:

I initially started with because I wanted like, clearly, audio is a thing and I've never worked in it before I've been in a career break for this time and I wanted to learn it. I wanted to build a platform. I've built platforms for executives that I've worked with for many, many years and wanted to have a platform about something I cared about, which is around the future of work how we communicate, how we create, how we work together. I think it's as you said, micah there's so much changing right now and, molly, as you say, there's so many brilliant minds that, with so much to share that haven't been mined yet, and so there's so much amazing knowledge. As I look to the future, I think like really building a community around this through podcasts through what we're doing. That's where I'd like to see this going, and it's not a professional network that I think that we want. It's like this group of people who have a belief that we were only scratching the surface on the creative potential of these organizations and like how do we get more of that?

Speaker 4:

Yeah, well, I think that's. One of the things that brought us all here was that all three of us had a burnout moment, 100%, and our transitioning, how we think about work, you know, and our own ambition, and so you know. I want to take a moment to one. Thank you, jb, for the invitation to co-host with you. Oh God, yeah, it was a little rocky at the start. Thanks for making me giggle. But it really has been the highlight of the year and I get a chance. While we've been friends for so long, we've never had the chance to work with each other and I get to see like what I love about our friendship in the world of work and that feels so special and you've created just a really great experience, I think, for me and the listeners. And then you introduced me to Magic Micah, who I'm pretty sure there's nothing. Micah cannot do. But I mean Micah, thank you. You make us sound good, you make our. You make our guests sound great yeah you do show how great the guests are and you're just a really kind and fabulous person to work with. I can't. No one has any idea of the amount of technical challenges, micah has had to hurdle over with me to get me working on this podcast.

Speaker 5:

It's just you.

Speaker 4:

So I mean talk about some grit for some perseverance. Thanks, micah for hanging in there with me.

Speaker 3:

So, micah, tell our audience what we should be expecting next season I mean next season we want to dig deeper on a lot of the same topics, with new people just like you've described, at different stages in their careers All interesting, creative-minded people. What are they doing? How do we do more of it? How can the rest of us learn? What else are we going to hear about?

Speaker 1:

So this season was quite focused on managing creativity, I think, the ideas that we want to broaden it out. I want to talk about how we communicate up down sideways better to actually create change. How do we navigate our careers? So many people are in a period of transition right now, including President Company, and I think that there are lessons that we have. There are lessons that others have. There's just sort of people who are in the midst of the ambiguousness who I'd love to talk to. There are people who are much more seasoned than their careers, thinking about retiring and like what's their advice for their 20-year-old self? I love that. I think, we're going to have a lot of fun. Yeah, you even had an idea that we could talk to our mothers oh my gosh and find our mothers for their wisdom.

Speaker 4:

Oh wow. I feel like we would all learn so much more about each other.

Speaker 3:

I mean we'd have a lot of darlings to kill.

Speaker 4:

Oh my gosh, yeah, and I think, like I look looking forward, I hope we have we strengthen our relationship with folks who are listening. We want, you know, build up their ideas and expertise and have the ability to bring those folks in to the unserious universe as well. That's right.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, let's hear from you all Listeners, what would you like to hear about in the next season?

Speaker 1:

Yeah, let us know. Please do. All right, I think that's the show and that's the season. Throughout this season, our listeners have shown up, subscribing rating, sharing us Thank you. In the off season, we'll still pop in from time to time on Instagram and threads at Unseriousfun. If you joined us mid season, you can catch all of our previous episodes at unseriouscom, where you can also learn more and connect with the unserious crew. That's us. Thanks for tuning in and we'll be back next season with more unserious.

Speaker 4:

It's a matter of like a magic time.

Intro
Learning and Growing Through Podcasting
Great Moments From Season 1
Hire, Fire, Boss!
Storytelling for Humans
The Future of Unserious
Outro