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Storytelling for Designers

How can you turn your idea into a compelling story and inspire your audience? How can you influence decision-making through an effective presentation?

This write-up will help designers understand the framework behind great stories and apply them in their everyday pitches and presentations. Please note that the framework focuses mainly on creating the story and not on the delivery, which is another important part of storytelling.
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To jump directly to the framework, please navigate to "The 4-step storytelling framework".

Contents

Why do you tell stories?

Stories are everything

Human beings are born with an inherent nature to tell stories. If we look deeply, the ultimate goal of any form of communication humankind has developed is to tell a story. Books, paintings, films, news, apps, websites and even everyday conversations are just stories packaged in various media forms. But why do we tell them? Why don’t we just show some information and leave it at that? Why make the effort to tell a story? I think it is because stories are the only form of communication with the power to connect to another individual at an emotional level.

Stories are the only form of communication with the power to connect to another individual at an emotional level.

Stories are carriers of emotion, they can make you happy, make you cry, inspire you or even bore you. They directly connect with your emotions and emotions are motivators of change without actually creating change. Stories are the keystone for human evolution and if we look closely, every leap of progress has a great story behind it. I am not sure if mankind would have evolved into what it is right now without stories.

The power of stories

One of the most impressive testaments I have read about stories is from Neil Gaiman. He explains the power of stories through the life of his cousin Helen, a 97 year old Holocaust survivor. Here it is:

“A few years ago, Helen started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book … the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger — books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class… a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them math, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar… One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up — she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour, she read a chapter of Gone with the Wind.

And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book.

Illustration : Woman reading in the Nazi ghetto by Manivarma
Illustration : Woman reading in the Nazi ghetto by Manivarma

And each night, she’d stay up; and each day, she’d tell them the story. And Gaiman asked, “Why? Why would you risk death — for a story?” And she said, “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto — they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.

Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto — they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.

Four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And Helen told Gaiman how, when she met one of them when they were old and how they called each other by names from Gone with the Wind…” Source : Brain pickings

Stories in business decisions

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Businesses run on decisions, and on any given day, hundreds of decisions are made at different hierarchy levels. By definition, a ‘decision’ is a series of steps, starting with information, leading to analysis and culminating in resolution. [1] There are different ways in which one arrives at a decision. Let’s take the example of an emergency response ward at a hospital. As soon as the ambulance arrives at the hospital premises, everyone should be ready to execute their tasks and take decisions. And since the cost of bad decisions here can be very high, the whole self-decision making process is eliminated. What you would observe is a checklist, if the situation is “X” do “Y” and so on. This is similar for any situation that involves high stakes, where preset checklists or a manual help in the decision-making process . They call this the standard operating procedure where the optimal solution has been researched and accepted. Yes, researched and experimented over long periods of time, before arriving at the best method.

But what about situations where there hasn't been enough research done, about the variables of a decision that are constantly changing Where there is endless discussion about what could work? How do you arrive at a decision in this case? If this situation sounds unfamiliar, my guess is that you have probably not been part of a meeting involving a product decision or a business decision. Usually these meetings always go on and on until the Highest Paid Person Opinions (HIPPOs) end the meeting. But how do you overcome the HIPPOs, or how do you convince the HIPPOs to change their decision? How do you convince people to make a particular decision that you believe in when there is ambiguity?

But how do you overcome the HIPPO (Highest paid person opinion), or how do you convince the HIPPO's to change their decision? How do you convince people to decide when there is ambiguity?

This is where storytelling plays an effective role, for, great stories don’t just provide information, they present a pattern that reduces noise and leads to a resolution. To me, there is no better weapon in your arsenal, as an inexperienced though passionate designer, than “stories and storytelling”. Another advantage of storytelling is that it doesn't just help your team or your stakeholder network make better decisions, it also gives you the opportunity to present yourself as a thought leader who can influence decisions. With decisions taken every day at businesses, be it strategic or operational, there is always an opportunity to tell a story.

The 4 step storytelling framework

I believe everyone needs storytelling skills. This article presents a detailed framework on how anyone can create stories to influence decision- making in a business context using one of the most basic but any powerful visual mediums at your disposal.

There are four parts to the framework

  • Step 1 : Understanding the principles
  • Step 2: Building the story
  • Step 3: Enhancing with visuals
  • Step 4: Delivering with intent

Step 1: Understanding the principles

Before getting into the details of storytelling, there is one important thing that we should remember. People remember stories for not what it conveyed but for how it made them feel. Following these principles ensure a story creates its impact irrespective of the content or the deliverer.

Be authentic

Always be true, to both the story and to the delivery, and remember people come with bullshit detectors.

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Be clear and structured

Stories don't exist in a vacuum. Ensure there is context to each and every information you give in a story.

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Context first

Stories are about deriving a pattern, having a clear structure helps in finding it faster

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Always have a purpose

Tell a story only if you have a purpose for it. Without purpose, stories fall flat.

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Keep it simple

Flamboyant visuals, overwhelming data or funny memes may make the story engaging but simple stories are the ones that tend to stick.

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Step 2: Building the story

There is nothing more important in this framework than step 2. It is the anchor of the whole process. Even with the best of attempts in visuals and delivery, if you don't have a properly built story you are setting yourself up for a failure during your presentation. This is also the step where the maximum amount of time has to be spent. If you have 10 hrs before your presentation, allocate 70% of your time to build the story.

A story can be built in two steps

  1. Finding the theme
  2. Organising the content

1. Finding the theme

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The beginning of creating good stories is finding the end. This end should be the theme of your presentation. Beginning with your theme not only guides you throughout your presentation but also builds clarity with the audience with what to expect.

Ask yourself the questions: “What should the audience take away at the end of the presentation?” “What should they know after the presentation?” “What should they care about after the presentation ?” It is completely alright to rediscover this theme as you build your story, but there always needs to be one at the beginning and this will be the reason why people will remember your presentation. This can be as simple as a concept you have created for a problem or a grand vision on the direction the business should take. So, spend the most amount of time identifying the theme. The theme can also serve as your guide in the later stages to prune unwanted information, so that your story is tight.

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Here are three questions that will help you get clarity on the theme

Do you know your audience ? Knowing your audience is key in arriving at a theme. When your audience group is specific, your themes can also be specific, but if you are addressing a wider audience your theme should also be universally appealing.

Are you clear on your motive? Are you looking to pitch a new idea or validate an existing one? Your motive is the next ingredient in your theme. If you are looking to pitch a new idea, your theme should be to make the audience understand the need for the new idea . If it is about validating an existing idea and seeking collaborations, then your theme can focus on bringing the insights and patterns discovered by you which makes the idea standout.

What is the familiarity of the audience with the topic ? Familiarity with the topic determines whether your theme needs to cover basic details of the story or to delve into deeper insights

2. Organising the content

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Storytelling is not chucking ideas/thoughts one after another; it is carefully placing information in a sequence to create maximum impact. Organising the content will determine what should the audience know and more importantly when. While non linear storytelling has its charm, its mostly safer to take the linear route.

Storytelling is not chucking ideas/thoughts one after another; it is carefully placing information in a sequence to create maximum impact.

The sequence to organise your content is by starting with the landscape, then showing the journey and finally ending with the resolution.

a. Landscape

Start with showing the landscape that is related to your idea. Depending on the familiarity of the crowd, you can add as many or as little details that the audience cares. If you are short on time, bring out the most important aspects of your landscape. A successful setup of the landscape makes your audience invested in your idea. Start with the problem you are trying to solve - Your Goal. Introduce your users, make a case for the audience to care for them. Tell them what is the risk if your idea fails or the benefits it succeeds . Identify the stakes of your idea and keep them high. Remember, it's the first 5 mins of your presentation that will decide whether your audience will pay attention to the rest of it.

Remember, it's the first 5 minutes of your presentation that will decide whether your audience will pay attention to the rest of it.

Here is a Ted Talk by David Kelly. See how he uses the first three minutes to set a landscape that's personal and which everyone in the audience can relate to. This is an excellent example of a winning opening act.

b. Journey

Next is the journey and in the language of designers, “the process”. Designers love the process, it's the zone we spend the most amount of time in. While telling a story instead of the complete process identify “ transformation points”- these are moments in your process where you learned something new about the user or the idea.

Transformation points are parts of your process where you learnt something new about the user or the idea.

Identifying these moments upfront helps you from being lost in the process. These moments are your guides in focusing on the “what” rather than the “how”,that ensures you don't get lost in the details. Remember, it's the first 5 mins of your presentation which will decide whether your audience will pay attention to the rest of it. Ideally the more these transformation points, the more engaging the story. Also ensure that these transformation points aren't just positive. If a journey is a series of positive events stuck together then it becomes flat right boring. Ensure there are enough lows to complement your highs.

Once you have identified these transformation points, the next step is to take a step back and think about constraints or the moves that led to these points. If you don't have a constraint for your identified transformation point, then it's not worth adding in your story. These constraints are also the impetus that makes the presentation insightful. Next, sequence these the transformation points and the constraints, in a way that one leads to the other. Without a proper sequence it will be hard to find the pattern in your story. Your presentation might be amazing in parts but on the whole, it will fail to deliver the impact. Remember the order its transformation points - Constraints and then the sequence

c. Resolution

Now that you have built up the conflicts and resolved them one by one, you lead the audience towards the resolution. The resolution is actually the last part of your presentation.The only rule with resolution is that you should make it feel “satisfying” and that doesn't mean it necessarily has to be a good ending, it could even be a failure of an idea at the end of the story.

The only rule with resolution is that you should make it feel “satisfying” and that doesn't mean it necessarily has to be a good ending.

But how do you make the audience feel satisfied? One common mistake that presenters do is reduce this last act to just one or two slides, it's either the conclusion slide or the learning slide. When that happens, the listener whom you have captivated till this point will feel empty. Begin the resolution act with the conclusion of your story, the point where you have arrived at your result. Then do the “unravel”, where you show how the conclusion solves the conflicts that were raised throughout the journey. The resolution should always end with the “Learnings” or “Next steps” depending on the kind of presentation.

Step 3: Enhancing with the visuals

After these steps you will have your story ready, the remaining steps aren't necessarily compulsory but it will definitely improve the overall experience.

Now that we have created a strong plot for our story, the next step is to create the visuals to the story - the presentation deck. Visuals are very important in the story to create a wonderful listening experience, but they can never substitute well curated content. Thus, it is prudent that we keep creating visuals throughout the storytelling process.

Visuals are very important in the story to create a wonderful listening experience, but they can never substitute well curated content.

Although visuals depend on an individual’s aesthetic, here are a few pointers that needs to be taken care of.

1. Trust the story more than the visuals

Most presenters spend a lot of time finding the visuals than the story itself. Whether you are finding an impactful image or a funny meme that everyone likes, it is always a fun experience to spend time in finding the right visual for your story. But remember a good story will still reach the audience without good visuals, but not the other way around. Imagine the last time you were part of a good presentation. Do you remember the story or the narrator or the slide ? My guess is it would always be the story. So, given the choice of time to work on the story or the visuals - always trust the story.

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2. Don't overwhelm your audience

Listening to a story is a highly sensorial experience. While telling a story in front of an audience, remember that they are constantly switching their attention between you the speaker and the slide. It is very important that this switch shouldn’t be difficult. There are multiple ways to make it easy for the audience. Like, if you have a slide filled with a lot of information, pause for a minute and let the audience grasp it. If you are going to play a video, prepare your audience for it. Or if you are going to transition to the next section, convey that to your audience.

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3. Have a style but keep it consistent

Having a style and rhythm for your presentation helps the audience follow the story attentively. Whether you are going for a text only presentation or an image heavy presentation, keep that style consistent throughout the presentation. Rhythm can be created by having consistency in the layout. For instance, if you have the heading on the top left corner, maintain that, or if the image is always on the left side and text on the right, keep that consistent. If you are transitioning to a new topic in your story use a transition slide that has its own style, but keep that consistent.

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4. Less is more.

Judging a presentation deck by the number of slides is a common misconception among people. It is often believed that the more the number of slides, the more complex the presentation. But that is not always the case. To me, an overwhelming slide is one which has a lot of information packed into one individual slide. So if you have a presentation deck that is information heavy, break that into multiple slides. If you can't avoid text, use progressive disclosure to reveal them one by one - but do keep the animation under check.

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5. Ensure visuals are relatable.

Finally, make sure that whatever visuals are included in the deck relate to the audience. Different audiences are familiar with understanding different visuals. A tabular column which might be complex for a generic audience might be the best form to understand for a business leader as they see such columns every day. So ensure that the visuals are relatable to the audience to you are presenting to. If you are showing a graph to a generic audience simplify it to show only the important aspects of it.

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Step 4: Delivering the story

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After creating the story, it's time to prepare for the delivery. With the story and visuals in place it is often easier to prepare for your delivery. Since this article is more about creation, we will not go deep into the delivery. Also, there are tons of resources online on body language and communication that could help in delivery, for which I will leave a link below. But, I wish to explain to you two things to follow while preparing for the delivery"

1. Get feedback

Try to rehearse the story in your mind and in front of a third person as much as possible, because what makes sense to you could be complete gibberish for the other person.

2. Be yourself

A good story isn't of much value if the person narrating it isn’t passionate about it. So, no matter how challenging the audience is:

Believe in your story and be yourself.