By Jon Kolko
Storytelling is one of our most powerful tools. It’s a powerful shortcut to win hearts, and to drive strategy.
We use stories to communicate problems in existing products and services and to show the difficulties people are having. We use them to communicate innovations, encouraging people to see and imagine things that don’t yet exist. And we use stories to create an emotional response to an existing state and help people move beyond a rational or purely analytical response to data.
Data is never neutral, and in the context of design, our intent is almost always persuasive, in the service of our customers and users. Change is expensive and risky, and narrative helps not only communicate what is being proposed, but also to convince an audience that the change will make things better than how they are now.
It’s difficult to push a design rock uphill by yourself, so it’s fundamentally important to get people to champion new ideas. If companies, teams, and funders don’t see the benefits of a new approach, that approach is likely to fail—not because it’s a bad idea—but because no one believes the world should have the opportunity to judge if it’s a good idea.
Design strategy is a craft, just like other forms of applied design. In this strategic approach, our goal is to shape a vision of the future and identify a realistic path towards that vision. This is rarely accomplished with a single, simple design improvement. More often it will touch multiple products, services, offerings, people, and approaches, requiring groundswell from a number of different people with similar but not identical perspectives. To overcome these differences, we need to understand how people see new ideas in order to help them align around one.
Most designers use stories, we don’t know exactly why they work—but we know that they do. One reason we have a gap in our knowledge about narrative is because we learn the art and craft of design in a studio environment, one where the focus is on a master/apprentice form of craft development. In these contexts, emphasis is on the output – the thing that is made – rather than the process – how the thing is made. Some of this is a result of the legacy roots of design, which grew out of a study of art. Ironically, the masters in the Bauhaus did teach their apprentices about the theory behind form and color, but our newer education doesn’t necessarily apply that level of intellectual rigor to service, system, and interaction design.
Some of this knowledge gap is due to the constraints of common design contexts, like businesses and governments, where aggressive timelines drive project demands. Speed is more important than meta-reflection about a discipline. Education, both formal and on-the-job, is aimed at impact: ship products, first and foremost. And some of the knowledge gap is because the people doing the design work find more enjoyment and satisfaction in doing design rather than thinking about design.
But our profession has been maturing, and with that comes a desire to teach and learn more depth about why design is valuable, rather than simply accepting that it is, which involves learning about why it works. There has been an increased focus on method and process, implying that designers are viewing the “verb” of design as important. This shift demands an understanding of the underlying, scientific reasons as to why our techniques work.
But the study of humans and human behavior is a scientific endeavor, and there exists an enormous body of research explaining why things like stories are effective mechanisms to change the way people think and act.
As part of our individual professional growth and disciplinary maturity, we can (and should) know and leverage this research to improve our craft. We want to use these natural phenomena, like one uses a hammer, to make new systems, services, organizational structures, and to shape new experiences. We manipulate pixels when we make digital interfaces, plastic when we make injection molded objects, and behavior when we shape the activities and interactions people have with the human-built world. Storytelling is one of our main mechanisms of manipulation.
There are a number of ingredients of storytelling. These include cognitive dissonance, immersion, transportation, sympathy, emotional contagion, and empathy. I’ll first touch on each of these briefly, then explore cognitive dissonance, as it’s one of the biggest blocks in corporate strategy, and one of the most important parts of design-strategy-led change.
Immersion is the feeling of being so contained by an experience that we start to lose our own introspection and, as a result, become susceptible to new ways of thinking and feeling. In The Heart of the Story: Peripheral Physiology During Narrative Exposure Predicts Charitable Giving researcher Paul Zak describes it this way, “Well-crafted stories sustain attention and produce emotional resonance in listeners, a neurological state we call ‘immersion.’ The amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.” Simply put, there’s scientific evidence that good stories trigger things in our body that make us feel great about other people. This means that an immersive reaction is based on a physiological reason that is well understood—at least by scientists.
Transportation theory describes that a strong narrative causes a unique emotional response through mental imagery and provokes a loss of access to real-world information. People who are “transported” during a narrative are “so absorbed in the story that they would be reluctant to stop and critically analyze propositions presented.” They stop leveraging critical thinking and simply absorb the data being presented. This isn’t simply experiential or temporary. In The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives researchers Melanie Green and Timothy Brock indicate that there’s evidence transported individuals who develop a strong feeling towards characters in a story may alter their own beliefs.
Sympathy is about sharing a common feeling, which is often about something sad or troubling. Outsiders, prompted by narrative, start to form feelings about the characters they are viewing or hearing about. Sympathy is powerful, because it demands attention, whether the response is actionable or passive. Imagine walking by a person asking for spare change, feeling sympathetic to their circumstances, but not actually give them any money. An emotion was triggered, but behavior wasn’t changed. A story that evokes sympathetic responses has our attention, which is one of the rarest things we have or can give.
As discussed in Emotional Contagion , when we observe, either in person or through narrative, we may start to mimic the things we see: postures, expressions, and movements. This process is called emotional contagion and we aren’t aware of it happening. It doesn’t necessarily evoke feelings of empathy and we may not actually see the world through another’s eyes, but it causes us to find common ground with other people, even in the case of fictional characters.
Empathy is often described as the most important quality of human-to-human interaction and this connecting is where we can drastically start to change behavior. While sympathy describes feelings about another person, from a third-person perspective, empathy means transferring feelings, and psychology, from another person, resulting in a first-person perspective shift. As we gain empathy, we become open to other views, considering the things that are happening around us in new ways. Even our cognitive sense of reality can shift. Narrative, particularly when told in the first-person, helps us adopt another set of emotions and perspectives.
These theories and facts describe how and why we react when hearing a story. Some of these are “things we can do” as storytellers, and some of these are “things that happen” for listeners or readers, all of which are important for considering storytelling in the round. But one of the most interesting things related to strategic storytelling is something called Cognitive Dissonance.
Roger Martin, the former Dean of the Rotman School of Management, studied the traits of leaders in large, successful corporations. In The Opposable Mind he identified that one of the most important and unique traits of leaders is what he calls integrative thinking, the ability to hold two competing ideas in the head at once, and after marinating on them, synthesizing both into a meaningful whole instead of simply picking one direction.
Try it. Say these phrases out loud, as if you believe them:
I believe that poor people are poor because they are lazy.
I believe that poor people are poor because they’ve been dealt an unfair hand in life.
Our temptation is to pick one, the one that most accurately represents our existing beliefs. But try just living with the ideas, pondering them as if both are true. This isn’t an easy activity.
Cognitive dissonance, identified and studied extensively by social psychologist Leon Festinger, is a psychological state where the things we see, hear, or experience don’t fit into our worldview. We find ourselves in a state where there is a disconnect between our ethics, morals, and/or expectations and the things we are hearing, seeing, or experiencing.
If I believe poor people are poor because they are lazy, and then I hear a story, a study, or a news article that describes that, in fact, it is due to circumstances, I have cognitive dissonance. The feeling is uncomfortable enough that we work, somewhat relentlessly, to resolve the dissonance. We might question our beliefs and change them, altering the way we behave. We may reconsider an experience that we’ve had and change our perception on what happened and why. Or, most likely, we simply write off the new input and stimulus as being incorrect.
Many leaders, whether due to their experience, a rare super-powerful genetic disposition, or their brute force hard work, have found a way to hear multiple perspectives and resist a decision based on their pre-conceived view of the world. While integrative thinking can be taught and learned, most of us work on internally resolving this type of conflict it before it drives a wedge between our worldview and sense of self.
Consider how dissonance plays out with another example.
Imagine that you are fully aware that over-indulging in fast food is bad for you. You’ve read studies that show the correlation and causality between fatty, processed food and you’ve also identified that after you eat a Big Mac, you feel gross and gain weight, which is getting harder and harder to burn off at the gym.
But you eat it anyway.
It feels troubling to hold two ideas in your head at once: eating fast food is bad for you, yet you are the type of person that eats fast food. You’re intelligent, you like to think of yourself as rational and thoughtful, and this contradiction means that something is wrong.
You can stop eating fast food, the most logical approach, but most of us instead find ways of justifying it. We might tell ourselves that the science is fuzzy about it or convince ourselves that we’re saving a lot of money, which is important because we’re planning for retirement. We might tell ourselves that the time we’re saving by eating that food is being used for other important things, like spending time with our kids or over-delivering at work.
None of these change the fact that fast food is bad for us, but it doesn’t matter. Instead of changing our behavior this kind of self-justification reinforces it.
Not all dissonance is related to major lifestyle decisions. It happens in small ways, too, and often in cases where the outcome is not as black and white as “saturated fat leads to health problems.”
Imagine that you are the creative director at a bank, and your area of expertise is online billing. You are having a conversation with the product team about a decision they’ve made to add a big banner at the top of the mobile app that advertises a new joint partnership with a third-party to help people pay their bills. When users tap on the banner, they are taken to a completely different product, with a different brand and set of interactions. Even worse, instead of paying their bill they are dropped into a process of registration for that other company.
For you, it’s clear that this is a bad decision.
The product team then presents data that shows 80% of users tapped the banner. Your company gets paid based on each tap, and in the limited trial, the company made hundreds of thousands of dollars. At scale, the product team tells you, the company will make millions. Your training, experience, and heart tell you that the banner is a terrible idea, but you’re committed to the business, want to be a team player, and desire to see your stock improve.
Sitting with both ideas is painful, and a typical reaction—one I’ve had in many situations like this—is to embrace our existing worldview and insist on removing the banner at all costs. The longer we’ve been practicing, and the longer we’ve believed that we are an advocate for the user, the more we will fight for that designerly perspective.
There are other ways to resolve this issue, though, and that’s the power of design strategy and systems thinking. There are, in fact, infinite ways to handle this problem from a creative perspective: the banner could be bigger or smaller, it could be at the top or bottom, in the app, or in an email. It doesn’t need to be a banner at all and instead a physical item mailed to a customer. The entire compensation relationship with the joint partnership could be renegotiated so that referrals aren’t the main source of revenue.
Our job in building a resolution to the problem is to show how other solutions will be better.
“Provoking cognitive dissonance through storytelling works to our benefit. “
Things that happen during a narrative progression challenge the way audiences see the world, and because they can be transported, immersed, sympathetic, empathetic, or emotionally charged, stories fight against dissonance. Design strategy “solves” for that discomfort. And when stories are presented to a leader with the integrative skills Roger Martin describes as fundamental to strategic success, that leader has the dexterity and intellectual drive to engage with and consider the strategic directive.
This is not a simple trick or a way to increase clickthrough or signups. Our understanding shouldn’t rest on a sound bite or summary. We don’t get to selectively apply principles of, say, cognitive dissonance and then reject the ideas of transportation, because those phenomena are all related. Knowing about these things is like knowing about the limits of human memory when we create usable interfaces (as with the phenomenon of the Model Human Processor), or knowing about the physiology of the eye when we study color theory (taught during the Bauhaus by Wassily Kandinsky), or understanding anthropometrics when we explore human factors (explored extensively by Henry Dreyfuss). They act as a backdrop for our work.
When we tell stories, we bring a powerful form of input to a typically quant-based or opinion-based conversation and help shift the nature of how decisions are made. This isn’t happenstance, in the same way that good interaction design or good service design isn’t happenstance. By understanding even a basic level of the theory, we can leverage them to our advantage in pushing an agenda. Because design strategy is fundamentally user-centered, this means that we are giving the very people in our stories a voice, acting as their proxy to fulfill their wants, needs, and desires.