Storytelling is a vital skill for User Experience and Product Design professionals.
In our industry, just like many others, a critical part of the role is sharing information with a wider audience. Whether you’re presenting research findings, demonstrating a new design or presenting your own experience in an interview: storytelling is central to these tasks.
Storytelling is communication. It is about conveying ideas and information to ensure that the listener understands and retains the messages. Yet so often, it isn’t even considered an effective way to communicate.
For example, we focus on technical ability, years of experience, or academic qualifications in our job applications. We present to clients by leaning heavily on data, statistics, and quantitative results. We spend disproportionate time justifying methodology and process.
These are important, but all the factually correct charts and graphs in the world aren’t going to evoke an emotional connection from your audience. This response can only be achieved by bringing your audience on a journey, and the best way to do that is by using storytelling.
The theory behind storytelling is deep, but there are a few ideas that we can use next time we’re preparing to present that will allow us to engage our audience and share information in a way that resonates.
Consider what you’re trying to convey using the classic 3-act structure:
Act 1: The Beginning
- Introduce your characters – who is the protagonist? (Could this be the user?)
- Describe the current situation – what is the status quo?
- Who/what is the antagonist? What is the challenge? What disturbs the status quo?
Act 2: The Struggle
- Describe the plot/adventure – or, more likely in our case, what we did? What we investigated? Whether we observed important things that changed our perspective? Whether these observations led us to critical solutions?
IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t be afraid of telling your audience about the problems, complications or setbacks. These provide important context that will allow your listener to connect and (hopefully) make the resulting triumph all the more powerful.
Consider the following: How did you overcome the adversity? How did you use your skills to resolve conflict and ultimately win?
In interviews, this is especially true. Experience of overcoming failure and demonstrating how you learned from difficult situations is incredibly compelling. Why? Because it works to build empathy and adds depth to how an audience, or in this case, an interview board, perceives you. In essence, it helps an audience get to know you better.
Act 3: The Resolution
Talk about the result. Following the struggle, show how the protagonist has changed. If you’re reporting on something live – what is the positive result? If you’re still in the proposition or design stage – what do you feel is likely to be the result based on what we learned?
Verbal VS Visual storytelling
There are many ways a story can be told. Typically when you’re presenting, you’ll be using a combination of verbal and visual elements. You’ll need to consider the information you are trying to convey and decide how much weight you want to give to verbal and visual storytelling based on the needs of the particular story or presentation.
Verbal/written storytelling, i.e. explaining an experience
Verbal storytelling, much like written storytelling, allows the listener room to interpret the information they are discovering, and they fill in the gaps themselves. How we interpret, information is unique because everyone is shaped by their experiences and imagination. This is beneficial for storytellers because facilitating this interpretation means the audience/listener will likely have a stronger emotional connection. By allowing your audience to work out and visualise your story, they have contributed to it, meaning they are more likely to retain the information.
Visual (image/video etc.) storytelling
Visual storytelling, through images or video, leaves less room for interpretation, meaning this form of storytelling can be more efficient for sharing exact information. Precise details can be shared to allow an audience to see exactly what the storyteller intends, and the uptake of that information will be universal. However, by nature, it is a passive way for an audience to digest content. You may risk the information ‘washing over’ them by giving the audience/listener no space to visualise and interpret information.
Consider this – how much do you remember about the last PowerPoint presentation you viewed. Compare this with how much you remember about the last engaging speaker you heard who really told a story.
Both types of storytelling have their pros and cons. A bad presentation deck or report can be equally as damaging as a poorly constructed verbal story which is why a combination of both can be a sweet spot.
We need to be storytellers. Considering your presentations or reports as tales to be told can help focus and improve your audience’s understanding and retention of the information. Bear this in mind next time you’re approaching a play-back session, interview or report. See what a bit of storytelling can do to improve your communication.