Daniel Lee, London Strategic Designer, discusses how classical storytelling structure can be used to effectively communicate ideas for new products and services. This post originally appeared on his Medium.
You’ve been working hard on a concept and you’re excited to share it with the world, but when you do, it doesn’t get the reaction you were expecting. Your audience doesn’t seem to share any of your excitement for the idea–and when they give you feedback, it’s clear they don’t see the value in what you’ve created. If your job involves coming up with new ideas, you might be familiar with this feeling. This article is about how we can stop that from happening by presenting our ideas as stories.
During the film Good Will Hunting, there is a moment where Robin Williams’ character finally catches the attention of the unapproachable maths genius played by Matt Damon by telling him the story of how he met his wife.
If you watch the clip, like Damon’s character you’ll quickly get pulled into the story and become concerned about the outcome. You will probably be able to picture the bar he’s sitting in when his future wife walks in. You may even be able to imagine the attraction he must have felt to make him miss his baseball team win that famous game to instead ‘go and see about a girl.’ And, you’ll feel some of the pain he went through when he tells Damon that, after years together, she fell ill and passed away.
Why is it that when we listen to stories about other people it can have this profound effect on us? And how as designers can we use this to our advantage?
Stories Build Empathy
A study by the Center for Neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University found that participant’s brains produced large amounts of the chemical oxytocin when listening to character driven stories. Oxytocin is often called the ‘empathy chemical’ because it makes us feel connected with each other; helping us see and feel the world from someone else’s perspective.
Building empathy for people is key to the design process. It’s what allows us to create solutions that are more valuable to people because they are inspired by their actual needs rather than our assumptions about their needs. This is why we spend time observing and talking to the people we are designing for. A challenge we have when we share our ideas is making our clients empathize in the same way so they can see the value in the solutions we create. Often times, our clients are very different from the intended customer and, unlike us, haven’t spend time getting to know them.
Stories can help us tackle this issue because they induce empathy in our audiences, which can change the way they react to our ideas. In another experiment by the Centre for Neuroeconomics, participants were moved to donate a portion of their participation fee to the charity associated with the story they were told about a father’s experience caring for his sick child. They decided to do this because the story had changed their mindsets, just like Robin Williams changes Matt Damon’s with his story, who, in the final scene of Good Will Hunting, surprises everyone by also missing something important to ‘go and see about a girl.’
Turning Ideas into Stories
If stories can help us communicate our ideas in a more effective way, then we need to learn how to tell them. In order to do this we must first understand how they are constructed.
In a famous study from Johns Hopkins University, researchers Keith Quesenberry and Michael Coolsen analysed the content and plots of all the adverts played during the 2012 and 2013 Super Bowl. They found that, regardless of the content of the ad, it was the structure of that content that predicted its success. The adverts that told a story using a structure known as Freytag’s Pyramid were more popular than any other. In fact, the more closely they followed the classic structure, the better they performed.
First observed by Aristotle, but later developed by and named after the 19th century novelist, Gustav Freytag, the structure breaks a story down into five main acts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement. Over these five acts we get introduced to a character and their goals (exposition) and then we follow them through their challenges trying to achieve them (rising action), before the turning point (climax) — where, empowered by something or someone–they are able to overcome their challenges (falling action) and achieve their goals (denouement).
Most of our favorite books and films use this structure, which can also be used to explain our ideas for new products and services. Let’s look at an example by studying how the storytellers at Sandwich Video used this structure to explain the idea for the now famous office communications tool, Slack.
Act I: The Exposition
This starts the story by introducing important background information to the audience (when, where, who). In the example above we get introduced to Adam and his small company Sandwich Video Inc. Act I also sets up the rest of the story by surfacing the character’s mission/or problem to be solved (the why, or as Freytag calls it the ‘inciting incident’). We learn that great communication is important to the company and the seed is planted that they can drastically improve how they communicate by switching to this new tool Slack.
Act II: The Rising Action
Here they show the character’s attempts to resolve the problem or reach the goal that was highlighted during the first act, only to find themselves confronted by obstacles that they are unable to deal with. Everyone using different software to communicate causes lots of inefficiencies. The second act builds up to the climactic third act by showing the distressing consequences (complication) of the character(s) failing to achieve their goals. The inefficiency of using multiple programs is preventing the company from growing.
Act III: The Climax
This is the turning point when they unveil the idea’s unique value proposition. So Adam’s company started using Slack. We hear how it let’s them ‘do all their communication in one place’ and that ‘it is like it’s combining multiple forms of messaging and file sharing into one app.’
Act IV: Falling Action
In this act they unveil the details of the design and show how its key features help the protagonists overcome the obstacles encountered in Act II. Slack allows them to organize communication by creating channels, easily share files within the app through its many integrations, enjoy a great user experience that works on multiple devices…
Act V: The Denouement
This is the end of the story where they release the tension by recapping how the new idea improves the experience and ultimately helps the users achieve their goals/solve their problem. Adam’s inbox doesn’t get bloated but he can easily stay up to date with his team, and all the open efficient communication keeps his company happy and allows them to grow. “Slack really has changed the way they communicate.”
By using Freytag’s Pyramid to present our ideas, we endear our audience to the characters in the first act, build concern for them in the second, get them excited by the idea in the third, reassure them with the solution in the fourth and then relieve them with the results in the fifth.
There are not set rules for how to use this structure. Personally, I like to spend more time in the early acts building up the struggle. You also don’t need to make a high end production video. But, however you do it, using this structure will increase your chances of being heard.
Tell More Stories
Storytelling has been a vital skill throughout our history as a species. Before we had the internet, or even the written word, we used stories to transfer information so we could build on the knowledge of each other and our ancestors. Today, stories still play a huge role in our lives, and are essential for helping us communicate our ideas.
A well delivered story shows your audience your concept through the eyes of the intended user which helps them to understand and care. Next time you’re presenting an idea, try doing it through a story and see if it helps your audience see its true value.
Read more from Daniel here.