You’re not a great designer unless you’re also a great storyteller

Story time with children

Being a great designer is not just about crafting great designs, it’s also about being a great story teller. Why? Well, just like a film director pitching their ideas to a studio, a designer invariably has to pitch and showcase their designs to their team and of course to the client (who might be an internal sponsor). A designer needs to communicate how the design will delight and engage users; how it will meet both the needs of the users, and the business; why stakeholders should buy-in to it and why it’s a design worth investing in. There is an art to good storytelling and certainly not everyone is a natural storyteller, so here are my top tips for becoming a better storyteller and by virtue a better designer.

Study the art of good storytelling

The first key to becoming a great storyteller is to study and (hopefully) learn the art of storytelling. From telling the story of a new product or service, to simply telling an amusing anecdote, there are fundamentals that make for a good story. Try to read some of the many books and articles out there about storytelling (there are links to some UX related storytelling articles at the end of this article) and think about how you can apply good storytelling principles to your stories. Watch some examples of great storytelling in action and take a note of the sort of structure, tricks and techniques that they use. There are lots of great examples out there, from TED talks to Steve Job’s legendary Apple product launches and even stand-up comedians (who are often masterful storytellers).

TED talk

TED talks are a gold mine when it comes to studying skilled storytellers in action

Plan your story

Good storytelling doesn’t happen by accident – it invariably involves lots of forethought and planning. You need to be a very good storyteller to be able to wing it on the day, and I’m assuming that since you’re still reading this article you’re not yet a black belt in storytelling, so be sure to plan out the sort of story that you want to tell, and how you are going to tell it. What is going to really resonate with your audience? How much back story will you need to give? Are you going to need any artefacts, such as storyboards? Drawing up a basic plan of your story is always a good starting point.

Give the story structure

All good stories have a beginning, middle and end and so should yours. Think about how you are going to set the scene, what the main part of the story should be and how you are going to close the story. In terms of structure, most design stories are likely to be a Milieu story. Milieu stories always follow a similar structure. A character who sees things the way we’d see them gets to a strange place, observes things that interest him (or her), is transformed by what he sees, and then comes back a new person (The Wizard of Oz is a classic example of a Milieu story). For example, our main character might use a fantastic new product or service that we’re designing and realise how it can help make their life just that little bit better.

Tell a real world story

Rather than just talking about design features, a great way to communicate a design is to tell the story of how someone will use the design in the real world. Personas are always a good starting point. Take your audience through the story of how one of your personas utilises the design to accomplish a goal or task. Storyboards generally take this approach as it’s such a great way to showcase a design.

Focus on what’s important

When telling a design story there is an awful lot you can talk about. Rather than just rambling on about everything and anything to do with the design it’s best to focus on what’s most important, what your key messages are and what you want your audience to remember about the design.Think about what you want the focus of your story to be about and try to stick to it.

Explain the back story

All too often you will see a designer jump straight into explaining the details of their design without first explaining the back story (or at least checking that the back story is known). This can be a bit like when you’re channel hopping and come across a movie that is already some way through but looks like it’s worth watching (such a common scenario that we every TV channel now seemingly has an associated +1 channel). Unless you’ve seen the film before it’s not all going to make a huge amount of sense (but of course you watch it anyway!). Unless the audience will know the back story and context for a design, try to cover this as part of your storytelling. For example, you might introduce your main characters (possibly personas) and outline the sort of context in which someone will be using the product or service.

Tell a visual story

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and it’s always good to try to use visuals when telling your story. This might be in the form of photos, sketches, mock-ups, wireframes, storyboards (like the example below) and so on. Visuals are a great way to bring a story to life, so try to utilise them wherever possible. Of course videos and live demonstrations of a prototype are even better!

Example storyboard

Storyboards a great way to bring a story to life (storyboard courtesy of Chelsea Hostetter, Austin Centre for Design)

Bring the story to life

Read a great book; watch a great film or observe a great storyteller in action and you’ll notice that it’s often the small details that really help to bring a story to life. The character details; the emotions; the stuff that makes it that bit more believable and human. Think about how you might bring your story to life and really make it stick with your audience. For example, talk about the emotions elicited in users, the reason why an activity is so important or the frustrations experienced by current users. Include little details that you think are important to help bring your story to life.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Tony Blair famously said that his three main priorities for Government were education, education, education. Tony might well have been misreading his auto-cue but none the less repetition is a powerful way to drive home a message and is a very useful storytelling technique. If you have a key message or moral of your story that you want to put across, you can use repetition to help do this. Repetition is a great way to drive home your message. Repetition is a great way to get something to stick in people’s heads. Repetition will help ensure that your story is remembered (I hope you get the idea). Don’t be afraid to repeatedly hammer home a message, because the more you do it, the more it will stay will your audience.

Practice makes perfect

Great storytellers are rarely born that way – they obtain storytelling perfection through hard work and practice. A bit like a comedian testing their material in a smaller venue before the big tour, you should ideally rehearse and practice your design story before the big pitch. Find out what works and what doesn’t. Ideally get some feedback and use it to finely hone and craft your story.

Stand up comedian

Like a stand up comedian it can be a great idea to practice your story first in front of a friendly audience

Get feedback

Finally whenever you deliver a design story, don’t forget to ask for feedback from your audience. Did it engage people? Did everyone understand the design? The more feedback you get, the better a storyteller you can become!

See also