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Storytelling For a More Empathic World - part 2

Storytelling For a More Empathic World - part 2

In the first part of this article I explored storytelling with a broad lens. In this second part, I touch on how storytelling is being used as a human centred method in Design Thinking.

Storytelling is a Creative Practise

Storytelling is the oldest form of human communication. Throughout time, humans have passed on information, conveyed meaning and made sense of the world through storytelling in various forms. It is somewhat ironic, then, that storytelling is a new buzz-word in discussions around creativity and innovation in organisations today. With a growing inclination towards human-centred approaches to problem solving, such as design thinking, storytelling as a strategic methodology is finding form in many creative and useful applications.

However, the story many people have come to believe - that they are not creative, and therefore not a storyteller - is a limiting belief worth abandoning. It is a fallacy that creativity is the domain of only the creative arts. Creativity is the domain of the storyteller, and storytelling is quickly becoming a sought after skillset in many diverse contexts.

Daniel Pink says: ‘The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic ‘right-brain’ thinkers.”

Perhaps we are returning back to our roots as storytellers?

Storytelling is Human Centric

If we are to effectively contribute to creativity and innovation by solving problems and creating products and services that matter, we first need to understand people’s challenges, needs and desires. Creating relevant and impactful innovations requires insights into people’s contexts and lived narratives. This includes discovering what ‘makes’ people tick’, what emotional states they are experiencing and what aspirations they hold for the future. We need to uncover stories.

We also need to co-create new stories. Learning to tell effective, human-centred stories requires the ability to both extract story content from your audience (data collection) and the insight to make creative choices in your delivery that find resonance with the listener. Through exploring the narratives behind data and peoples experiences, we may discover what motivates people and why they behave in certain ways. Storytelling can assist with these intentions.

Storytelling in Design Thinking

Insights gained through stories are invaluable in human-centred innovation frameworks such as Design Thinking. Stories help us expand our points of view and enable greater perspectives of multiple possibilities. The old idiom, “Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes”, is a reminder to look for the story and practice empathy.

To become a strategic storyteller in a human centred innovation context, you need to become a story-gatherer. Relevant storytelling in design thinking begins as an ethnographic practice through which we gain insights, We seek to understand the pains, challenges, obstacles and the desires of the benefactors of our innovations in order to know which types of stories to tell. It is not enough to tell a good story on its own, you need to tell the ‘right’ story. Relevance for your user is found through empathy with the user.

Data Collection Through Story

In the empathy and data collection phase of a Design Thinking process, it is possible to discover emotional content and context behind raw data through story extraction. For example, by storifying the types of questions asked, observations made and quality of engagement in the field, we employ a method of story-gathering. So instead of asking “What do you think about your cell phone provider?”, try asking instead, “Tell me a story about a time your provider let you down.” And, “How did this inconvenience your life and make you feel in that moment?” Searching for the story influences the quality and depth of the data collected, which in turn may lead to innovations based on deeper insights.

In The Ten Faces of Innovation(2016), Tom Kelley writes:

“...It’s about respect and humanity. Asking for a story celebrates and authenticates the experience...Everyone wants to be listened to, and if you can tap into a reservoir of personal stories, the insights you’re seeking will start to emerge.” (pg. 247)

We can understand so much more about our users by looking deeper to understand their world and the contexts of their challenges.

Storytelling Prototypes

A story can highlight how a service or product innovation solves real world problems for the user and how it may positively impact their lives. A story prototype can help to communicate, share and test ideas with users. Telling a story is a great way to get engagement around an idea or concept. With multiple iterations of the story prototype, we can begin to refine and improve on our innovations through feedback. A story reveals our understanding of the current situation, brings our ideas alive and feeds the innovation process with a dose of humanity.

Creating story prototypes requires the willingness to try something new and not be afraid to fail or feel uncomfortable in the process. Stories can be told through an endless array of creative possibilities such as in writing, activated role-plays, improvisations, mini-videos and adverts or even just a single person narrating the story of a better world.

A story can contain all the information your audience need to understand and believe in your message. Furthermore, a story can spark an emotional connection for your audience and in this way your innovation becomes infused with emotions and empathy. Emotions drive behaviour, including consumer behaviour.

Story Speaks to the Heart

Facts speak to the head, stories speak to the heart. Indeed, story holds the potential to bring together what Aristotle termed Lagos (logic) and Pathos (heart). Stories are at the heart of what it means to be human. A Native American Proverb says, "Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in the heart forever.”

Stories help us navigate the creative journey from a current situation to a preferred situation. Through stories, we can begin to innovate a better world.

How are you using storytelling and other applications of story method to innovate in your professional environment?


If you would like to learn more about how storytelling can be used in organisational contexts or as a design thinking tool, consider signing up to one of our DesignThinkers Academy Storytelling courses.

#About the Author: Colin Skelton is a creativity facilitator, design thinker, theatre-maker and storyteller. His facilitation work and style includes a range of complementary, proactive methodologies and innovation tools that follow a ‘learn by doing’ approach to team development, communication and collaboration

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