Category Archives: storytelling

Truth, beauty, purpose

noun_82995What makes for compelling communication?

Whether it’s a data visualisation, a written story, or a Hollywood movie, you need to create something of lasting value.

I think that comes down to three things:

  • Truth
  • Beauty
  • Purpose

That sounds unbearably pompous, even as I type it, but should it? Most of us are conditioned not to talk in such grand terms, but it’s by creating work that has, in its own small way, those attributes that we create value for others and find value for ourselves.

Thinking deliberately about all three helps us to make the most impact with everything we do. Let’s look at each in turn…

Truth

Authenticity and trust are essential for your audience to give what you’re saying credence. That means being clear on what’s fact, what’s opinion, and what’s vision. Do your own actions support what you’re saying? Have you got the right experience to make your case?

Sometimes it means proving your argument, but it always means making sure you’ve tested your case properly. Do you know the margin of error for your data? What was the response rate?

Truth is not the opposite of lying, it’s the opposite of bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt’s classic “On Bullshit” explains. It takes work.

To be true, a story must be:

  • Honest
  • Credible
  • Built on solid foundations

Beauty

Aesthetics provoke “oohs” and “aahs”, but they’re not simply a case of style over substance. Beauty attracts attention, makes your message memorable, and creates value in its own right.

As John Heskett points out in “Design: A Very Short Introduction“, the idea of form versus function has led us to undervalue the importance of design as a deliberate act of creating meaning for users. Utility (what something does) and significance (what it means to us) are much more helpful concepts, and remind us that value is always embedded in culture.

One of the best ways to make your story memorable is to find a beautiful image, metaphor, or phrase that captures its essence. Bobette Buster, in “Do Story” calls this the “gleaming detail”.

To make your story beautiful:

  • Polish and refine your first draft
  • Remove anything superfluous
  • Encapsulate the truth in a “gleaming detail”

Purpose

Great stories are not just a sequence of events, they have a universal quality that makes them stand for more than themselves; they have purpose. The opposite of purpose is the dreaded “so what?” which you must pre-empt if you want your message to land.

Start by being clear on what you think the central point is. What is the heart of your message? What’s your product for? Boil it down to an elevator pitch or tweetable length, and polish that until you’re totally sure about it. Ask yourself what you would do, if you were in your audience’s shoes.

Be ruthless in removing anything that doesn’t contribute to that central message, however interesting or even insightful it might be, but spend time to explain the “why” as well as “what” of your message by sharing a passionate vision of the future.

To be purposeful:

  • Focus on a clear central message
  • Be clear about the action you want your audience to take
  • Paint a vivid picture of the future you’re striving for

Value

Truth, beauty, and purpose are the attributes which connect the disciplines I am most interested in aside from understanding customers—design and storytelling. Good stories and good designs are those which use all three attributes to add value to the world.

They’re not alone in relying on truth, beauty, and purpose. Anything we create, and I believe nearly all work should be creative, comes down to those three things. That’s why they’re as important for our own sense of value as they are for the recipient.

Everyone in the world of customer research talks about “actionable insight”, and that’s where I think this way of thinking is invaluable. Insight gives you truth, but it can’t do the rest on its own. You need to team insight with storytelling and experience design to drive action.

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Pros shoot sequences

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If you want to understand visual storytelling, watching TV is one of the best places to start.

It’s research, honest.

If you start watching with an analytical eye, particularly during news segments, you’ll see some of the techniques that the professionals use to engage the audience and tell a story. One of the most important is the principal of shooting sequences.

When we’re new to visual storytelling, we tend to see the camera view (or slideshow, or website, or piece of paper) as an essentially static “stage” on which to present our vision. That’s understandable, but it makes for boring and one-dimensional results.

Good video journalists shoot sequences using patterns such as the Five Shot Sequence, which is explained in detail in this great slideshare deck. That gives you a systematic approach to telling the story in an engaging way, without forgetting essential context.

I’d recommend using the five shot sequence, or something like it, every time you shoot video. It’s also worth thinking about how you can apply the same principals to other forms of visual storytelling (e.g. presentations).

Remember: pros shoot sequences.

 

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Why do we forget the storyteller?

noun_21051We talk about storytelling a lot.

There is, unquestionably, a lot of hype around storytelling at the moment. It’s fair to be a bit sceptical. Is it just another fad?

Not in my view. I believe stories are tightly bound up with the way we humans think. They always have been and always will be the most effective way to persuade nearly anybody of nearly anything.

Something I’ve noticed is that, just as I’ve done in those few paragraphs, people often slide between talking about stories and talking about storytelling.

Stories are powerful because of their structure, because of their ability to touch our emotions, and because of the patterns we recognise in them. But most of all, stories are powerful because they are told.

This week is National Storytelling Week, an annual celebration of the art of oral storytelling. The power of telling stories is something that good leaders tend to intuitively know, but it’s something we often forget when it comes to using “storytelling” techniques in other areas such as research and insight.

What does a good storyteller do? Amongst other things:

    • They’re vulnerable, willing to share their own emotions
    • They understand the truth at the heart of the story they’re telling
    • They’ve found a way to bring that truth to life with a “gleaming detail”1

If you want to tell compelling stories, put away the keyboard for a while and start talking.

 


1 “Gleaming detail” is a phrase from Bobette Buster’s excellent book “Do Story

 

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Editing as storytelling

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It’s said that “writing is rewriting”1. In the same way, you could argue that filmmaking is editing.

Editing is a laborious, highly skilled, largely invisible process. Those of us outside the industry rarely get to see how important editors are.

That’s why I enjoyed this Youtube video essay so much:

I think there are several important lessons from the essay that we can apply to storytelling in general:

  • No one gets it right first time. I tell people on our Storytelling workshop to get used to the idea of shitty first drafts2. A good story will evolve as it is being put together.
  • The lone genius is a myth. Star Wars may have been George Lucas’ vision, but he relied on a team to realise it alongside him. The editors role was crucial, including creating key elements of the story in the edit.
  • Order is important “Scenes” derive their power in part from their order and context. Don’t just stick with the order in which you discovered your story, or the order in which a customer told you it, think about the most effective order for your audience.
  • Less is more Editing isn’t just about ruthless cutting, but pruning to the essentials is always a good starting point.

It’s surprising just how much more powerful a well edited story can be, and how rarely that opportunity is properly used in business storytelling. Take the time with your next story and you might have the next Star Wars!


1. Incidentally, I looked up that “writing is rewriting” quote. Apparently it’s been said a lot. I found quotes, amongst others, from…

Hemmingway: “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”

Truman Capote: “Good writing is rewriting.”

E.B. White: “The best writing is rewriting.”

Roald Dahl: “Good writing is essentially rewriting.”

Robert Graves: “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten.”

2 “Oh, we’re great at those“, someone once replied.

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The Creation of Meaning

noun_1144514Lev Kuleshov was a Soviet filmmaker of the early 20th Century, one of the thinkers behind the Soviet montage theory of film making.

This argues that films work because of editing. The content of each shot is important, but it is the way shots are juxtaposed and strung together in sequences that allows a filmmaker to convey powerful emotional and intellectual ideas. Yes, even Michael Bay.

Kuleshov is remembered in the “Kuleshov Effect“, an interesting example of the montage theory. By pairing a neutral expression with, in turn, an empty plate, a dead child, and a beautiful woman, Kuleshov showed that an audience’s reading of the actor’s face was strongly dependent on the shot it was edited together with. They “saw” the actor expressing three different emotions, but actually the same footage was used in all three cases. You can watch the video to see how it works.

I think the Kuleshov effect is profoundly important when businesses are talking to customers and employees. The meaning for the audience is created by the juxtaposition of the organisation’s content with the surrounding “shots” that create context for it.

That’s why it’s so jarring when businesses get their tone wrong, notably when they’re responding to a PR crisis. Think of the United Airlines incident in April this year, when Dr Dao was filmed being violently dragged off an aeroplane. Oscar Munoz’s initial reaction was universally panned for what Jimmy Kimmel called “sanitized, say-nothing, take-no-responsibility, corporate BS speak“. Quite.

What I found fascinating was this interview with Munoz, in which he reflects

That first response was insensitive beyond belief. It did not represent how I felt.”

What? If that’s true, it strikes me as remarkable. If Munoz had used his feelings to communicate in a natural and human way, the whole incident would have been much less of a crisis for United.

The content of your communication is less important than the meaning it creates from juxtaposition with its context. Sanitised, say-nothing, corporate BS wouldn’t be anywhere near as damaging if it wasn’t, effectively, cut together in a montage with a customer being concussed and having two teeth knocked out.

It’s not what you say, it’s what your reaction shows me about you.

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Stories & science; belief and knowledge

noun_1011170We talk about Storytelling a lot at TLF.

Finding ways to tell better, more compelling, more persuasive stories is essential if you want to achieve difficult, long term, goals such as culture change or improved Customer Experience.

Good stories touch people emotionally, link their day to day decisions with an outcome that means something to them, and persuade them to make change happen.

Stories are deceiving

But stories can also be dangerous. We find narratives so compelling that we rush to invent stories to explain any fact, statistic, or research finding. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this the “Narrative Fallacy”, and data science expert Kaiser Fung reserves a whole category of posts on his blog for what he calls “Story Time“.

Our ability to weave simple explanations for complex, often random, series of events means that the stories we tell ourselves have a feel of inevitability, in hindsight. As Daniel Kahneman suggests in the classic “Thinking, Fast and Slow“:

“…the ultimate test of an explanation is whether it would have made the event predictable in advance.”

So, if making up stories to account for the data we have is flawed, how do we make sense of the world? Science.

Science (a word derived from the Latin scire, “to know”), has developed over centuries as a systematic method for learning about the world. The scientific method is designed to minimise the impact of our cognitive biases, such as making up stories or only noticing things which confirm our beliefs.

Rigorous analysis is the only way to learn robust truths about the world. Every time you (or someone else) come up with an explanation, challenge yourself by asking how you know. If your story is robust, you should have been expecting the finding before you saw it.

Science to learn, stories to teach

Should we give up on storytelling, given that we’re so prone to be misled by it?

Absolutely not. Once we have learned a fundamental truth about the world (through science), we need to communicate that insight to other people. We need to get their attention, persuade them to believe us, and convince them to change what they do.

Too often, in society and in organisations, we see arguments won by people with a simple story over those trying to explain a much more complicated truth. If we want to learn about the world, and use that knowledge to make better decisions, we need to learn to tell better stories with a firm foundation of science at their heart.

On my Data Presentation and Infographics workshop I use this graphic to summarise what I believe the job of a information designer to be:
Triangle

We need the care and objectivity of a scientist to learn important truths, the flair of a graphic designer to engage people’s attention, and the craft of a storyteller to communicate and persuade people to change.

 

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Stories are about change

noun_2005Storytelling is a favourite topic of mine.

On our storytelling workshop we go through a whole load of different ways in which organisations can use customer insight to communicate more effectively with their customers and staff.

I also try to wear a storyteller’s hat when I’m finding the best way to visualise and present data.

Why is it so effective?

There’s lots of evidence for the benefits of story. Story forces you to articulate why and how a particular course of action will work. It increases the emotional impact of research and brings customers to life. Those are important strengths, but the big one is that stories are the best way to achieve change.

Stories are all about change.

Duarte‘s useful model for the shape of an effective story makes crystal clear how fundamental change is to the argument that a storyteller is making. A good story shows our audience a future they want to achieve, contrasts that with the status quo, and shows them how to get from here to there.

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Stories in fiction describe change, stories in business drive change.

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Telling the story with data

Triangle

This is a diagram from my course about data presentation and infographics.

I use it as a starting point to discuss the skills you need to do the job well, summarised as “telling a compelling story with integrity”.

The idea of the diagram is that too much or too little of any of the three axes tends to be a bad thing.

For instance, too heavy on the “statistician” axis might mean that your charts are accurate and robust, but impenetrable to many people. Too light on the same axis, and you might be committing basic analytical mistakes (perhaps ignoring random measurement error).

It’s a rare person who embodies all of those skills to a truly expert level, which is one reason the best infographics often involve a team of people.

 

Finding your audience

It isn’t necessarily a case of shooting for the middle of the triangle. There’s a zone of acceptable variation around the middle in which competent and engaging data storytelling happens.

What’s appropriate for a scientific publication is not appropriate for your board, or for frontline staff. It’s all about getting the balance right for your audience.

Obvious? Yes, but it’s worth thinking about what it means in practice. Which “rules” of data storytelling are unbreakable, and which need to be tailored according to your audience?

 

How much do we know about what works?

Stephen Few takes a dim view of infographics which he sees as prioritising shallow gimmicks over effective visual communication. David McCandless has been on the receiving end of severe critiques.

He also points out that more work needs to be done to test which graphic forms are most effective, rather than relying on opinion. I agree – we can’t begin to pretend we’re working in a serious field until we approach these questions scientifically.

Robert Kosara has published interesting work showing that pie charts, much derided by experts, are more effective than we thought.

But is communication our only aim? Not always.

 

Telling the story

The science of which data graphics work most effectively is only part of the equation. The best graphic in the world is wasted if no one looks at it.

Let’s go back to the idea of storytelling.

What makes a story? Dave Trott, in one of his excellent blog posts, quotes Steven Pressfield’s simple version. A story consists of Hook, Build, and Payoff.

If we apply that to data storytelling I think it makes it easier for us to choose our place in the triangle.

  • Hook: we need to capture the attention of our audience, with something relevant and/or fascinating. This is where McCandless excels.
  • Build: there should be enough depth to reward engagement with the data.
  • Payoff: there’s got to be a reason for looking. What am I going to do differently as a result of spending time with this data?

 

 

 

 

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Insight & internal comms: a match made in heaven

noun_marriage_192896Every internal communications team I know is crying out for content.

Every customer insight team I know is crying out for airtime and tools to get their messages to staff.

I think you can see where I’m going with this.

So why do we not see more use of customer (and employee) insight in internal comms? I think the main problem is that we, as insight people, have tended to be boring.

We know there’s loads of brilliant stuff in our 60 slides of bar charts, so we send the slide pack off to internal comms. Then we’re a bit hurt they don’t do anything with it.

Bar charts are boring.

Stories are interesting.

But stories are not something that simply emerge from talking to customers. What distinguishes a story is not that it is human (although that’s important), but that it has a point.

To turn insight into effective comms you need to become a storyteller. That means you have to have the courage to craft a story for internal comms to tell, or you could work with them to craft a story together.

Figure out who your audience is, what interests them, and how your insight can change that for the better.

Let customers tell their stories, and flag up the turning points that sent their narratives in different directions.

Stories are told, not found.

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