Tag Archives: storytelling

Why experience design & storytelling need emotional messages

noun_Underwater Shark_625795 (1)Albert Mehrabian might be the most misquoted researcher in history. People have used his findings to argue that most communication is nonverbal, which is clearly (and provably) nonsense.

His research showed that we like people if what they say about their feelings matches non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and body language.

If there isn’t a match we tend to trust the non-verbal cues more. In other words, if you say “Oh, how fascinating, do go on.” while looking around and shuffling your feet, I’ll conclude that you’re not that interested in what I’m saying.

This principle of matching, or congruence, is really important for customer experience design and storytelling.

What’s beneath the surface?

That’s the key question. Strip away the words, and what do the non-verbal cues and signals say to the customer? “Your call is very important to us.”…yeah, right.

Gerald Zaltman’s classic book “How Customers Think” is a great starting point for thinking about the unconscious cues that can have a big influence on the customer experience.

Say what you mean, mean what you say

Authenticity is a much abused word. “How do you do authenticity?” a drinks company executive apparently once asked Innocent Drinks. Authenticity is not something you do, it’s something you are.

That doesn’t mean you have to wash all your dirty linen in public, but it does mean you have to tell the truth, and you have to keep your promises (explicit and implicit). Making sure there’s good congruence between what you say and what you do ties directly back to Mehrabian’s work.

Show, don’t tell

Maybe I’m unusually cynical, but I instinctively assume the opposite of any adjectives that people or organisations apply to themselves. Don’t tell me you’re reliable, show me by consistently delivering.

Beyond your behaviour, it’s more powerful to embed messages about yourself in implicit claims through branding than it is to claim them in words. Don’t tell me you’re innovative, show me through your design choices. We’re usually less cynical about messages that appeal to our unconscious mind (try watching an emotional film without the music track and you’ll be amazed how little impact it has on you).


Tell the whole story

Turn to advertising to learn how to tell stories that communicate at the verbal and non-verbal levels simultaneously. Notice how they put the factual messages in the verbal channel, and emotional persuasion in the visuals, music, metaphor, etc.

Take cleaning products as an example. If you transcribe the advert all you’d see is factual claims (“kills 99.9% of germs fast”), but the power of these ads is in the emotional triggers around disgust and fear (the image of a mother wiping her child’s highchair with a raw chicken breast.

Good storytelling uses the respective strengths of verbal and non-verbal channels to multiply impact with rational and emotional messages that support each other.

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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…


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


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”


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


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


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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Audacity and leadership

noun_219178Three things happened this week that  reminded me how important audacity is.

1) Johnny Sexton kicked a game-winning drop goal in Paris, taking the responsibility on his own shoulders rather than asking his tired forwards to gain another few yards.

2) The Philadelphia Eagles won their first ever Super Bowl, thanks in part to this incredible decision by head coach Doug Pederson on 4th down.

3) SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy had a successful test launch, watched live by over 2 million people. Elon Musk has made commercial spaceflight a reality, through huge personal investment, but estimated (in public at least) only a 50% chance of success.

What can we learn from these stories? Firstly, that there are times when you need to be bold. Secondly, though all three are team achievements, the crucial ingredient for an audacious win is an individual taking responsibility. Leadership, in other words.

I think this quote captures it well:

“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.”

Thomas Aquinas

Organisations tend to become risk-averse as they grow. One of the crucial skills of a leader is to accept the responsibility to make bold calls from time to time, otherwise the real danger is that you end up moored forever in port.

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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



Editing as storytelling

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:

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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Empathy in Customer Experience

empathyI often talk about how important empathy is, but I realised the other day that I was using it in two different ways:

1) Empathy as a tool to inform the design of customer experiences

2) Building empathy at the front line as an essential output of insight

Let’s look at both of those in a bit more detail.

Empathy for design

To design good experiences you need to blend a deep understanding of customers with the skills, informed by psychology, to shape the way they feel. Getting that understanding requires in-depth qualitative research to get inside the heads of individual customers, helping you to see the world the way they see it.

When you understand why people behave the way they do, think the way they think, and (most importantly) feel they way they feel, you can design experiences that deliver the feelings you want to create in customers.

Design, to quote from Jon Kolko’s excellent book Well Designed is…

“…a creative process built on a platform of empathy.”

Empathy is a tool you can use to design better experiences.

Empathy at the front line

Improving the customer experience sometimes means making systematic changes to products or processes, but more often it’s a question of changing (or improving the consistency of) decision making at the front line.

Those decisions are driven by two things: your culture (or “service climate”), and the extent to which your people understand customers. If you can help your people empathise with customers, to understand why they’re acting, thinking, and feeling the way they are, then they’re much more likely to make good decisions for customers.

I’m sure we can all think of a topical example of what it looks like when front line staff are totally lacking in empathy.

The best way to build empathy is to bring customers to life with storytelling research communication. Using real customer stories, hearing their voices, seeing their faces, is much more powerful than abstract communication about mean scores and percentages.

Empathy at the front line is necessary to support good decisions.

Two kinds of empathy?

Are these two types of empathy fundamentally different? Not really. The truth is we are all experience designers. The decisions we make, whether grounded in empathy for the customer or making life easy for ourselves, collectively create the customer experience.

You can draw up a vision for the customer journey of the future, grounded in a deep understanding of customers, but if you fail to engage your colleagues at the front line it will never make a difference to customers.

To design effective experiences you need to start by gaining empathy for customers, but you also need to build empathy throughout your organisation.

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The power of metaphors

noun_93083Customer Journey Mapping is, as I tell delegates on my course, just a metaphor.

Then again, the Beatles were “just a band” (at least according to Scroobius Pip).

Metaphors can be incredibly powerful, but also incredibly useful. They help us to understand each other, to reason about things, and to get things done.

To quote the classic Metaphors We Live By:

“…the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”

One of the lessons of the book is about the “conduit metaphor” of communication (that our language is a container into which we put meaning for others to extract). This is important because it supports uses of language which don’t make much sense from a purely logical point of view (e.g. the metaphor “more of form is more of content” leads to phrases such as “he is very very very tall”, which we all understand to imply intensification).

The metaphors we use have an impact on what we think and do. What if we choose a different metaphor? In a classic paper, Michael Reddy suggests that a “toolmaker’s paradigm” would be more helpful, underpinning the importance of mutual effort to communicate ideas effectively. As he says in the paper:

“Human communication will almost always go astray unless real energy is expended” 

These metaphors are normally applied to language, but a similar approach could be taken to visual communication. In a fascinating post, Robert Kosara critiques the “Encoding-Decoding” paradigm for data visualisation.

It’s fairly clear that just like the useful, but flawed, conduit metaphor for language, there may be more than one metaphor for how visual communication works. Kosara explains how people actually read visualisations:

“What do we decode? We like to assume that decoding just reverses the encoding: we read the values from the visualization. But not only don’t we do that, we do many other things that are surprisingly poorly understood.”

In other words, the conduit metaphor for dataviz tends to overlook the active role of the person reading it. Studying how people actually use visualisations may help us to build a better metaphor.

Storytelling and visual communication is not a one-way act – we need a metaphor to reflect the active role of our audiences. 

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