Storytelling is plainly powerful. It is a social-cultural custom of sharing stories often accompanied by spontaneous acts or details for embellishment. Such narratives are shared in each culture to communicate information, entertain the involved people, and also to bring values or morals across. Take TED talks for an example, with its philosophy centered around just that. According to Lara Stein, the Founder and Director of TEDx, “it’s about simplified, authentic storytelling.”
Stories in Psychology
Personally, I enjoyed storytelling from the get go when my parents made up weird plots about pirates walking around headless or about a rubber band being a character in a factory. These plots stuck. Another example is the car game “I packed my bag” (Kofferpacken), a memory game in which children fit things one by one in a shared narrative into an imaginary suitcase. Then they are challenged to memorize the growing list until one forgets an item and is out. Combined with gestures, the game is even more fun and the memory is boosted even more.
Fortunately, I learned early enough about the usefulness of story lines for remembering a set of random items. Narratives can aid memory as outlined in this article. So next time you must memorize your shopping list, just imagine the butter and cornflakes falling in love, as the olive oil storms in to save them all with parchment paper.
Then professionally, I became mesmerized with the power of storytelling when I trained as a systemic therapist. I learned that therapists who worked with families (small systems) observed how re-telling problems has a positive impact on the situation. For instance, re-framing enuresis (bed-wetting) as “crying with the bladder” shifts the focus on the psychological factors in the presented issue. The example of the tearful bladder has been repeated in the literature for therapists. For instance, Neubauer et al (2004) pointed to the psychosomatic causes in enuresis in their scientific article. The same metaphor can be found in several textbooks on systemic therapy such as the Handbook of Systemic Psychotherapy by Fryszer and Schwing (2014) where wetting the bed is a metaphor for crying, and a symptom of a 12-year old who felt neglected by his parents.
The use of a metaphor, inserting it into a plot with an arch and adorning it with further details becomes an effective intervention. It communicates to the parents that their son is not a misbehaving little child that is maliciously soiling his sheets every morning, yet instead a child with needs and emotions, and a request: ‘attend to me and love me’.
I can think of numerous instances where I reframed a person’s seemingly obnoxious behavior as a human challenge as part of a larger story and consequently, it became relatable, bearable and thus manageable. For instance, any controlling person can also be understood as a person that feels out of control, and if you build a story around that need including an origin, a climax and resolving end, your attitude towards this manipulating person will change tremendously.
Stories in Design Thinking
Then I encountered storytelling in design thinking. User stories, a common technique of rich storytelling about the imagined or actual users, serve the the purpose of aligning the design team, creating a common language in the design process and focusing on the task.
Storytelling is also the magic outcome when you start with a logical arrangement of the facts and turn them into a narrative that pulls an audience in and delivers it elegantly building towards a meaningful climax. In great movie scenes, there is great storytelling and building of suspense as described here.
Think of a man-made experience that you enjoy very well. For instance, posting something on instagram. You could describe it soberly with a list of events as in: Friend prepared a cocktail, balcony, sun, pretty nice, picture posted, some likes. Or you could embellish this glorious moment as: “So me and my best friend from highschool friend hadn’t seen each other for over 10 years. We got in touch, planned for the perfect visit with our favorite drink: a Hugo, and met on her South-facing balcony on a Sunday afternoon. To capture the beautiful moment, we took a snapshot, posted it on instagram and within an hour, over 30 of our dear friends from school and elsewhere liked it, and expressed their happiness over this moment. It was epic!’ Well done, Instagram designers! I bet they imagined something just like that.
Take another example by Knowledge Without Borders who used storytelling and design thinking to explore how first generation students fared in college. The author pointed out how stories generate questions, which in turn expand the breadth and depth of stories. By that, stories lead to innovative thoughts and ideas. Storytelling is also an important tool for feedback and a basis basis of the iterative process of prototyping that lead to solutions. As a tool of design thinking, storytelling can be applied in many different business cases.
Yet, I also learned in my interview with Sarah Bellrichard that it is questionable whether empathy elicited by such storytelling is valued for its own sake or for what it returns to the business. It raises the question about the purpose of storytelling.
Evidently, my storybuilding about storytelling in both systemic therapy and design thinking is in the making. It is a wonderful trick to think to yourself “This story is still in the making” when something is unresolved. Now let us move on to address the sleeper effect that non-dominant stories entail.
The Dominant Story
In systemic therapy, families or constellations thereof are said to come with a so-called “presented issue” to a therapist including a so-called “dominant story”. For instance, the 13-year old daughter is acting up, sexualizing conversations and behavior while the parents are facing serious relational issues. A narrative therapist would then assess what the dominant story has been, who has been benefitting and suffering from that plot, and who had been shaped to be the scapegoat. In this scenario, most likely the daughter. The therapists then begins to suggest alternative ways of looking at the human suffering and longing. It can be expected that the family will push back, when the system plus the therapist rewrite the dominant narrative. Yet it is believed that such work is necessary for the sake of the family. The goal is to try the new in order to grow and become more actualized, possibly happier, and more content all over. If you’ve seen the German movie “Wetlands”, you followed a very touching story of a teenager that hurts and is scapegoated. It is intense and layered.
In the scenario of the 13-year old, the rewritten dominant story is the attempted goal, and what the family came and paid for. With time, the family might agree on the rewritten story and witness the benefits that reinforce themselves. That might mean that the parents address their relational issues, the daughter receives less attention, and is off the hook and the psychological focus is redistributed in the household. It may take a while for the daughter to learn ways to be noticed and seen, yet it can work.
The Non-Dominant Story
I wonder about the downsides of chosen, dominant or perfect stories. Even when we write the perfect new story for a family, there will always be a downside for someone under some aspect. Initially, there were reasons why we drafted one story, why it sustained, even if we suffered. Each story is ultimately a trade-off. We are not just “telling the truth”, but constructing it — it is post-modernism. There will be always as many stories as there are people in the room when you begin. When we rewrite a new story, we need to give up certain benefits from a certain story alongside their pain points if we suffer too much. However, when we choose a different story we choose other benefits alongside their pain points. There is really no perfect story, where all parties are winning, because even winning has a dark flip side. The mere concept of winning implies, almost threatens losing, right?
What is the sleeper effect of each wonderful story? How can this blind spot be addressed? Is it storytelling a la “Run, Lola, Run” the solution, where Lola presents three different solutions to an imminent problem? Is it scenario planning or telling, where four quadrants represent four possible outcomes of a plot?
Perhaps we need to tell stories that emphasize how future editing is expected. No story shall be cut in stone, and held for eternity like a tale of the Grimm’s brothers. Instead, each story shall conclude with “and so this is what works for me now and stay tuned for my update in one year.” This is suitable for founder stories and for web content. Exactly, why I like the concept of the Now Page so much.
Your Story on Stage
If you had to stage a story, what would it be? Happy? Sad? Classic or ruptured? What title? And what would not go on there?
I’ve been wondering about the long term effects and downsides of the stories we choose to tell.
We cast us into the role of the “Single Dad CEO”, or the “Cancer Survivor” or the “Family Business Traditionalist” and then what do we sacrifice with such captions? Does it make it harder to weep as a hero? To cuddle as a leader? To giggle and dress up as a leader?
Each human encounter offers you a chance to listen to a person’s narrative, and to shift your attention on what they focus on and brag about. What is left out? You can practice making mental notes and identifying how they might benefit from the presented story. This goes for big stories about winning a prize and for smaller stories of customers who talk of pride, and success.
Storytelling is magic, because it directs our attention to the active hand while the innocuous hand hides the gold coin. If done well, it captures us enough to be entertained, satisfied and quiet to sit back and not ask. A good story tells it all, is memorable and complete. It won’t make us ask for explanations.
I read stories of courageous designers admitting how much they love to be wrong only to discover that due to design thinking techniques and to user engagement they identified the real user needs and designed a successful service or product. They love being wrong if they are right and successful in the end. I have yet to find the blog post that truly brags about failure as in “We love being wrong. We just blew 30,000 on user research that led to a product that no one bought. It was amazing.”
In the end, we remain human and appreciate a delicate mix of safety and risk, the known and the new. However, perhaps we can aim for stories that are more inclusive, tentative, and considerate of what will serve us best now as well as years down the road.