Relating Traditional Storytelling to Brand Storytelling, Emotional Intelligence, and User Experience

Stories are a medium through which we educate, share history, reinforce social norms, convey personal identities, and entertain. This is not only done with the content of the story, or narrative(1), but with the style, structure, and delivery method used in its telling as well. As a motivator and perpetuator of culture, we inherently use stories all over the spectrum of interpersonal to mass communication. Being aware of the power of storytelling, and examining the existence of stories in the majority of human interaction, is the key to its effective use. Understanding the relationship between traditional storytelling, brand storytelling, emotional intelligence, and the user experience will offer insight into this primal means of information sharing and help user experience designers grow closer to their potential.

Narrative is derived from the Latin word gnarus meaning having knowledge or experience; so sharing a story is essentially sharing an experience or bit of knowledge with the audience. Whether the story is an account of an event, an explanation for a natural phenomenon, or an anecdote used to instill morals, the content is the primary purpose of the narrative. While this kernel is passed interpersonally, the manner it which it is passed to another person is equally important.

“Experience was put into the form of personal or culturally shared narrative. Again and again, instead of chaos of events, experience was organized into sometimes subtle patterns. The arousal and satisfying of expectations…gives experiences a shape [which] is convincing. As things come out this way, accounts are convincing not only because they may be believed in terms of the actors and actions, but also in terms of form. This form may be hidden in a sense, since no one talks about it, but it is responsible for making the story come out right, to be warranted in the sense of fitting a deep-seated cultural norm for the form of reported experience” (Hymes, 1996).

These latent components, narrative structure and delivery, are crucial in determining the effectiveness of the story. The application of meaningful analogies, appropriate forum or medium, and inclusion of Fryetag’s Five Plot Components are critical marks hit by the storyteller in order to connect with the listener. “Narrative discourse consists of a connected sequence of narrative statements, where “statement” [may be a] dance statement, linguistic statement, graphic statement, and so on” (Chatman, 1980). Of course this discourse may be non-linear or even interactive; whatever methods of organizing and presenting the story are chosen will have an effect on how the it is received. If the storyteller’s narrative is inconsistent with the cultural norms and schema of the audience, whether in content, delivery, or structure, then the story will not have the intended impact. It’s unlikely that audience member/s, who do not recognize any component of a story or its structure, will assimilate the knowledge, explanation, or account presented to them; they may even receive an unintended message.

A mass communication application of storytelling can be seen in marketing. Brand establishment and communication is an imperative goal of marketers. Storytelling is used to connect with the target audience in hopes of gaining new customers, loyalty, and increased revenue. “People want to buy a car from a company they relate to and they understand. They want to grasp your values and your commitment to excellence; be inspired and intrigued. Storytelling is the most powerful way to convey these ideas” (Hemsley, 2016). Storytelling is powerful because it is a way for the message senders to tap into the message receiver’s emotions. Emotions are the bullseye of the target when it comes to connecting with the audience. A product that consistently works and meets expectation is still likely to lose a sale to the same product sold by a company who’s brand makes the consumer feel like they share the company’s morals, background, or have some other personal tie to the brand. Message, tone, and structure, similar to the components of traditional storytelling, are used to establish and emphasize that connection.

The accuracy at which the storyteller appeals to other’s emotions is key to outstanding storytelling and successful brand communication. A storyteller’s ability to do this is closely linked to their emotional intelligence. “[Emotional intelligence] focuses on…the recognition and use of one’s own and others’ emotional states to solve problems and regulate behavior” (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). Emotional intelligence is the ability to appraise, regulate, and utilize the emotions of self and other’s, using both verbal and non-verbal cues. John Mayer and Peter Salovey suggest that mood maintenance and repair fall under emotional intelligence and should be a focus as mood, which is fleeting, can strongly motivate behavior. Individuals will try to prolong a good mood, or feeling, and, conversely, they will attempt to limit exposure to bad moods.

Studying traditional storytelling and being more aware of their emotional intelligence can open the door for user experience designers to explore ways to use narrative as a proxy for curating experiences. It is pivotal for designers to realize they shouldn’t limit themselves by focusing on crafting user flows and manipulating movement through a product, because “your product doesn’t define a user’s experience. That person’s own behavior, attitudes, and emotions do. Thus, user experience is a feeling” (Rintoul, 2014). By placing greater weight on designing the right narrative, designers can use the story to influence their product design in a way that may better connect with the user. This simple shift in perspective may help designer’ products evolve into those with much more compelling experiences, thus increasing their success.

People experience the world on three levels: the visceral, reflective, and behavioral. The visceral is the emotional response that the person feels during the experience. After an experience, the person goes through an additional wave of emotion while reflecting on and processing it. The behavioral level is two-fold; this refers to both what the person was doing during the experience and how the visceral and reflective responses may influence future behavior. Francisco Inchauste, of Smashing Magazine, exemplifies this three-part process when he reminds his audience of riding a roller coaster: the fear people have of heights and danger, the reflective trust that the ride was safe to go on, and the behavior of seeking the emotionally charged rush and feeling of accomplishment once the ride is finished (Inchauste, 2010). Understanding of the way people experience the world can be baked into the design process and add awareness to whether or not designs are appealing to all three levels.

Designing more compelling products isn’t the only way designers can utilize storytelling and emotional intelligence in their work. Narrative and emotional connection can also be used to better empathize with the user, motivate design and development teams, and ensure those team members are on the same page and engaged. Designers create personas to understand the target user they design a product for. A well designed user story can make the persona feel real to the team and motivate them to solve a problem for the user and give them a great experience. A strong narrative for the goals of the proposed project may help to connect and take pride and ownership of their portion the project. An emotive story can paint a fuller picture of the project that simple words and brainstorming may not; establishing a truly common understanding among team members.

Storytelling is the innate way people share information about events, ideas, and identity. It can entertain, capture attention, and build rapport with others. The quality and effectiveness of a narrative can be influenced by the storyteller’s emotional intelligence. This coupling, when focused on a business goal, can bridge gaps between products and brand and their users. If stories are the natural way to share information, it only makes sense that they would be the ideal way to share products, services, and brand identity with not users: people.

Footnote: (1)A story is the objective, overarching set of events, characters, and themes. A narrative is a version of the story; it is a representation which may describe events out of order or involve the omission or embellishment of parts of the story. Throughout this piece I use narrative and story interchangeably because the stories I refer to are all intentionally curated.

Chatman, Seymour Benjamin. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Hemsley, Steve. “Why Brand Storytelling Should Be the Foundation of a Growth Strategy.” Marketing Week. February 28, 2016. Accessed September 17, 2016. https:// of-a-growth-strategy/.

Hymes, Dell H. Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor & Francis, 1996.

Inchauste, Francisco. “Better User Experience With Storytelling — Part One — Smashing Magazine.” Smashing Magazine. January 29, 2010. Accessed September 17, 2016. part-one/.

Rintoul, Matt. “User Experience Is a Feeling.” UXmatters. October 6, 2014. Accessed September 17, 2016. feeling.php.

Salovey, Peter, and John D. Mayer. “Emotional Intelligence.” Imagination, Cognition and Personality: 9 (March 1990): 185–211. doi:10.2190/DUGG-P24E-52WK-6CDG.