As a design educator I watch and read a lot of project presentations. I worked out the other day that I must have seen at least 2,000-3,000 student projects in my time. A key thing I have learned is that the telling of the project’s story, whether as a pitch, presentation or documentation, is as important as the project idea itself.
Coaching my students on the story of their presentations has become one of the key parts of my teaching. In our book on service design, we write about developing the service proposition and experience prototyping. As a set of testing criteria, we have a (mostly) hierarchical checklist of questions to keep in mind, the first and most important of which are:
- Do people understand what the new service is or does?
- Do people see the value of it in their life?
- Do people understand how to use it?
This checklist works for almost any situation and project that you are trying to communicate to someone, be it a service, product, artwork, screenplay, policy, business proposal, relationship proposal and more. As someone who loves the idea of developing unified theories of everything, lists of principles like this appeal to me. Just replace the word service for whatever you are proposing. The underlying questions are:
- What is this?
- Why should anyone care?
- How do they interact with it?
If you fail at an earlier step, it is very hard to be convincing at a later step. If people don’t understand what the product or service is, then it is impossible to convince people of its value and they are not even going to begin to bother to understand how to use it.
To take it back to relationships (and services are relationships), it’s like trying to convince someone to marry you without them even knowing what you look or sound like. It does happen, but shows like Blind Date are hilarious and cringeworthy because it usually does not. The Bachelor works by drawing these three principles out over a whole season:
- Who is this girl?
- What makes her special?
- How does she act/do the couple interact in certain situations?
Most stories work the same way:
- Who is the character, what is the setting?
- What is of value and what is at stake and how does that create the dramatic conflict?
- How does the character act in this situation?
Social networks mostly follows these principles too, but sometimes the value and how questions are switched, as anyone who has had to answer the “What is Twitter?” question will know.
Sometimes you have to start using something in order to discover its value. This can be a risky strategy. Some people won’t even bother to start interacting at all, because they do not understand what it is all about. I think the reason why this works with Twitter is because the learning curve of how to use it is so tiny: express something in 140 characters. The why of Twitter takes a little longer to discover.
Facebook is the opposite. The why is clear (at least it is if you are a teenager), but nobody knows how to manage their privacy and half a dozen other settings. Good luck with trying to find out how to permanently, properly delete your account too.
Storytelling is a design process
One of the reasons I coach my students about their project stories before their big presentations is because storytelling is an iterative design process that needs practice and it can easily go off the rails. We think we know our work so well and can just talk about it.
There is often the temptation to dive straight into the how it works part without any setting up of the context. This leaves the audience, including an external assessment jury, confused as to what they are looking at and why they should care. Sometimes, in earlier versions, the story of the project is pitched back-to-front or with sudden shifts in the narrative flow, leaving the audience to invent their own backstory. When the backstory is no longer controlled by the presenter, it allows room for misinterpretations and misunderstandings. That can be a recipe for disaster or, at least, bad grades.
Stories of stories of stories of stories
There is an interesting, fractal process of storytelling and re-telling that happens during design projects too. Insights researchers go out and gather stories from stakeholders. Then they come back and tell those stories to the project team.
The design team work on their concepts, telling each other stories about their ideas and previous experiences. They then present their ideas as stories to the larger project team and these concepts are finally pitched to the client as scenario stories. The client pitches these stories internally along with their own additions and interpretations of the design team.
Once the product or service is brought to market (with many stages of storytelling in-between), a brand will tell the story of the company, product or service to potential customers through advertising and marketing.
Finally, the customers use the product or service and tell others stories of their experiences with it, because markets and brands are conversations. Now we have come full circle, because it is those conversations that insights researchers tap into in the first place.
What’s your story?
There is an adage in screenwriting that you should try and write the best movie you possibly can, because it will eventually be watered down into just an okay movie by the time so many people (read: stars and executive producers) have had their input. I think the same is true with design projects — it is crucial to get the story clear in your own head as a designer, or as a team, before it goes out into the world and mutates into something unrecognisable.
The very act of defining and refining that story — in screenwriting these are reduced down to log lines — is an act of design and helps the designer be clearer about what they want to achieve. By having a clear story, designers can also be more aware of when things are going off track. Log lines are not as easy to write as it looks when you read them. This example is the log line for the film Looper taken from The Blacklist:
“In the present day, a group of hitmen are sent their victims from the future.”
Boom. The whole film encapsulated in one line. You can be sure the writer started with a longer line than that or even several sentences before whittling it down. One you have this, you know what your project is about and it remains a guiding light. If you find yourself having to explain more details to just get the idea across, something has gone awry.
Stories are the foundation if culture and society and what make us human. Without then we would, like dogs, be sniffing each other’s bottoms to find out about what our friends and colleagues have been up to. I’m thankful that we have language. Make use of it.