v.3 | The stories we tell, and how we tell them.
Stories shape us.
Stories can be fantastical and whimsical, but they also construct and define our lived reality. The individual and collective stories we tell shape what is known, what is possible, and what we can collectively imagine. The power inherent in storytelling led Mary Catherine Bateson to write in Willing to Learn that stories enable freedom, but also carry great “creative responsibility” (2004: 68).
As designers, strategists, creatives, and ethnographers, when we hold sensitive stories in our hands—stories of the dying, and sick, of the chronically marginalized, or of our collective resources—it is our duty to tell the story to the best of our ability with the tools at hand. It is our responsibility to tell stories that are credible, factual, and compelling, while also leaving room for imaginative possibility. This is what keeps our eyes on the horizon, looking forward to a smarter, kinder, and wiser future.
Storytelling isn’t trivial; it is essential, breathing life into—and engendering the “why” behind—our call to action. Our personal and collective stories lay the foundation for our identity, instilling a sense of belonging and purpose. When we root ourselves in inspiring, multimodal stories, we’re not only more grounded in a shared vision, we’re also stronger in our capacity to effect change.
Below you’ll find storytelling tools and techniques to augment your process, and communicate insight, vision, and strategy with impact.
Do you have a story we can help you express? An idea that needs articulating?
Storytelling highlights and strengthens human connection, which translates to deeper empathy, and more supportive design solutions. Each great story potentializes truth-telling, principle, and aspiration, built upon a familiar foundational architecture.
The above pyramid is a dramatic narrative arc employed by German playwright and novelist, Gustav Freytag, in the 19th century. Freytag exclusively wrote tragedies, the paramount form of storytelling in his view. His arc takes the audience through five stages: a starting point, tension caused by an inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution or denouement. This structure is ideal for problem framing because it highlights challenging realities that persist unless action and solution intervene.
Modern story arcs evolved from five stages into three: a beginning, middle, and end—like the hero’s journey. With these core building blocks, stories can take many shapes, as Kurt Vonnegut comically shares in this 4-minute clip.
We recognize a story through this architecture of plot points, but to create a compelling story, we must inspire belief. The rhetorical appeals of pathos, logos, and ethos form the vehicle of persuasion. The combination and ratio of these appeals influence an audience’s receptivity, and its ability to absorb and accept a message.
The story of the earth is a most important narrative, one that is culturally woven. This story impacts each of us—our present realities and our future choices. In 1971, the earth’s tale was told in a short, but impactful, 60-second television advertisement that you can watch below.
The vignette, paid for by Keep America Beautiful, implores Americans to care more deeply for the land, wagging its finger and encouraging individuals to be responsible, patriotic citizens by recycling their waste. The resolution is a cleaner world for all.
But Keep America Beautiful, unbeknownst to viewers, was comprised of leading beverage and packaging corporations, including Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Co., whose practices included polluting the waterways, destroying landscapes, and clogging the air. The compelling but deceitful propaganda assigned responsibility to individuals, while successfully deflecting attention away from the ecologically harmful practices of the companies that produced the ad.
The story was incredibly effective. Even today, the onus remains on individuals to recycle rather than on media, government, and corporations to address underlying, systemic causes that lead to mass environmental degradation, wreaking much greater havoc than the damage any one individual could manage.
There are many different climate stories—told by and for distinct interests. How does the narrative change when told by young activists? Which story do our elders choose to pass down? What story emerges from the perspective of the natural world, as Richard Powers so poetically explores?
The stories told and untold reveal the locus of influence—cultural and temporal. By learning to identify the composition and appeals of a story, we can assess its motivations, discern false flags from earnest ones, and judiciously award primacy to those of merit.
“The medium is the message.”
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)
We use a range of tools to convey stories from the field, including many of these essential frameworks. Charts, graphs, canvases, workflows, pyramids, journey maps, and matrices help us think and answer questions like:
“Where are power and influence concentrated in the organizational structure of product-led companies?”
“What does the journey of learning to manage a chronic health condition look and feel like?”
“What are the greatest unmet needs and opportunities in the field of mental health?”
“Which product cues help surgeons and nurses quickly locate and utilize a life-saving surgical product in a moment of dire urgency?”
“How does design language affect the perception of quality?”
The craft is in selecting the right medium of expression at the right moment for maximum impact. When we “show” rather than “tell,” the information absorbs readily and more thoroughly.
Working with a global medical product company with a vast portfolio of original and acquired products, we realized that their growth was stalled by a brand challenge. Many of their customers and users, primarily clinicians, did not recognize the parent brand behind their products—products of higher quality, safety, and efficacy than their competitors. We audited their portfolio across physical and digital touchpoints, as well as their key competitors’.
The visual identity in the portfolio was hardly cohesive: a rainbow house of brands—yet undifferentiated and indistinguishable from the competition. Once we identified the inconsistencies, we demonstrated as much with an easy-to-understand graphic taxonomy, similar to the one above. The executive team had never seen a holistic representation of the portfolio, which clearly communicated the problem and resulted in an immediate decision to resolve it. The visual story created a powerful vehicle of evidence—and opportunity.
Interested in learning how to show and tell better stories? We teach workshops and classes on impactful storytelling—for researchers, designers, writers, strategists, and executive leadership.
Hearing the voices and words of the people living in a particular context, or working in a niche role, conveys more depth and breadth than endless words on a page. Ear Hustle is a powerful podcast that broadcasts the daily realities of life inside prison shared by those living it, and stories from the outside, post-incarceration. Before hearing these stories by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated folks, we might hold a lot of assumptions about prisoners—their language, their lives, their pasts, their thoughts and dreams. But listening to stories told in the cadence and context of the people living this reality shatters preconceived notions. Have a listen, and notice if your assumptions about prison and prisoners shift.
In research and design, we presence our bodies in the field and participate in the theater of the spaces we occupy, whether that’s an operating room, an intersection, or a labyrinthine office. This emplaced vantage point opens our field of vision, and allows us to move beyond self-perceived limitations about what’s reasonable or feasible. The stories that come through when we embody new roles and gestures invite interaction and exchange, empathy and insight. These somatic experiences enable a felt sense of the relationships, dynamics, and interactions between people, objects, and space, an intuitive knowing when an interplay feels off—or when it feels just right.
Bodies are partly connected and ‘known’ through narrative–the stories they tell. Indeed, we tell stories about, in, out of, and through our bodies.
— Lars-Christer Hydén, Bodies, Embodiment and Stories (2013)
We are an insights-based innovation studio that partners with mission-driven change makers. Through human science, we design smarter, kinder, wiser futures—for net positive impact. If that’s you, please drop us a note to share your vision, question, or challenge.
Follow us @theblumline for more insights on compelling storytelling, and the podcasts, novels, art pieces, developments, and scientific studies that are moving our team.