Gina leans back in her chair and lets out a sigh.
A career counselor at a community college, she wears the distracted expression of someone who’s had too much to do, and not enough time to do it in, for a long time. She’s explaining her college’s system to us. “The students here mostly come from low-income households,” she says. “They’re primarily African-American, and often the first of their families to go to college. Their parents are so proud of them, but because they haven’t been through the college system themselves, they’ve got no way of preparing their kids for what it’s like.” She paused. “So the kids have no idea about the calculus class, for instance.”
“What’s so unique about calculus?” we ask.
“They have to take a calculus class, and pass it, before they can start their courses. It doesn’t matter what their courses are about, they have to get the calc first. The problem is that they regularly fail calculus because their high school educations were poor, so we added a remedial calculus class to help them. But they fail that too, so then we added a pre-remedial calculus class—which they also flunk. None of these classes give the students any credit towards their intended qualifications, and eventually their parents discover that even though their kids have been at college for a year and a half, they’re no closer to graduating than when they started. And of course, the kids feel like shit. Yes,” she said, noting our expression.
Gina goes on to tell us that given the thousands of students at the college, counselors rarely have much time to spend with them, so most of the kids go through the process on their own. There’s nobody to help them navigate the system. Naturally many drop out without ever getting to take classes in the subject they were interested in, because they have to do a bunch of boring calculus classes that they weren’t prepared for at high school. And their potential hopes of transferring to university after they’ve finished at college are thrown in the trash, along with all the money they’ve spent.
As we sit in Gina’s office hearing this story we find ourselves feeling increasingly sad and frustrated, and we know that our client, a university, will be too. The eventual outcome of this research will be an online tool that helps college students transfer to university with ease, by enabling them to unlock the right classes at the right time. It effectively scales the role of the counselor, so that students can have a Gina at their fingertips whenever they need her.
“It’s as crazy and sad as it sounds.”
But more immediately, our experience with Gina illustrates what compelling stories do: they force us to envisage new realities by using emotion to short-circuit logic. In Western culture we’re trained to value logic more highly than emotion. We don’t like to think that we act on feelings alone, so we’re always looking for ways to post-rationalize the emotion-based actions we’ve taken. We strive for a logical approach in all things; and while we can achieve a lot with a rational mind, one thing that it’s not good for is imagining a world that doesn’t yet exist. We need to abandon logic if we’re to come up with creative ways of solving problems.
Think back to the last time you went to the movies. Was your goal to take a logical approach to what you saw? Of course not—you’d never have been able to enjoy the experience. Instead, you immersed yourself in the action, allowing your brain to make all kinds of associative mental leaps. You found yourself feeling what the main character was feeling, and wanting what they wanted, even if those things wouldn’t have made sense to you in your own life. You could see that within the protagonist’s worldview, the actions they took were right for them. The story allowed you to tap into a different universe, not through logical argument but through appealing to your emotions.
That’s fine for the movies, but why use stories to short-circuit logic in organizations? Why not just present a series of facts and figures with the aim of achieving the change you want? Because logic doesn’t persuade nearly as strongly as emotions do. If we were to use the language of analysis, we could show that there are quantifiable opportunities for your business to make money in certain ways, but we’d never be able to convince you into a radically different way of thinking about your products. Yet when we tell you the stories of the people we’ve met, and the ways we’ve come up with to help them, we can persuade you through emotion. We’re creating a subjective lens for you to look through that’s based on the research participants’ wants and needs, and which will in turn lead to a set of criteria for new product or service designs.
A new vision of the future is rarely a single, simple design improvement.
It often involves changes to multiple products, services, and systems, and so it needs buy-in from a large number of people in your organization—all with similar but different perspectives. It’s understandable that they need convincing because change is expensive, risky, and often scary.
Stories help not only to communicate what the change could be, but also to convince everyone that it will make things better than they are now. It’s difficult to push a design rock uphill by yourself, so anything that helps you to overcome people’s differences, and unite them around a common vision, is helpful. Stories do this.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that stories work because they help us to imagine, and that this is down to their emotional pull. They also make it easy for us to convince others, because they’re easy to tell and re-tell.
So how does the emotional aspect of stories work? In two ways: by challenging the way we think, and by changing the actual chemistry of our brains. Within these two categories there are a number of ingredients for storytelling and these are what this chapter will focus on. They’re not a checklist or formula for creating a great story, but facets of what leads to compelling storytelling.
Sympathy and empathy
Have you ever looked at Craigslist, eBay, or Amazon and asked yourself how platforms that look so poorly designed from a visual perspective can still dominate the world of e-commerce?
And if you’re up to speed with the current music scene, have you ever wondered how a truly terrible band like Nickelback—one that literally no-one seems to like—has managed to sell 50 million albums?
Seemingly self-contradictory notions like these create in our minds what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” To see what we mean by cognitive dissonance, try the following thought experiment on yourself. Say these phrases out loud as if you believe them:
I believe that poor people are poor because they’re lazy.
I believe that poor people are poor because they’ve been dealt an unfair hand in life.
We’re willing to bet that you were tempted to pick the one that most accurately represents your pre-existing beliefs. But try really, really hard not to pick only one. Just live with the concepts and ponder them as if they’re both true. It’s not easy, because when we hold two conflicting ideas in our heads at once it feels extremely uncomfortable. We’ll do anything we can to resolve them into one idea.
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that’s been studied extensively by social psychologist Leon Festinger. He explains that when we come across events that don’t fit our worldview, we find ourselves mired in an uncomfortable disconnect between our morals and expectations, and the things we’re experiencing. This feels unpleasant, so we work hard to resolve the dissonance. We might question our beliefs and change them; we might re-think our experience and change our perception of it; or, most likely, we might reinforce our original belief, writing off the new idea as being incorrect.
So what does this have to do with business? Roger Martin, the former Dean of the Rotman School of Management, has studied the traits of leaders in large, successful corporations.1 He identified that one of the most important (and unique) traits of leaders is what he calls integrative thinking. This is the ability to hold two competing choices or ideas in our heads at once and after allowing them to sit there for a while, instead of just picking one, to synthesize them into a meaningful whole. Leaders who can do this are able to consider many perspectives on a problem at the same time, and aren’t likely to make a decision based only on their pre-conceived views of the world. However, given that we’re not all great leaders and few of us have this superpower, most of us will work to resolve dissonance through the methods I described above. This leads us to reject new ideas that challenge our pre-conceptions.
Cognitive dissonance plays out in design strategy in various ways. You’ve already seen the dissonance created in the minds of the insurance executives when we showed them the video of the guy researching life insurance on the treadmill. They found it hard to reconcile their pre-conceived assumptions about how people did these things, with the reality of what the research participant actually did.
Now imagine that you’re the Creative Director of a bank, and you’re looking to improve how your customers pay their bills online. Your product team has trialed the addition of a large banner to the top of the bank’s mobile app, which advertises a new partnership with a third party that helps people to pay their bills. So far so good, but when users tap on the banner they’re taken to a completely different product, with a different brand and way of interacting, and worse, they have to register themselves for that company. It seems obvious to you that it’s a dumb thing to do, but the product team presents you with data showing that, in a test, 80 percent of users tapped the banner. Your company is paid based on each tap, and in the trial your bank made hundreds of thousands of dollars. At scale, it would translate to millions.
You’re now in a state of cognitive dissonance. Your branding expertise and your commitment to user experience tell you that the banner is a terrible idea. But your commitment to the business’ financial success and your desire to be a team player tell you that it’s a wonderful idea. Sitting with both ideas is painful, and if you’re like most people you’ll go with your existing worldview. You’ll argue to remove the banner, fighting tooth and nail in every meeting to see it through.
And yet there aren’t only two options here: keep the banner or remove it. It’s a creative problem, not a binary one, so there are infinite ways to resolve the issue. You could make the banner bigger or smaller; you could move it to the bottom of the screen; it could be in the app or in an email; it doesn’t need to be a banner at all, but a physical item mailed to the customer; the compensation relationship with the partner could be re-negotiated so that referrals aren’t the main source of revenue. The potential solutions are endless.
The integrative thinking that Roger Martin describes requires holding “banner/no banner” in your head at once, without picking either one. You have to be willing to abandon your rational thought process—the one that tells you to choose either option or combine them through some kind of reasoned compromise. This is where stories help, because they can point the way to potential solutions in ways that bypass a logical, non-integrative way of seeing things.
Storytelling can provoke dissonance.
Darius’ house was in the kind of neighborhood many of us wouldn’t dream of walking through at night, or even in the day if you could help it. As we pulled up outside in our rental car, we double-checked that we’d got the right place and then locked the doors carefully.
Inside the house, Darius welcomed us and pulled out a couple of chairs for us in the kitchen. It was small and messy, but clearly a welcome gathering place for his family to spend time together. We were there to talk to him, on behalf of our bank client, about the videos he’d taken for us showing how he managed his finances.
We were intrigued by a technique he’d developed for keeping track of his spending—a process which, given his paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle—he clearly felt was important. As we settled down he pulled out his Android phone, cracked screen and all, and opened the calculator app.
“At the beginning of the month,” he explained, “I enter the money I have to spend. Every time I buy something, pay the rent, whatever, I hit minus and deduct it. That’s how I know how much money I have left. I use this app because when I close it, it doesn’t erase the calculator.”
To Darius this was a simple and effective way of ensuring that he didn’t run out of cash each month—it made perfect sense. But to our client it was bizarre and unbelievable:
“That’s ridiculous, what a dumb way to manage your finances. Surely nobody really does it that way?”
But Darius did do it that way—we know because we saw him do it. And to him, it wasn’t ridiculous or dumb; it was perfect.
When we tell research participants’ stories to our clients, we often find ourselves challenging the way they think. The stories create a sense of discomfort, which means that our audience will work hard to create the consonance they need to feel easier. Part of our job is to keep their minds open so that they can engage with the idea of a new strategic direction for their products.
It’s rarely the case that people resolve their dissonance in one go; usually it’s a gradual process. And it’s an emotional, rather than a logical, one. If you think of your current political views, for instance, and contrast them to what they were when you were in high school, you’ll see that you didn’t necessarily move, step by logical step, to a new position. That’s why it’s hard to explain what happens in words. The way we most often realize it’s occurred is when we look back and see that we don’t think about something in the same way as we did before, and that, without intending to, we’ve shifted our stance.
When you’re developing novel products and solutions for your customers, it goes without saying that criticizing or disbelieving people when they do things that you find puzzling isn’t the best way to generate products that will improve their lives. This can be the case with issues both small and large. We worked with one client to whom we showed video footage of customers who were finding it hard to locate a button labeled “log in” on the company’s website. In the videos we could hear the participants repeatedly asking, “Where’s the ‘sign in’ button?” This illustrated that the name of the button should be changed to “sign in,” but our client couldn’t accept that. The dissonance leap was too extreme; how could such a small label change matter so much?
It’s important to recognize the emotional power of cognitive dissonance because it happens almost every time you encounter a new idea. That’s understandable. As an executive, your job, reputation, and often your compensation, are on the line if you get decisions wrong. Why wouldn’t you stick with what you’ve always assumed to be right? But at the same time, you have to be able to hold two contrasting ideas at once so that you can engage with creative solutions. And stories, with their emotional pull, help you to do that.
Here comes “the science part.” Immersion is the biochemical reaction that’s triggered in our brains when we read or watch a great story. This reaction creates the feeling of being so involved in an experience that we start to lose our own perspective on it and, as a result, become susceptible to new ways of thinking.
One of the main authorities on this topic is neuroeconomist Paul Zak, who says, “Well-crafted stories sustain attention and produce emotional resonance in listeners, a neurological state we call ‘immersion’.”2 He describes how, when we hear a story, we produce the hormone oxytocin. This is often called the love drug, because it increases during intimate contact such as hugging, kissing, and sex. Zak’s research shows that the amount of oxytocin released by our brains can predict how much we’re willing to help others; for instance, it’s shown that after exposure to a story, we’ll give more to charity.
As well as drawing us close to the main actors in stories, oxytocin ensures that our attention is attracted and held. It’s pleasurable to hear a story, which is why we pay good money to see them in movie theaters or invest time in reading novels, and the reason is that it gives us a feeling that we’re genetically pre-disposed to want: a rush of the love drug. We’re inclined to stay with the experience for as long as it keeps flooding our brains.
In other words, there’s scientific evidence that stories trigger reactions in our bodies that make us feel close to the people within them. That’s what helps us to make the transition from our own world to theirs, and is one of the key reasons why stories are effective at helping us to see the world through the eyes of others. Also, as you can imagine, oxytocin plays a critical role in helping us to resolve cognitive dissonance, because it relaxes our critical judgment and enhances our ability to cross divides.
We’ve seen transportation happen with our clients many times, as they move from a position of skepticism about an idea to one in which they embrace a new way of seeing something. Transportation isn’t a conscious, rational act, but a way of making judgments based on what we see and feel in the story. It’s as if we temporarily lose our capacity for logical analysis, with the result that our thoughts are based purely on what the research participants are saying.
One of our participants transported herself into a story during a research session. She was trialing an e-commerce site that we’d pulled together; this was in the early days of the Internet, so it was pretty clunky by today’s standards. Her assignment was to read a story that we’d written for her in which she was interested in buying a certain make and model of car, with a set budget. She was given a dummy credit card number and a fake address, so that she could make a payment. She was then asked to “shop” for the car on the website. A facilitator sat beside her throughout the process, prompting her to verbalize what she was doing so that we could understand her decision-making process.
As we watched from behind a one-way glass, we could see that the participant was becoming increasingly frustrated. She kept clicking on the wrong buttons and making errors—things weren’t working in the way she wanted. Eventually she started to cry.
“I can’t keep doing this,” she whispered.
We immediately stopped the session and reassured her that it was fine to leave it. After she’d taken a break, we asked if she would mind talking to us about what the problem was. She explained, although not in so many words, that she wasn’t trusted by her family to make financial decisions, and that this was why she was upset. Even though she knew that she was the main character in a made-up car-buying story, and that the credit card details were fake, she’d transported herself into the scenario to the extent that it felt deeply uncomfortable for her to carry on. It was as if her logical mind was telling her that it was “just” a story, but her emotions were telling her that she was breaking an unwritten rule. This is the power of transportation.
Evidence from researchers Melanie Green and the late Timothy Brock, of Ohio State University, shows that people who are transported develop strong feelings towards the characters in a story, and may alter their beliefs based on this.3 For instance, imagine that you’re watching a movie in which the main character is a thief, but a clever and charismatic one. The thief goes to extraordinarily dangerous lengths to steal things, and you can’t help but admire her skill and courage. Normally you’d see being a thief as morally wrong (and you still do), but in this case, because of the transportation effect, there’s a strong part of you that wants her to evade capture.
This is how a compelling narrative can help us to explore alien perspectives. And it’s how, when our clients find it hard to see things from the research participants’ points of view, experiencing a great story can help them to do so. They want to be part of it because they’re transported into it, with the result that they suspend the kind of rational thinking that got them to where they are now in their career. They open themselves up to new views instead.
Sympathy is about concern; it involves sharing a common feeling, most often when someone else is feeling sad or troubled. However, sympathy is often a passive emotion. Imagine walking past a homeless person asking for money; you might feel sympathetic towards their circumstances, but still not give them any cash. Your feelings were triggered but your behavior was unchanged. When we carry out research, we try to ignore sympathy because it’s demeaning to the person; it’s as if we see them as a cardboard cut-out of the problem they have. So while we often find ourselves feeling bad for our participants, as we did with the photography student who couldn’t afford to finish her degree, it’s not an emotion we like to give space to. (By the way, this isn’t to say that sympathy isn’t powerful or valuable, because it certainly demands our attention. And our attention is one of the most rare and precious things that we can give.)
Empathy is different to sympathy in that it involves seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, almost as if we’ve become that person. As we strive to gain empathy with another we start to become open to their perspective on life, and begin to look at our own perspectives in new ways. It’s far more powerful than sympathy as it can lead to drastic changes in behavior.
Because of immersion, transportation, and oxytocin release, stories are the ultimate empathy generators. For instance, we as authors have no idea what it’s like to have been released from jail, or to be a 17-year-old college student in the present day. But if we can, through hearing a great story, empathize with people who have experienced these things, we can cut through the logic that says that we can’t appreciate their situation.
We once worked with a tech company that enabled people to sign legal documents online. Its aim was to introduce new capabilities for small business owners, so we spent time with a selection of them to find out how they felt about their work. One of the most memorable stories we gathered was that of Alec, a father of two who’d bought a children’s playscape two years previously. It had long been his dream to own and run one, and now it had come true, but he was already at the point of selling up. The reason? He’d slowly fallen out of love with the business.
“See all these files, and folders, and print-outs?” he said. “I never realized that this was what it takes to operate a business. I’ve got contracts and forms everywhere, and they’re sucking the joy out of it all. Rather than watch the kids having a great time in the ball pit and chatting with their parents, I’m in the office doing paperwork. And I suck at it.”
He went on to tell us that he’d even been hit with an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) violation because he hadn’t put up the right poster in his staff room. He had no idea he was supposed to.
This story, and others like it, led us to realize that starting a business is an emotional journey. It’s born in the sunshine of hope and passion, starts to dim its light once reality hits, and can gradually extinguish itself in the darkness of disappointment and despair. Should the owner accept that their dream is over, or live with the fact that their work isn’t going to be as fulfilling as they’d thought?
By experiencing Alec’s story, our empathy was switched on and we were opened to new ways of seeing his business. This involved us finding ways of making the operational side more engaging, which included simplifying the paperwork and regularly reminding him that there was a reason for it: to enable him to continue helping the kids.
We can think of a well-told story as being like an emotional sneeze: it makes us catch the feelings of the main character. By listening to the story we can feel what they feel, and we may even start to mimic their postures, expressions, and movements. Have you ever clenched your fists with tension during a movie chase scene, or furrowed your brow when the protagonist acts angry or confused? This is contagion.
Emotional contagion isn’t as conscious a process as generating empathy. With contagion, we may not see the world completely through another’s eyes and so our emotional mapping is less sophisticated, but we can still find common ground with them. This is the case whether the story is made-up or based on real life.
Emotional contagion is especially important when it comes to the telling of a story. When we’re in the field it’s relatively easy for us to empathize with the research participants because we’re there with them. But for a client watching a presentation of stories back in the office, it’s a different matter. They’re thinking about what they’re going to learn, whether they’ll take action on any of the recommendations, and how they’ll explain them to everyone else. They’re “up in their head,” rather than being emotionally available to new ways of seeing things. Contagion allows us to cut through that by passing on our empathy and the emotions of the people we’ve spent time with. It’s about the relationship between storyteller and listener.
Contagion also comes into play during the design process. At this point, we’re not so much concerned with stories but about whether what we’ve designed looks good, feels good, and solves the right problems. We’re “infecting” our design with the emotions of its end users. This is why we always use the same team to carry out the field research, create the design strategy, and do the design; the contagion carries through. Compare this way of working to a more traditional division of roles, in which a research team does the research, presents it to the product team, and designers finally turn the data into actionable product decisions. A lot of designers would prefer to sit in front of their screens, but we have them go out and talk to people so that they can catch the wants and needs from them and bring those needs into their designs.
These emotional aspects of storytelling (cognitive dissonance, immersion, transportation, sympathy and empathy, and emotional contagion) are simply different facets of the same prism. They all point to the same thing, which is the fact that stories tap into our emotions like nothing else. When we’re emotionally engaged, we’re attentive to others’ experiences and open to new ways of seeing things. What’s more, we remember what we’ve learned and we’re ready to re-tell the stories to others.
The emotional impact of stories is deeply persuasive. And persuasion is what we’ll explore next, when we look at how we tell compelling stories.