The Ingredients of a Story - hero image

The Ingredients of a Story

We use stories to get our way. We are often hired to develop a design strategy; compelling narratives help us sell that strategy.

A design strategy compliments other strategic approaches, like a technology strategy or a marketing strategy. In a perfect world, these things are in lock-step. But strategy is emergent – it isn’t fixed, and it relies on continual advocacy for a variety of perspectives. In a design strategy, we act as the advocate for the perspective of the people who choose to or have to use products and services; we use stories to make sure that design strategy is considered as much of a first-class citizen as the other disciplinary approaches.

There are some specific qualities of stores that we’ve found to be most effective in shaping, and selling, a design strategy.


One of the most important parts of compelling storytelling is to show the people, their context, and their behavior. Videos are an effective way of communicating, but are often too realistic: they leave little to the imagination. Static imagery, with audio and text overlay, creates a sense of setting, and provides enough realism to bring story participants to life. “Shown” also applies to the text selected, as text prompts mental images and relationships. Displaying the audio as a caption or overlay serves to support and reinforce the words that are being said through audio.

Showing just enough of a different reality helps bring abstract circumstances to life. In various projects, we’ve done research with life insurance agents, students, people living in poverty, office workers, and ground-crew handlers at airports, yet I am none of those things. Prior to our research, I had a very base and “square” image of what happens underneath an airport, and most of this image was wrong; it wasn’t wrong conceptually, but wrong because it was so abstract. When I was in the field, following a baggage handlers in the belly of the Zurich International Airport, I gained a crispness to my mental picture, and mental model of the airport context. By showing the people I spoke with and their context, I can transfer some of this fidelity to my audience.

Most importantly, stories are not captured through one of the most traditional presentation mechanisms: bullet points or text summaries. These familiar slide formats shortcut the most important part of the stories: the people themselves. Their behavior, wants, needs, and desires can’t (and shouldn’t) be broken down into a list of qualities, because that simply reinforces the abstraction. It underscores our already thin view of a unique set of circumstances.


The stories we tell are emotional, and are crafted to evoke emotion. This doesn’t mean we only share the sentiment expressed by our participants. We share behavior: stories of things people are doing and have done. We contextualize their sentiment in what has happened and is really happening. Behavior humanizes the participants and brings them to life, and helps us view irrational or unpredictable emotions in a more rational container.

In a recent session with Jason in Glendale Arizona, we heard him describe his day in great detail: delivering food for Favor, driving for Uber, installing a fence on a construction site, and participating in our study. He’s a millennial gig worker, and from afar, that seems like a lot of work for not a lot of money: we might apply our own emotional filter on his experience and call it a poor living. Yet Jason describes it with pride, emphasizing that his hustle is unique to him and that he loves waking up in the morning, not knowing how the day will go, and – if he wants – not working at all.

When we hear about his behavior without probing on his emotions, the behavior seems (and may actually be) illogical.

Once we can consider “what he does” at once with “how he feels”, the behavior starts to have more resonance; we may not be able to picture ourselves living like that, but we can start to see why Jason lives like that.


Through a story, we become involved with the characters. We see them not as actors, but as relatable people, and we become absorbed in their lives. This is a combination of attention, imagery, and feelings, and as we become transported, we move away from our own world and enter theirs – and portions of our own world are, at least temporarily, gone. This does not always have staying power, but combined with other narrative qualities, transportation has the ability to begin to transfer world-view traits from the protagonist to the viewer. To be transported, a viewer needs to be focused, and that speaks to the vivid imagery shown to them. This, in many ways, is the defining characteristic of a good story, as compared to a poor one: the ability for the story to allow our real world to temporarily slip away.

I recently facilitated an interview with a Katy, a fifth-grade teacher, who described the professional development that is forced upon her from her school district. Just a week before our interview, she – along with 12,000 other teachers – participated in a half-day training seminar. 6000 teachers attended the morning session and 6000 attended the afternoon. Katy described the traffic mess of thousands of teachers arriving for an afternoon session while thousands of teachers left the auditorium at the same time. Not only was the session not professional useful for her, it created a huge sense of frustration and anger.

I was transported, for a moment, into the mess of the traffic jam. She felt so strongly that the session was a disaster that I, too, felt it was a disaster.



The research that leads to strategic storytelling generates a huge amount of data, most of which is in the form of narrative. Design research focuses on the things people do, their aspirations, and their behaviors, all of which are presented during field work as stories occurring over time. We typically work with between 15 and 25 participants, in two-hour sessions. Their stories intertwine, support one-another, contradict one-another. At the end of a program, we’ll have close to fifty strong stories. But we can’t include these in a strategic summary; we may have time for only two or three, and in those two or three, perhaps time for only two or three main emphasis points. Our curation is based on our own story to tell, and there’s a give and take. The stories help us craft the strategy, and we then select stories that support that emergent strategy.

All stories are not created equal. Some are more compelling than others. And some lead more directly to a design strategy than others. It is these compelling, self-contained, and supportive stories that are culled to support our point. We curate, heavily.


The stories we tell challenge preconceived beliefs. They provoke cognitive dissonance by making an audience feel uncomfortable. The things they hear and see in the narratives don’t fit into an existing schema, and that means they provoke a feeling that something is wrong; as an audience member, either my existing schema is wrong, or their stories are wrong. Yet the stories are real, and are presented in a strong and rich manner, and so resolving that dissonance becomes difficult. Challenge is important, because it demands attention. We can’t resolve that dissonance without explicitly focusing on the disconnect. That attention gives us an opportunity to drive our agenda.

We recently concluded a long project with people who were thinking of purchasing insurance. We watched them glaze over during the process: while some thought the purchase was a serious and important one, many thought of it as a tedious activity and approached it with a cavalier attitude. One participant did his research on his phone at the gym, while running on the treadmill. Yet our client thought of the purchase process as one that was contemplative and thoughtful; for such an important purchase, surely prospective customers would think carefully about their selections.

Watching a man on a treadmill make a casual decision about what the stakeholders thought of as a well-researched, intellectual activity created dissonance. It challenged the way they viewed their business, and their customers, and from that dissonance comes reactions. Surely the man is an outlier. People don’t really do that, do they? Why doesn’t he treat it as seriously as we do? The dissonance creates a challenge, and the resolution of that challenge becomes the focus of the conversation – which is exactly our goal of proposing a design strategy.


We speak a great deal about empathy in our work as designers, which is the ability for us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. But sympathy is different; sympathy is the ability for us to care about someone and their circumstances. When we tell a story, we bring problems to life in a way that an audience can care about – so they can relate to the protagonist on a base, emotional level. We provoke feelings of sadness, caring, or worry, so that our audience wants to help.

We recently completed a session with a photography student who, close to graduation, was thinking of dropping out of college because she couldn’t afford tuition. As she spoke, we learned that her father had incorrectly filled out the financial aid documentation, and then had tried to hide his mistakes, until it was too late. She loved her family, and didn’t blame him, but her educational outlook was poor.

She only needed $3000 to complete her degree, and as my partner and I left her house, we briefly discussed actually mailing her an anonymous gift of the money. We didn’t, for a variety of reasons around research ethics, but the session did exactly what it was supposed to: it evoked sympathy, and we really, really wanted her to succeed.

If we can present that story in a way that provokes shared sympathy to people who weren’t actually there with us, and cast our emergent design strategy as a way to help her and other students like her, our sympathy becomes a driver of positive action.


The stories we tell are the stories we heard. Our participants are not present in the design studio or the boardroom. As their proxy, we use their stories to shape the strategy and to present it, but these stories are not simply tools of manipulation. Even with our curating, our responsibility is to stay true to the people we engaged with – to give them a voice in the design process.

This seems counter-intuitive: we are using their voices as a vehicle to drive our agenda; how can that be ethical?

The key is that we are using their voices to first shape a strategy that helps them, and only then using their stories to push that strategy. The stories indicate real, meaningful need, and the strategies we produce act as advocacy for our participants. This is one of the main differences between a design strategy and other strategic approaches, such as a technical or business strategy. These strategic approaches should work in harmony and blend, but a design strategy should always advocate for people: for the people we conducted research with.


The most important part of using stories to shape and drive a design strategy is that the people and stories are real. These are not made up characters, archetypes, personas, or any other form of demographic conglomerates; they are actual individuals. The realness is the reason that these stories come to life, and the reason they resonate on such a human level. As an audience, and through the methods above, we come to believe in and support a single individual, and advocate for that person – we want to help then, specifically, as we might want to help a friend.

Jason, our gig worker, is real. Our baggage handler is real. Katy, the fifth-grade teacher, really does hate professional development, and Joseph really did shop for insurance on a treadmill. Because these stories are real, they are believable. I’ve spoken of fidelity of narrative. A great author of fiction can bring to life a fake character with fidelity, but most of us are not great authors of fiction. The realism of our participants – their quirks, comments, smiles and frowns – become our way to bring real human beings back to life in a boardroom, giving them a voice in the process of developing new products, services, policies and strategies.

Jon Kolko

Modernist can help you tell great stories.

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