Storytelling is so much a part of what we do — of what anyone who is a communicator, written or visual, is striving to do — but there is an art and craft to good storytelling that can shape the success with which we spin our tales. Without understand some of the techniques the best storytellers use, our attempts at leading readers through a narrative can fall flat.
That’s why I was particularly thrilled with Cindy Chastain’s presentation “Thinking Like a Storyteller” during Interaction ’10, the annual conference of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), which I attended in Savannah the first week in February. Chastain is a user experience designer but also a screenwriter and filmmaker, and she often relates these disciplines as she talks about how to create captivating experiences for users.
A few of her observations that hit home for me:
There are two narratives going on at once.
There’s the narrative that you as the writer or designer create, and then there is the user’s narrative — the “stream of self-talk” that goes on as a person interacts with a product. Each step of an interaction raises new questions, prompts a user to want more information, and draws the user further into the experience — it’s important to understand how to build the right emotional and cognitive cues into these interactions, Chastain says.
People intuitively understand narrative structure.
For thousands of years, people have been telling stories. Children as young as 4 years old understand the shape of a story — the arc that takes the reader from least to most complex and then back down, bringing readers ultimately to a “soft landing.”
Writers and designers should pay careful attention to that time-tested arc, being careful not to disrupt the narrative flow (by inserting annoying ads or offers just when the story is starting to flow, for example) and to be sure to guide readers to a satisfying ending rather than leaving them hanging. Techniques commonly used in screenwriting such as “slow disclosure” create suspense and draw the reader into the story.
True character is revealed in action.
When we write or design experiences, we’re enforcing a brand character, with a voice and a personality of its own. When thinking like a storyteller, there’s tremendous potential to create a character or series of characters not only through the words we use, but in how and when the user receives a response or a follow-up, where the user is taken next or other “actions” that help readers/users feel like they are starting to understand what the “character” is all about.