An example of how seeing just a small part of the story can pique our curiosity to fill in the blanks* (CONT.)
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
I couldn't think of a better introduction than this excerpt from Joan Didion's book The white album. Although I may be biased towards Didion’s words.
When preparing a talk on storytelling, the first thing I considered was where and how to start. I wanted to provide useful insights to both those familiar and unfamiliar with the topic. This article is an adaptation of that presentation, with the same aim: to build an introduction to storytelling. Although I initially titled the presentation “Storytelling Beyond the Mythos,” I chose a more descriptive title for this article to emphasize the “design process” element.
The role that storytelling plays in our lives is not always apparent, and in order to provide context of how prevalent storytelling is in our life. I'll explain its value from various perspectives: a writer's viewpoint, a scientific approach, and a historical perspective.
-Writer's viewpoint -Scientific approach -Historical perspective
While these examples may seem far removed from the design process, they'll demonstrate the significance of storytelling from different angles.
Writers; original storytellers.
How storytelling manifests itself into every moment of our life.
Writers are undoubtedly the first storytellers who come to mind. Who else requires such a mastery of language to explain an event with words?
After Didion's statement, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” She gives a testament to the human nature of storytelling: She illustrates this by describing how, when we see a woman standing on a 16th-floor ledge, our first instinct is to imagine the story behind what we see.
“We live entirely [...] by the imposition of a narrative line”
Our brains use storytelling to process our thoughts and feelings, -which is primarily how dreams work- whether she’s protesting a cause or trying to end her life, it’s for us to fill in the blank and complete the story. And most of the time we can’t help ourselves not to do it. “We live entirely [...] by the imposition of a narrative line” Didion concludes. And we certainly do.
When it comes to writing, a writer creates characters with specific traits that define them and rationalize their actions and reactions throughout the storyline. However, not all writers are storytellers. The difference between a writer and a storyteller is aptly described by C.S. Lewis:
“For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”
Joan Didion’s notable work is a collection of essays in which she tells stories from real life and reports them in a unique narrative way, still true to what an essay is but with a personality that captivates readers. Regardless of the material, storytelling must be engaging, meaningful, and relatable.
However, when telling stories as a design process, things may become a bit more complicated than making essays into stories. What are the stories that our audience wants to hear?
Science; tested theories.
Why our brain is more acute to stories.
Only a dozen people in the world have memorized more than 20,000 digits of Pi. But lots and lots of people have played Hamlet and, therefore, memorized all his lines, which contain nearly 50,000 letters.
Yanjaa Wintersoul, a memory champion, explains the techniques she uses to memorize 500 random numbers in 10 minutes. Memory championships are a worldwide competition between individuals who compete over memorizing numbers, letters, and images, amongst other things.
As she reads the numbers, Yanjaa explains that she transforms them in her mind into letters that visualize characters. She then places these characters around a familiar neighborhood. As she mentally walks around the neighborhood, the characters she created trigger random stories that she can link to the numbers she read 10 minutes ago. This technique is called mind palace or method loci and was used by Greek philosophers.
Studies have shown that memories that are particularly vivid and long-lasting tend to be associated with three key elements: a compelling narrative or story, a significant emotional experience, and a strong sense of place or context. These elements help to make memories more salient and meaningful, and therefore more likely to be stored and recalled in the future. The brain's limited capacity to process and store information also plays a role.
“It makes sense we don’t remember everything,” says René Hen, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, in a release. “We have limited brainpower. We only need to remember what’s important for our future wellbeing.”
What René Hen explains from a scientific point of view is eye-opening when we start applying these learnings to our design process. How to use a compelling narrative, weave emotions into our process and connect it to a strong sense of place?
History; an influential chain of events.
A society of commonly accepted stories.
In his book ‘Homo Deus’, Yuval Noah Harrari says that most people presume that reality is either objective or subjective. And once they satisfy themselves that lots of people share their beliefs, they conclude that these must be objective realities. However, there’s a third level of reality: the intersubjective reality. Intersubjective because they exist only because people agree that they exist, and they are not based on any objective reality.
[...] they exist because people believe in them and agree to act as if they are real [...]
Examples of intersubjective realities include concepts like money, corporations, nations, and religions. These are not natural or objective realities, but they exist because people believe in them and agree to act as if they are real. Money, for instance, is just a piece of paper or a digital entry in a bank account, but it has value because people agree to accept it as a medium of exchange.
In this sense, our society is based on commonly accepted stories and shared beliefs. The stories we tell about our history, our culture, and our values shape our collective identity and guide our behavior. These stories are not objective facts, but they have a powerful influence on our lives and our society.
Understanding the nature of intersubjective realities is important because it helps us to see that our beliefs and values are not set in stone. We can change the stories we tell about ourselves and our society, and create new realities based on different values and beliefs. This opens up the possibility of creating a more just and equitable society, one that reflects our shared values and aspirations.
"Fiction isn't bad. It is vital. Without commonly accepted stories about things like money, states or corporations, no complex human society can function. We can't play football unless everyone believes in the same made-up rules, and we can't enjoy the benefits of markets and courts without similar make-believe stories."
When it comes to the design process, the more parties included in the process, the more we can weave an intersubjective reality and elevate our design process. What are these stories, and why would our collaborators want to believe in them?
(Cont.) A small activity
*The Power of Suggestion in Storytelling: How the obscured details of the surroundings prompt our minds to fill in the missing information, sparking our imagination and creating a sense of intrigue. This is the essence of storytelling - giving the audience just enough information to activate their imagination and allowing them to draw their own conclusions about what is happening beyond the frame. The power of suggestion in storytelling is a potent tool, as it encourages the audience to engage with the story on a deeper level and become more invested in the narrative. This photo is a perfect example of how seeing just a small part of the story can pique our curiosity and spur our minds to fill in the blanks.
The bar sign sets the scene, creating familiarity amidst a hazy surrounding. The rest is for you to fill in. What is the full story? If you want to share this article, accompany your post with what you think is the full story.
In conclusion, storytelling is an essential component of human communication and has a significant impact on our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. By understanding the value of storytelling, we can gain a deeper appreciation of its role in our lives and how we can utilize it to convey messages effectively. Therefore, it is essential to keep exploring the different angles of storytelling and how it can enrich our perspectives.
In the upcoming section of the article, I will explore the ways in which these valuable insights can be applied to the design process to create compelling and impactful narratives that enhance project processes and elevate their overall outcome.