in Storytelling

Looking into Storytelling

I’m designing a site for my sister’s fiance’s business, he does interior design and construction contracting. While my idea for the IA and navigation is simple and workable, it just ain’t compelling. About Us, Services, Portfolio [yawn]… I asked the designer to spruce it up and she was like, um, ok…

What do customers get from him in person? I think they get something like a story. Not told in the fashion of a story of course, but he tells them about what the company does (plot), where they do it (setting), who they are (characters), and – since he’s good at what he does – a happy ending.

I’ve attended an IBM seminar on using storytelling in design and caught the flavor of it, and thought it might work perfectly here. So, what do I need?

Some characteristics:

  • A single theme, clearly defined
  • A well developed plot
  • Style: vivid word pictures, pleasing sounds and rhythm
  • Characterization
  • Faithful to source
  • Dramatic appeal
  • Appropriateness to listeners

Dan Gruen from Lotus describes them as

  • Fleshed-out Characters
  • Detailed Settings
  • Goals and Obstacles
  • Causality
  • Dramatic Elements

Whereas he applies them as user-centered designers would use scenarios, I’m more interested in how the knowledge management people would use them, to actually convey information quickly and effectively, as well as compellingly. For example, I’ve heard that when the U.S. Secret Service needs to convey a lot of important information quickly – say, briefing the Secretary of State during a ride across town – they use a storytelling format.

I’m imagining the general storytelling format might make it more interesting and perhaps easier to digest the basic information even if the actual presentation – a few web pages in my case – don’t actually build up a whole lot of “dramatic elements”. I’ll retain the usual navigation so the visitors can bypass the story or get more details at the end.

A simple mapping resulting in four web pages:

  • Setting -> “about us” type content, the where, who and what with a sense of character development
  • Action -> A summary of the services, in language that describes the activities
  • Suspense -> A challenge to imagine how this could be benefit you, and a challenge to the visitor’s conviction
  • Resolution -> Testimonials that reflect happy endings, a list of references

Michael points to the article on narrative voice and I remember the advice I’m always giving others: remove that cold, corporate tone by writing in the the first person. (It’s harder to write ridiculous happy talk in the first person because it sounds ridiculous even to numb marketing types.)