Written by Ezequiel Williams
Storytelling is more popular than ever among innovators and business leaders, yet it’s a skill most of us could invest more time perfecting. Used strategically throughout the design thinking process, it can bring to life your research efforts, insights, and recommendations.
Design thinking practitioners are both story gatherers (i.e., through design research) and storytellers, but often we use storytelling mainly at the end of the design process in order to promote a solution. That is for sure an important moment, but there are many opportunities at different stages of the design process to apply good storytelling principles to help you achieve goals.
Recently, DTG partnered with one of our expert collaborators, global innovation and design leader Robert Bau, to train clients in, among other things, the different types of storytelling we can do while applying design thinking to business challenges. In a conversation with Robert, we explored ways to use storytelling at different stages of the design thinking process.
I really appreciate your approach to using the double diamond (see below or click here to view full size) as a visual aid to point out the many opportunities to use effective storytelling. It really helps to make distinctions among the types of stories that are appropriate for each stage of design thinking. Can you outline storytelling opportunities and types of stories people can tell while running a design project?
Storytelling plays a really important role in design thinking. You can tell different types of stories throughout the whole process for different purposes. Depending on what stage of the double diamond you are in during a project, you can tell stories about the challenge you are working on to convince stakeholders to invest time and resources for this particular design challenge, or to attract colleagues and partners to join the project.
While you’re in the first diamond , you can tell amazing stories to bring to life your research efforts, takeaways and insights to create a sense of urgency and build empathy for your stakeholder of focus. Or, you can get buy-in from stakeholders by telling stories about how your team is reframing the initial design challenge in a way that feels more purposeful, more intentional, and more human centered.
You can also tell great stories about your ideas and prototypes to make them more understandable and relatable to others. Gathering useful feedback is key to creating successful solutions. Prototypes are basically hypotheses about effective ways to solve problems for your stakeholders, so telling a strong story about your prototype helps you pressure test your solutions by eliciting rich feedback from your audience. And finally, you can use stories to pitch your ideas to build commitment and secure investment.
Good stories are built on a foundation that helps the storyteller be compelling or persuasive. How do you recommend design thinking practitioners go about building a solid foundation for stories?
Before crafting your story, you need to lay the foundation for it by answering four key questions:
- What is your idea or solution in a nutshell?
- Why is your idea so important? Why now? This is about creating a sense of urgency.
- Who has the power to greenlight your idea?
- What do we hope to achieve by telling this story?
If you invest the time to develop very clear and compelling answers for these four questions you are well on your way to creating a strong story.
While having a strong foundation for a story is necessary, what approach do you recommend to storytellers to make their stories compelling so that they can grab their audiences’ attention and interest?
Once you lay the foundation for your story, you can start crafting it in a couple of formats: (1) a 5-second format and (2) a 30-second format (you can download Robert’s Storycrafting Tool below).
I recommend starting with the 5-second format because it forces you to think through the effect or impact of your idea and communicate that very quickly. For example, a 5-second story might be “it’s a way to make car engines twice as efficient and five times as powerful.” Notice how that short statement focuses on the desired outcome, not the idea itself.
For the 30-second format, since it’s a bit longer, I recommend breaking it up into these four components:
- Strategic justification
- The problem
- The solution
- Desired outcome (i.e., your 5-second story)
Strategic justification is where you create a sense of urgency, and then you have to make sure there is a very good and clear fit between the problem and the solution. The desired outcome is the same thing from your 5-second story.
I actually like doing the 5-second story first, although it’s hard task, for sure. But I think it’s good to start by really focusing on the desired outcome. Imagine if your idea was implemented, what impact or effect would it have either on employees or customers? Getting clear on that is really powerful. Get that right, and the 30-second story will fall into place. Then you can reuse the desired outcome as the ending of your 30-second story, so everything you’re unpacking is leading up to the desired outcome.
Even though these formats may seem easy on the surface, it’s actually very challenging to get them right and it does take a fair amount of work and practice.
There’s an important distinction to be made between storytelling for early stage prototypes vs. validated, fully baked solutions. What is your approach to these types of storytelling?
Yes, that is exactly right. To keep it simple, you can think of these types of stories as having two big roles—tell stories to learn and collect useful feedback, or tell stories to persuade people to take some type of action. Both of these types of stories are important in the design process; it just depends where you are in that process.
At the beginning you might need to tell persuasive stories about your design challenge to get buy-in, to get a project running and secure funding or to attract people to the project. But as you get into the double diamond you need to tell stories to bring to life your research takeaways and insights to help people see the challenge or problem in a new light. These stories are meant to shift attitudes, shift mindsets, and get people to think in a different way.
Once you get into the second diamond, stories are really important to help you share your ideas with others, because stories make your ideas more relatable, more understandable. If people truly understand your ideas, then they can give you much better feedback. And that’s what you want—you want to collect lots and lots of feedback in the second diamond. The purpose of that is simply to improve continuously and iterate on your ideas to make them better and better over time, and you do that by sharing these stories with real life users. This is about listening and not trying to convince or persuade or pitch.
Once you get to the very end of the double diamond you have a validated proof of concept, and then you should go more into persuasive storytelling to get buy-in from key stakeholders who may support or adopt your solution, or even secure funding for or investment in the concept you want to develop.
Did this article inspire you to practice storytelling in new ways in your work? Download our free PDF designed to help you formulate your own 5-second and 30-second stories.