Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Telling stories


While I was away in South Australia, I read Lindsey Davis’s rather sprawling novel of the English Civil War, ‘Rebels and Traitors’.

This isn’t a review of the novel itself but I was impressed by the level of historical detail and by implication what it told us of how the lives of people changed through the impact of events such as the Putney debates, the religious freedoms allowing more radical sects express themselves openly, and the consequent changes in how events such as marriages were celebrated and formalised.

The Commonwealth is a period of which I know little. But I actually learned more about the changes from Davis’s novel than I did from Diane Purkiss’s  monumental history of the English Civil War, even though it covers much the same material. Moreover I now understand how 1689 was, with its restoration of parliamentary rights, in some ways a restoration of commonwealth-lite rather than a major and dramatic change.

But enough of historical speculation - I have a much more important point. Telling stories is how we build understanding.

When in a project we build use cases and scenarios to understand how people might use software we are in a very real case telling a story, and then when we carry out user experience testing we are in fact validating our stories - seeing how well or closely we match reality.

Stories are complex things. At their simplest they amuse, but to hold a users interest they have to be anchored in reality and make a point - they are key to communicating understanding.

For example Emma Larkin’s book on Finding Orwell is a quasi story. It incorporates a large number of journalistic elements but they are woven together in a narrative to make a story.

Stories are not simply something made up. Iranian folk tales about Alexander, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Tain, the early Welsh epics, all have elements of fantasy and embroidery but at their heart they have a factual nugget, a retelling of historical events.

Soap operas do much the same thing, they may not teach people history but, exaggerated and fantastical though they are, they show people how they might deal with socially stressful events in their own lives, be it unemployment, bereavement, unexpected pregnancy or whatever. The same could be said of various bible stories - they explain and show what is the 'right' thing to do.

Soap operas are particularly interesting. To tell stories you need life experience - anyone can create a fantasy, but to be believable and tenable they need to be grounded in, or in someway related to reality.

When you look at any number of use case scenarios a vast number of them seem thin and unconvincing - rather more justifications for product X rather than explaining how one might actually use it.

Part of this is due to the dead hand of marketing, but it is in part also due to people who have no experience of a range of products and techniques. In other words knowing a little about a lot makes it easier to tell a story about how a particular product might be used and compare it sensibly to other products - in other words tell better stories and in consequence explain things better.

1 comment:

tenthmedieval said...

Stories are not simply something made up. Iranian folk tales about Alexander, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Tain, the early Welsh epics, all have elements of fantasy and embroidery but at their heart they have a factual nugget, a retelling of historical events.

I'd hate to try and find some of those elements, but I just want to push the Devil's advocate point by way of agreeing with you about the power of stories. Obviously other people have realised this, and one of the things one can do with that is to create stories that get a point one wants to make across, by making it sound plausible. It doesn't then have to be true, as long as it's credible or helps contextualise your bigger point. Obviously one is doing this with a product pitch or a party political broadcast, all of which as you say with use cases and so on have their narrative elements. But all the same, when I started wondering why stories were such a persistent but infrequent feature of the transaction charters I study, I still decided that it was probably because people resorted to stories when the actual facts weren't convenient...