Communicating information through storytelling

For thousands of years humans told stories to one another, as evident by cave paintings. At first they were a crucial, if not fundamental, communication method. It is important we realize that information can be better relayed if it is a story rather than bare facts.

 

What makes stories so damn powerful?

Take for instance a typical PowerPoint presentation; it has a bunch of plain, if not dull, bullets. As we watch it, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas get activated in the brain which are responsible for language processing. And, nothing else happens. That is is. But, but when we hear someone tell a story there is a lot more going on. When you listen to a story – in addition to the language sections of the brain – other parts which relate to the experience of the story active as well. For instance, if I tell you about how great my laundry smells today, the parts of your brain which are responsible for smell active too. If the story is about how fast I was running your motor cortex gets active, and so on. Now, that is powerful.

 

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This is magnificent because, first and foremost, it gets people to be more engaged. At the same time it can also influence people’s behavior, which is what we are ultimately after.

Anyone and everyone would rather listen to a story than a dull PowerPoint presentation. The reason being is that we were wired to love stories. It was a primal way of communicated we needed to love them for survival; now we use them for entertainment. As humans, we simply enjoy stories so much; why not provide our information in that format then?

When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.

- Uri Hasson from Princeton

We have a need to relate

When you think about it, a story is really a vast relationship of different causes and effects. It helps that this is exactly how our human minds think. At the same time, every time we hear a story we want to relate to it – also part of our nature – we want to feel included. This, is very hard – if not impossible – to achieve with a plain bulleted list. This is the reason why metaphors, literary and digital, work so, so well; we just need to relate.

Now, stories don’t need to be complex, especially on the web. People don’t have time for that and neither do we to create them. They don’t have to be overly complicated, and detail filled – not every story you hear is. If you keep your story simple, it is more likely to stick, which is what we need in today’s internet retention rates. With simplicity and directness it is easier for people to understand what is going on, it is easier to trigger their brain regions to light up and therefore, it is easier for them to relate and remember.

 

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By no means am I trying to sell the new ‘hot’ things in business, or design; I just think that stories have been well overlooked in technology and that we are now very well capable of creating websites or apps that tell stories well – we wouldn’t be able to create parallax even few years ago because of technical restrains, at least not well and not for a lot of people. What I am trying to accomplish is the recognition that stories always have been important to us as a means to communicate and motivate.

Stories and information architecture 

Let’s compare a book to a website. Just like words in book, information on a website tells a story. There are different chapters like there are different pages. There are graphical elements like pictures, colours, typography and layout in both (a book also has cover design) that embellish the story and help make the storytelling experience simply better.

 

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In websites, information drives design this is most commonly seen in single page website. As you scroll down the different section intertwine. From an end product, perspective parallax scrolling made storytelling a hit online. But that is getting ahead of ourselves. Now that we know how to organize information, we need to figure out how to organize it in good context so that we can tell stories with our information to better connect with our visitors.

If information is provided in a well structured manner – like it always should be thanks to information architects – it allows to bring a story out of it, a story that web designers and developers can elaborate upon into a central theme. Through cohesive partnership between website elements, a story will emerge and boost the overall message of your site, let it be a your company’s landing page or your personal portfolio. I think the most important takeaway is that storytelling through a website provides a beautiful user experience on any web page.

 

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