Using Narratives

Everyone loves a good narrative

Having worked in both business development and production,  I feel like I’ve learned a lot about people.  The importance of people in every job function can’t be over stated.  It doesn’t really matter if you’re selling enterprise software, building a product or making a trade,  you need to think about the person on the other side.  People are the consistent thread no matter what desk you’re sitting at.

I had an experience the other day responding to a request for a technical document around a piece of software.  The request was to write out a summary of something technical to an audience that was mostly non-technical, and then to discuss it at a meeting.   As an experiment, instead of writing out a summary, describing the environment that the software lives in, and listing the functional components of the software, I wrote out a narrative.  The narrative was a story about a person who I considered to be a typical user, going through a typical experience needing and using the software.  I named the user John and told a story about him using the software:  how he found it, why he wanted to use it, what he did when he started using it,  how he interacted with it and what brought him back.  It was highly effective and I think everyone appreciated the approach.

There are a few reasons that I think narratives rock:

  1. Narratives are familiar to everyone:  When was life better than when you were getting stories read to you as a kid?  When you start telling a story, your audience naturally falls into a more relaxed state.  Everyone understands stories because they’re relatable.  There’s no need to try to ‘keep up with the technical details’, so there’s very little anxiety about the complicated topic.
  2. They are visual:  People love visuals.   If you don’t have a designer nearby, a narrative is your next-best asset.  Good visuals create memories by eliciting emotional connections.  If your story explains a user and then the use case, everyone has a person in their head walking through a process. It helps complete the picture for the listener.
  3. They force the storyteller to think about use case:  Storytelling can improve your product or idea.  By creating stories to present, the storyteller is forced to think from a user or customer’s perspective.  This sounds overly simplistic, but I found it to be incredibly productive and a creative way to understand the software.
  4. They offer a platform for deeper conversations: To me, this was the most interesting benfit.  After the story ended, all of the followup questions came in the form of questions about the narrative’s main character.  Instead of ‘How does X do Y?’,  the question was “What happens if John…?”  This made the followup creative and productive, and kept everyone thinking through the process using visuals. It was the most productive product overview conversation I’ve had in a long time.
The idea of using narratives isn’t new thinking.  Come to think of it, it’s probably the oldest form of communication that we have.  I bring it up because it’s a resource that I forgot about, and remembering it really helped my process.  If you have to explain anything complicated, consider turning it into a narrative and see if it changes your approach and the response that you get.  I bet that it will.
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