Fresh: pushing the envelope

XIV.6 November + December 2007
Page: 18
Digital Citation

Sealing the envelope


Authors:
Fred Sampson

When a man comes to you and tells you your own story, you know that your sins are forgiven. And when you are forgiven, you are healed.
—Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection

Let me tell you a story.

Long ago, as a college student studying English literature, I read many fine stories but somehow didn’t learn how to tell good stories. I really preferred facts. Facts were useful; I could do things with them. I could make decisions based on facts. Stories were full of feelings and perspectives and uncertainties, even falsehoods. Stories would drop me into the middle of events without clear beginnings and endings. Stories were sloppy.

But as time went on, I learned the value of a story well told, and I began to regret that my stories were not as compelling as I would like. Other people told stories about me; some of them even had kernels of truth surrounded by creative embellishment. I had many adventures, which included meeting a fine woman, marrying her, and having children. And my children asked to hear stories.

That’s when I really started paying attention. I’ve grown to appreciate the ambiguities and uncertainties of good stories—the elements that make stories universal. Stories teach without being pedantic; stories work where lectures don’t. I learned that from my kids.

Although I still like the facts presented up—front when I read the news. Human-interest stories aren’t that interesting in the context of news. But that’s another story.

You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.
—Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom

As user-experience professionals, we tell stories to ensure that our designs work for people. When we develop scenarios, we are telling stories; when we develop personas, we develop characters for our stories. When software developers create use cases, they are telling stories; when product managers create business cases, they’re telling stories. Without these stories, it’s hard to know who we’re designing for, and why, and when we’ve succeeded.

Paying attention to stories lets us learn from others’ failures, especially if we recognize ourselves in the story. We pull together the familiar into new and useful things: innovations. Stories build on earlier stories and can be woven into future stories. As we interact, we create new stories and make the stories that we touch into our own. Stories describe interactions, and in sharing them we interact as storyteller and listener. Stories that are told over and over have proven their durability, usefulness, and beauty; otherwise we would have stopped telling them long ago. Or never made them up in the first place.

Of course it’s true, but it may not have happened.
—Someone’s grandmother

The sixth, and perhaps most important of the six elements of an idea that sticks, as identified by the Heath brothers in Made to Stick, is story. Stories help to make mere facts palatable, digestible, memorable. They pull together apparently disparate events and make the world, or at least small bits of it, whole—things stick together. Why is story the most important? Because a good story pulls all the other elements together: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional. A story that lacks those elements will fail. Pull them together and you make the lesson memorable.

What parts of the last book that you read do you really remember? I’ll bet it’s the stories, much more than the facts. You can summarize the facts and store them away for reference—why remember them when they’re written down? But you remember the stories.

For example, when recalling Don Norman’s classic The Design of Everyday Things, I remember people smacking into doors that had handles suggesting push instead of pull; the fellow bewildered by a set of hotel doors with no apparent way to open them; the overly complex telephone (compare that to the cell phone in your pocket today); the mental model of how a refrigerator works—all stories, more so than facts or principles or guidelines. If we remember the story, the meaning comes with it.

And what’s the point of my story? This chapter in my contributions to this magazine has come to an end. I am wrapping up three years of storytelling, for better or worse, in this space. Time to seal this envelope and send it on its way. Thanks for listening.

If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.
—Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel

References

de Mello, Anthony. One Minute Wisdom. Image, 1988.

Heath, Chip and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House, 2007.

Kurtz, Ernest and Margaret Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. New York: Bantam, 1993.

Lopez, Barry. Crow and Weasel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Moss, Robert. Dreamgates: An Explorer’s Guide to the Worlds of Soul, Imagination, and Life Beyond Death. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.

Author

Fred Sampson
wfreds@acm.org

About the Author:

Fred Sampson is a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), past president of the Silicon Valley Community of STC, and current vice president for finance of ACM SIGCHI. In his spare time, Fred works as an information developer at the IBM Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, California. He can be contacted at wfreds@acm.org.

©2007 ACM  1072-5220/07/1100  $5.00

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