A story is a way into other people’s lives.

posted in: Insights | 0
ruined stone houses some renovated
Rutland Island, Donegal
Renovated ruins


Which would you believe most? A report, chock-full of statistics, charts and data? Or someone telling you what happened to them: their experience, their story, in their words?

Both approaches can be taken, or read, as ‘the truth’. And, both can just as easily be manipulated for effect. Both can  tell the story that you want people to hear/know/believe/follow.

But, which approach will you remember  most?

Undoubtedly it is the  human to human connection that resonates. It makes us think: ‘what would I do in their shoes’? This could be us. It could be me. A story expands and enlightens our awareness of others and it does it in a way that is highly accessible. This is what makes it a hugely powerful, meaningful and persuasive tool for communication.


Stories are a way in to other people’s lives. They show where, why and how people react, think and behave:  the decisions they make and the considerations that affected their choices. They highlight overlapping behaviours that might be viewed as a pattern, but they also enable idiosyncrasies to emerge: quirks that may become significant because they reflect personality and a life lived.

Storytelling mainly focuses on the individual. It is about that person, that place, that time. It links experience to emotion, to their past and present. It is how they see it, and how they want you to see it. It involves listening, and it requires sensitivity.

People need to feel comfortable  to tell their story. It is not just what they say, but how they say it. It is  about how much they want to reveal. Often, it is these softer insights that tell the real story; the story behind the story.

A film, book, or play shows us an alternative world where we can access experiences we might never have imagined, or encountered. People like us, and not like us, in situations that may be based on reality – or fantasy. The temptation may be to sensationalise, over-dramatise, or create something larger than life to make the story more exciting to make it more memorable.  Other stories may be  written to evoke emotions: inspiration, motivation, empathy or/and to provoke anger, outrage or offend. These are powerful emotions  and will stay with the reader/viewer, because we feel connected through empathy and understanding of the human condition.

In journalism and broadcasting we are used to stories that focus on dramatic effect for  maximum disruption. Typically, a story  depicts opposites and extremes: rich/poor, old/young, small town / big city, war/peace. The contrast heightens the dynamic tension. It creates sensation. It creates emotion – anger, sympathy, inequity and informs from a position of imbalance, distinction, light/dark. For the greatest impact, it is the obvious way to go;  it almost writes itself.

But it is a story that creates distinctions rather than commonalities. It sets out to show marked differences and highlight polar opposites. It does not look for subtleties or nuance, detail or connection, blurred lines or resonance. It affirms that the ‘message’ must be writ large otherwise there is no story. If it’s not about diametric opposites, then there is nothing to learn/know/understand because it assumes that everything in between mostly falls into one category, or the other.

Such stories appear to be deliberately contrived for the benefit of the (not-so-clever) viewer/reader. Unless it’s so obvious.. you might not get it?  Unless it is extraordinary you won’t be interested.

But, if we only tell stories based on extremes what about everything and everyone in between? What are these stories?  Should they be ignored?  People  are not just rich/ poor, old/young etc. and their stories are legitimate and real and as meaningful as those depicted in the extremes. Perhaps more so

In interior design the story normally presented is:  “before” and “after”. Again this works with extremes. Unhappy client, problematic space, difficult solution… In steps the designer with a magic wand to re-work the space, solve all problems, and hey presto! Before: all misery and chaos. After: happiness and delight.  And sometimes, yes, it does work that way.

But people make decisions all the time. Mostly they do so without the aid of a designer, and more often it is as an on-going process. Sometimes we make big decisions, sometimes, small:  both consciously and unconsciously. Being able to articulate these experiences and ideas as thoughts and decisions is key to understanding not just how people think, but how they see the problem.

Voices, suppressed, hidden, lost, ignored, are powerful because they speak of things that affect us all.  Peculiarities that would never, ever appear in generalised statistics may turn out to be the key to a solution. A single mumbled comment or an aside can become a revelation and entirely shift how we see and what we think about that situation. Suddenly we are able to see it from someone else’s view. Suddenly we see what we previously missed.

Personal accounts and observations are widely used  in design thinking to find the way in to a solution. We acknowledge that everyone and every situation is different and each person’s response is significant. It is not their interpretation, it is how they see it. It is how it is, for them.

Design affects everything that we do in our daily lives and if we want to know how it works, or if it works, we should listen and learn.  Blind assumptions will get us nowhere.

Which is why this website came about….

Follow Nuala Rooney:

Nuala Rooney PhD, is a creative professional and award-winning author, currently developing new approaches to design innovation and spatial research through storytelling. With unique skillsets, developed as a design educator in Higher Education institutions in UK and Hong Kong, her interest lies in exploring 'home' as a human centred space.

Latest posts from

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.