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?

It is the  human to human connection that resonates with most people.

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 in a way that is highly accessible. This makes storytelling 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. But also,  the decisions they make and the considerations that affected their choices. A story will highlight overlapping behaviours that might be viewed as a pattern, but they also enable idiosyncrasies to emerge. What seems like a personal quirk may become highly significant because it reflects a 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 if they are  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. That is, 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 so that it is more memorable.  

Other stories may be  written to evoke emotions: inspiration, motivation, empathy or/and to provoke anger and outrage. These are powerful emotions  and will stay with the reader/viewer, because we feel connected through empathy towards 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 a story that creates distinctions, rather than commonalities, 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 makes the assumption that everything in between will fall into one category, or the other.

Such stories appear to be deliberately contrived. 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?  

Everyone has a story to tell. 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.

The designer steps in with a magic wand to re-work the space, solve all problems. Hey presto!

Before: all misery and chaos.

After: happiness and delight.  And sometimes, yes, it does work that way.

People make design decisions all the time – without the aid of a designer – as an on-going process. Sometimes we make big conscious decisions…. and sometimes small unconscious decisions. 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 and ignored are still powerful because they speak of things that affect us all. 

Peculiarities that would never, ever appear in generalised statistics may well 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 issue. Even more powerful, is when this is viewed holistically within an environment in which people belong.

Suddenly we are able to see someone else’s view. Suddenly we see what we previously missed.

Personal accounts and observations are widely used  in design 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 how they see it. It is how it is, for them.

Design affects everything that we do in our daily lives. If we want to know how it works, or if it works, we should listen and learn.  

Which is why this website came about….

Follow Nuala Rooney:

I am designer, educator and researcher with 25 years teaching/research experience delivering human-centred insights across the social/spatial sphere. My passion lies in exploring people's personal relationships with space across different life stages: design as lived experience.

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