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Let’s say you’re reading a newspaper article I wrote about the impact of the global economy. If you were hooked up to an fMRI machine, it would show that your visual cortex is active, since you’re reading, as is Wernicke’s area of the brain, where words are processed.

What if you were listening to me give a presentation on the same topic? I’m giving you facts and figures, but not telling a story. The fMRI would again show that Wernicke’s area is active, since there are words, and now your auditory cortex would be active as well, because you’re listening to me speak.

But what if, during the presentation, I started telling you a story about a family in South America that’s being affected by changes in the global economy—a story about the father going to work in a foreign country to earn enough for the family, and the mother having to drive 100 kilometers for health care. What’s going on in your brain now? Wernicke’s area would be active again, as well as the auditory cortex, but now there would be more activity. If, in my story, I described the sharp smell of the forest in the Andes mountains where this family lives, the olfactory sensory areas of the brain would be active as though you were smelling the forest. If I described the mother driving over rutted, muddy roads, with the vehicle careening from side to side, your motor cortex would be lighting up as though you were driving on a bumpy road. And if I started talking about the devastation the family felt when their young son died before he could get medical treatment, then the empathy areas of the brain would be active.

Stories evoke a simulation of the event. Your brain reacts to the story as if you were in the story, and having the experience.

This means that you’re literally using more of your brain when you listen to a story. And because you’re having a richer brain event, you enjoy the experience more, you understand the information more deeply, and you retain it longer.

And With Emotional Chemicals, Too

When you listen to a story, your brain releases neurochemicals throughout your body.

If the story is tense, then the hormone cortisol will be released (cortisol modulates stress). If the story is heartwarming, then oxytocin is released (oxytocin makes people feel bonded to others). If the story has a happy ending, then dopamine is released (dopamine makes people feel optimistic and seek action).

Stories And Your Product

You may think that, as a designer, stories aren’t part of what you do. Writers write stories, or speakers tell stories. But designers don’t.
That’s a narrow view of design. I used to hear people who design websites say that they weren’t responsible for the content of the website—just the design. Or they weren’t responsible for picking out the photos, just for preparing and placing them on the page. As a designer, you’re active in decisions about the product. You may not have the final say, but you’re part of the team. Just as you have to pay attention to and be involved with decisions about interaction, visual design, and content, you need to be involved in decisions about stories, too.

Stories are so important as a medium that if you want to design a compelling product and have people use it, you have to at least influence the use of stories and the way they’re told.

If you don’t create stories yourself then, at the very least, you can be an advocate for effective stories.

Stories And The Design Process

Even if you think you have nothing to do with stories for the actual product, you do have stories when it comes to design. Do you create scenarios? Storyboards? Present your design ideas to your team, stakeholders, or clients? Any design process involves summarizing and explaining how the target audience for a product is going to use that product. These are stories too, so even if you don’t do any work on other stories, at least use what you know about stories to sell your design ideas to your team.


  • When the product you’re designing doesn’t use stories, or doesn’t use them effectively, speak up. If you’re not empowered to create good stories, at least alert someone who is.
  • Look for opportunities to add stories. Whenever you provide information, facts, or data, there’s a place in there for a story.
  • When you’re responsible for pictures and graphics, evaluate how you use them.
  • A photo or a series of photos can also tell a story even without words.
  • When you present your ideas and storyboards to stakeholders or your team, use strong stories to influence others to buy into your design.


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