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If you want people to be engaged and pay attention to your design and your message, use a story. And for maximum attention, introduce tension into the story.

In the dramatic arc discussed earlier in this chapter, the second part of the arc (after the exposition) is rising action. The rising action contains tension. When there’s tension, people pay attention. The stories that designers use (for example, a story from a customer at a website, or a video) are often short. If the story is short, then you have to build the tension very quickly to grab attention.

As shown in Figure 40.1, tension in a story causes the brain to release cortisol. This makes people pay attention. If people sustain attention long enough, then they begin to identify with the characters in the story. This will lead to oxytocin release, which then leads to empathy.

FIGURE 40.1 The attention circle.

People who study stories, or “narratives,” call this identification with the characters “transportation.”
Transportation is an actual physical reaction. When people start to identify with the characters, they smile when the characters are happy, and cry when the characters are sad. People’s brains react as though they themselves were in the story. The shorter the story, the simpler and more clear the main character’s actions need to be in order to activate transportation.

Tension In Storyboards

Designers often use storyboards to tell the story of a target audience and how that audience interacts with a brand or product. Designers typically present storyboards to stakeholders or clients.

Storyboards are a form of story even though they’re not a narrative. They’re like a very short graphic novel.

If you want your audience to buy into your plan or design, then treat your storyboard like a story. Build in tension to grab and hold the audience’s attention. In the storyboard, show the problem, danger, or hope of the target audience, build the tension quickly, and then resolve it with your design.


  • When you use a story in your design, build tension quickly, especially if the story is short.
  • Be clear about who the main character of the story is so that transportation, or identification with the character, is more likely to occur.
  • Treat your storyboards as actual stories. Use tension so that the people you’re presenting the storyboard to will pay attention and will feel empathy for the target audience you’re describing with the storyboard.


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