Stories, Invention and the Bottom Line

The power of a good story, or even a rather mundane one, is truly phenomenal.  In it are wrapped up the hopes, dreams, symbols, and significances that shed light on who we are as individuals and as members of a culture.  But the real power comes not from the explicit statements that emerge during, say, interviews, but from the subtext and patterns of meaning people assign to objects, relationships, and thoughts as they are created by participants through narrative. Not everything can be expressed as matter-of-fact discourse, especially things one cannot really put one’s finger on, or things that do not exist yet. Some of them are central to human experience, such as falling in love or admiring the full moon rising over the sea. If we want to explore this kind of experience, we need means and methods that are suited to communicate it.

I kept thinking about this problem, and one day I decided to see what happens if I explicitly ask research participants to write stories, pieces of fiction, about a topic related to my client’s needs.  Specifically, they were asked to write a story from the perspective of someone shopping for beer.  Much to my surprise, I ended up a wide range of ideas being expressed and a degree of complex language that was poetic, mundane, funny, sad and utterly fascinating.

I have used this method of gathering insights ever since, when I want to learn about things that are beside the topic but nonetheless worth exploring. It is by no means a replacement to fieldwork, but it is another tool that can be used to tease out how people construct their world in ways they may not normally be able to express. These things concern the creative aspects of the cultural context of how meaning is constructed.

Why are stories important for interaction and knowledge? Traditional cultures are storytelling cultures in the literal sense: people tell each other stories. We have often set this fact aside in the post-modern, linear, data driven world of business, but it is still fundamental to who we are.  People do not buy products based on specs alone, they buy based on deeper issues that connect products and places to their humanity. At certain occasions the stories gain a special role, such as at a child’s bedtime or while sitting around the kitchen table (the primal campfire). Stories make it possible for us to share our world, not lists of product attributes. We actively participate in the creation of culture by listening to stories and telling them—and we learn about culture through stories. It is in the context of understanding stories that we uncover triggers and meanings that simply don’t emerge fro surveys and interviews. They supply us with metaphors and meanings that are hidden from view when people are in the participant mode. Stories give them license to explore ideas and create symbols that tap the deepest recesses of a product’s or brand’s subtler meanings.

Stories are aimed at exploring the subjective, but not the individual. They are the collective myth. The point with composing a story is to find a collective level in the invention. It is a kind of inter-subjective reality. Creative solutions and innovative ideas arrive when imagination is actively used by participants, not just the people working for the company in need of answers.

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