About being sensible

Missives from Hothouse Design

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Why 'story-telling' isn't going to go away any time soon

Deirdre Wilson – Monday, May 08, 2017   


Information design helps people leap the gulf between information and knowledgeExperience is the gulf that separates information from knowledge. You need experience to turn information into knowledge that you can put to use. But, not all experiences should be had first hand. It is not necessary to experience falling from a tall building to know that the outcome is not going to be good. Seeing someone else take that fall will do the trick. Or for a much less traumatic option: being told a story about someone falling from a building will do just fine as an experience.

Second-hand experience is available through analogies, story-telling, experience sharing, and case studies. These are all mechanisms for providing experiences to an audience to allow them to leap the gulf between information and knowledge.

Understanding Information Design


Where this thing is like that thing. Everyone has used analogies to get someone to understand what they are saying. You do it by placing the information in a context that is familiar to the listener. We also do it for ourselves when we match something new to something we already know and drag the new information across the gulf of experience to turn it into knowledge.

Here is an example from my learning to fly experiences: I was told to ‘apply power when the motor is under load’. The key to ‘knowing’ what that means is that I have to already know what ‘under load’ means.

The analogy I pulled out of my own experiences to help me understand was walking up a hill. I know that walking up a hill is harder work than walking on flat ground. And I know that I am under load when I am walking up a hill because I feel heavier and have to make more effort to move across the ground at the same speed as on flat ground.

Because I understand what ‘under load’ means from walking up a hill I can extrapolate from that experience what the effect will be when I apply power to a motor under load. This last step moves me through the ‘understanding’ part of the process into the ‘wisdom’ stage.

Wisdom (or insight if wisdom seems a bit much) is where I can make the intellectual leap across the ditch from this situation to another quite different situation. It takes wisdom/insight to apply my knowledge from one situation to another.


Wrapping narrative around the information. Humans love stories. The most captivating speakers are the ones that take us on a journey. And journeys are a series of events and reactions over a time period. It is that movement through time from a starting point, through an evolution of some sort to an outcome later in time that forms the narrative.

Stories don’t have to be personal. Think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales – they were always about something dreadful happening to someone else (thank goodness!).

I can take my analogy of walking up a hill and turn it into a story to explain the concept of a body being under load and apply power to it – so long as it has a narrative structure with a start, middle and end and there is an evolution of some sort during that middle phase.

Experience sharing

This is a really useful mechanism for learning from another person’s experience without them telling you what to do.

Inexperienced story-tellers will default to instructing rather than learn how to put their learners in a situation where they can experience the situation through their own lens. It is easier just to tell someone what steps to take. But telling is just information. And no-one learns by just looking at information because information without experience is not enough.

If the person with the experience is rubbish at sharing it in a useful way just ask them to tell you what happened to them – to share their experience. Or if you have a great experience that could help your audience then just tell the story of that experience (become a story-teller) and let the audience find the hooks in your experience that will turn their information into knowledge.

The big difference between experience sharing and telling someone what to do is that the experience being shared will have all sorts of rich content, some of which may appear to be irrelevant to the situation from the teller’s perspective, but it may resonate for the listener in a way that is utterly unexpected. This happens because the audience will have all sorts of things on their mind while hearing the story and they will have experiences of their own that will attract meaning from the story.

If you are telling someone what to do you have already filtered your experience down to become information, stripped it of context and reduced its effectiveness.

Case studies

A really good case study has a whole lot more than just the facts of the situation. It has the environment within which the case occurred, it has the climate – be it politician or weather or cultural that was in place at the time, in other worlds it transports you to the time and place of the case so that you can study it in its time. It is a story of sorts.

It should have the decisions that were made and how they were made: what the influences were and how the brief influenced the decision making. It should describe what success looked like at the outset and whether that changed along the way – talking the reader on a journey. It should have the result of the case either by providing statistics or describing the outcome.

Many companies use case studies to tell stories about how fabulous they are and what great outcomes they achieve for their clients – we are guilty of doing this, it is called blowing our own trumpet!

But if you are creating case studies as a mechanism for moving your audience from information to knowledge you have to create a different sort of case study. More than documenting the facts, you need to allow your audience to imagine themselves in the same situation and decide if they would have made the same decisions. You have to create the case study so that it allows your audience to filter their information through your experience.

When time is of the essence or first hand experience is too costly then story-telling, in any of its forms, becomes the mechanism for leaping the gulf that divides information from knowledge.

After knowledge comes understanding and wisdom/insight but the gulf of understanding has to be crossed first. So polish up your story-telling and practice asking people to share their experiences!

This post is by Deirdre Wilson, Director of Hothouse Design in Melbourne Australia.

Why am I writing these blogs? Because experience transforms information into knowledge even when those experiences aren't your own. So we share experiences that we have collected over a long time to help readers transform information into knowledge.

We have a passion for process and explanation and we are really good at helping people explain stuff. Information design is the skill of presenting data in context that is relevant to an audience so that they can transform it into knowledge via experience.

Basics. Know what they are. Get them right. Repeat.

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