6 Rules for Persuasive Storytelling

from the Nielsen Norman Group, written by Rachel Krause, April 28, 2019

Summary:  Stories build empathy and make the user needs and pain points memorable to your team. Effective stories speak the language of the audience, are rooted in data, and take advantage of compelling artifacts.

Storytelling is how we share ideas and experiences. Having raw data is not enough to convince our teams and stakeholders of what needs to be done. A narrative makes a connection between our data and why other people should care about it.

In our work as UX professionals, we use stories to help create a shared vocabulary, focus the team on a common goal, and persuade stakeholders — ultimately leading to buy-in. UX stories are a communication tool that can be used in lieu of boring task check lists that are far removed from the user. They provide a natural, engaging way to share behavior, perspectives, and attitudes.

If you write tasks in a usability test, communicate insights from research, or sell design ideas, you’re already using stories in your process. In many business contexts, storytelling can feel uncomfortable, but this rich way of communicating can help set the stage for persuasion or a call to action, ultimately bettering the design at hand.

This article is specifically about the use of stories within the design process. That is, our observations and recommendations apply when the intended audience for your story consists of your own team members, rather than your end users.

In This Article:

  • Benefits of Storytelling
  • 6 Rules for Persuasive Storytelling
  • Using Storytelling in Your Work
  • Conclusion

Benefits of Storytelling

Stories help us explain difficult concepts.

Giving additional context helps our audience connect with a concept. This additional context can be in the form of behaviors, emotions, reactions, motivations, or goals. Unlike a flow chart or artifact, a narrative allows the audience to understand the reasons behind users’ actions; they remind our audience members that they are not the user.

Stories spark our imaginations and generate new ideas.

When we read a book, we take the descriptions the author gives us and fill in the gaps with what we’re familiar with. We do the same thing when we tell stories. Rather than describing every single detail of what users want, allow your audience some freedom to envision the solution. Here’s an example:

Carmen recently purged a large number of clothes from her closet, many of which still had tags attached. She would like to sell these items online but needs a way to keep track of her inventory. She doesn’t have a dedicated space in her apartment to lay everything out and stores items in large cardboard boxes until they sell.

From this story, different people may envision different solutions for Carmen. Enough details are given to picture the scenario, but not too many that they dictate a specific solution. (For example, we don’t say that she’s selling 7 jackets, 5 dresses, and so forth, let alone the brands and colors of each item.)

Stories allow us to form a shared understanding.

Thinking about how to build a product usually involves feature lists and backlogs. Stories bring user pain points and goals to the forefront of the conversation and help teams create a shared language of why they’re building a product or feature and whom it benefits. These stories can also be used to rally around a product vision, painting an image of how life could be better with that product.

6 Rules for Persuasive Storytelling

1. Adapt your vocabulary to match your audience.

In this article I define “audience” as anyone who is being told the story — including multidisciplinary-team members, stakeholders, clients, third-party partners, and so on. Our goal when telling stories is to resonate with our audience, but it’s difficult to do it when we do not speak its language. Understand the industry and terminology of your audience and incorporate these words into your story so they can put themselves in it. For example, if your audience is a client in the manufacturing industry using an assembly-line process, you should know about the machinery being used, the steps of the assembly line, and any product-specific terminology. Without using vocabulary that applies to your audience members, you risk losing their attention and your credibility.

Terminology Sheet
This diagram visualizes key terms and processes used in a (fictitious) manufacturing-industry product. Understanding your audience’s industry and respective terminology is key when telling stories. Take notes of critical processes and definitions as you do your research.

2. Appeal to the needs of your audience.

Along with understanding the terminology of your audience, you need to know what your audience members care about. Are they only interested in how much money the product will cost? Do they have a strict timeline they need to adhere to? These are concerns that will be running through their minds as you tell your story, so you’ll want to ease them as quickly as possible. Focusing on a glitzy UI design when your stakeholders are mostly worried about how quickly their users can navigate through a workflow will make them uneasy and skeptical about your solution. Think of your audience members as personas: that is, understand what their needs and frustrations are when coming into this meeting. How will you make sure you touch on each need and frustration for each type of person in the room?

3. Back up your points with real data.

A compelling story is nothing without hard facts to back up the narrative. Use insights from qualitative or quantitative testing to help craft your narrative and minimize doubt and gray area. When questions arise from your audience, you can back up your answers with this data. For example, if in recent usability testing you got negative feedback on your purchase process, you can tell the story of how you witnessed a user stumbling through the workflow. Use real quotes from the usability test and show your audience how the user completed the task.

4. Focus on the entire omnichannel experience, inside and outside of the interface.

Your users don’t exist only inside of your application. What drives them to your software? Where do they use it? Consider the context of use: what do your users do before, after, and during the time when they are engaged with your product? What distracts them? Understanding these elements will help your audience empathize with what your users are going through.

For example, put your audience in the shoes of your user by saying, “Imagine you’re a single parent, have two kids, a busy full-time job, and you need to keep up with all of the extracurricular activities on your calendar.” This story allows your audience members to picture themselves with these responsibilities, taking them away from their own perspectives.

5. Pair your story with an artifact for memorability and alignment.

Artifacts create a lasting impression after the story has been told. Storyboardspersonasjourney maps, and research reports give the audience members something tangible to refer to when the story is brought up at a later time and help them recall specific details. For example, pairing your story with a journey map allows your audience to gauge the overall user satisfaction as you discuss each step of the user’s journey. Alternatively, telling a story while showing a storyboard allows the audience to see the user’s environment.

6. Follow up with a summary.

Summarize your story or meeting with a brief email or other communication for further memorability. If decisions were made based on that story, include what was decided and why. If a decision is questioned down the road, you have this followup to refer back to. Here’s an example:

“Thanks for your help evaluating the priority of the upcoming work in our backlog. We talked about how Gary, our small-business owner, would benefit from a filter-able table of sales rather than a dashboard overview because he has very specific data he looks for when running end of the month reports. We’ve decided to downgrade the priority of the dashboard feature.”

Using Storytelling in Your Work

Research and Strategy

Communicate stories through compelling research reports. You can incorporate imagery with relevant case studies, charts, and photos from usability tests to give your audience something to connect with beyond words.

For example, let’s say you’re working on a checkout workflow for a novelty gift shop’s website. You interview a user and he tells you about a recent experience he had when purchasing an item. Randy is a father who lives far away from his adult children but likes to send them gifts from time to time. He finds the perfect gift for his daughter — something that reminded him of when they used to go on road trips together. He sends the package directly to her house a few states away, but doesn’t include a gift receipt because he doesn’t realize he can do so. When his daughter gets the package in the mail, she has no idea who sent the package or why she’s receiving it, leaving her unsure of whom to thank.

When writing your research report, include Randy’s story as a case study along with a storyboard or journey map as a visual representation. Consider including a photo or illustration of him to allow your audience to put a face to a name.

Translating Randy’s story into a journey map illustrates his emotional state at each point of his process. This journey map could be handed out or included in a research report after conducting usability testing.

Interaction and Visual Design

When communicating your design ideas, talk through a design or interaction as if you were your user using it. Use quotes from usability tests along with additional qualitative data that supports why you made certain design decisions.

For example, you can show your audience the original design that Randy (our protagonist from above) used to purchase his gift. Then present your new-design idea using the same scenario; point out how the gift options will be more easily accessible in this new version to allow Randy to include a gift receipt and a message with his purchase. Recalling the story and using it as a scenario to design something better helps your audience members make decisions based on Randy’s needs and not on their own preferences. It also gives additional context as to why you made certain design decisions.

When explaining a proposed design, refer back to Randy’s story and talk through how his experience could be different using this design.


Storytelling helps our audience members put themselves in the shoes of our users. When they think from this perspective, they have more information to make a decision that will benefit the user in addition to the business.

Learn more about storytelling in user experience in our full-day course, Storytelling Throughout the UX Process.



Quesenbery, W., & Brooks, K. (2010). Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media, LLC.

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