By Mona Patel, founder and CEO of Motivate Design.

Stories have been compelling us for millennia. From cave drawings and ancient oral folklore to modern day books and film, storytelling has entertained us, taught us and helped shape humanity. Stories connect, engage and cannot be untold. They go beyond providing answers -; they break down barriers and expose truths. They can give us a path to forgiveness, connection and love/bonding.

In our early developmental moments, stories helped us understand the world and influenced our perceptions. They opened us up to endless possibilities and worlds beyond our young imaginations, while warning tales told by our loved ones taught valuable lessons that became deeply rooted in our memories.

In my work as a researcher, I am consistently reminded of the value of stories and how they can deliver findings to clients that lead to meaningful insights. When research is conducted with stories in mind, participants can deliver powerful messages that influence and drive design and innovation.

Why are stories so powerful?

We were made to consume and create them.

Stories are how we understand the world and troubleshoot our decisions. They are the way we transmit our history and pass on traditions and the way we explain how social structures work. They help us navigate our daily lives and justify our views and beliefs. There are stories for almost every scenario in our lives that help us find our way and reach a level of confidence to make our move. Because stories are such an integral part of who we are and how we relate to the world, it is understandable to see the impact findings can provide when they are wrapped in personal and powerful accounts.

For example, for a recent research study, my company looked to participants to find out why people don’t get screened for Alzheimer's. Rather than conducting a questionnaire or directing a focus group to interview participants, we used customer investigative research methods to interview targets in environments where they were comfortable. What we found were deeply personal stories that provided gripping and unique attributes that transcended the findings we typically see in a lab. And while our focus was on getting the answer to our question, the stories are what gave us a much broader understanding of the actual need, ultimately redefining the problem the organization needed to solve for.

They can’t be untold.

Theories can be disproven, mistakes can be mended, but stories cannot be untold. When we hear first-hand accounts from individuals, there is an understanding that takes place along with an emotional exchange. When research participants can openly and fluidly engage during the interview process, pictures are painted that can transport the listener and create a personal connection to the storyteller’s experience. And when that connection is created, something powerful happens.

They evoke empathy.

Given room and emotional space, participants' answers can begin shifting from statements to impassioned stories. The empathy created between the storyteller and listener can bridge the gap of understanding that simple statements don’t typically provide.

Paul J. Zak found that people who listened to character-driven stories released oxytocin, a hormone linked to empathy. “What we know is that oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues around us. In many situations, social cues motivate us to engage to help others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help.”

When we truly put ourselves in another’s position emotionally, we don’t just learn about their experience and feelings -- we also learn about our own. For stakeholders, this can mean a deeper understanding of the how and the why of their problem. How would I feel if I was in their position? Would I handle this situation or information differently? In what ways do we connect and align? What can I learn from this experience and take with me?

They are engaging.

Stories provide the answers stakeholders need, as well as the lucidity to discover powerful insights in a way that numbers and statements alone cannot. “Story is up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone,” according to Stanford Marketing Professor Jennifer Aaker. “Stories are not facts, figures or lists, and yet when facts and figures are interwoven into a story it can pull at the audience both intellectually and emotionally.”

Through captivating and intriguing stories, a dialogue can open up about what is really going on with the person for whom stakeholders are designing. And when stakeholders understand their customers better, design can better serve them.

When research is conducted that gives clients the freedom to express their needs and elaborate through stories, the impact is immeasurable. And by delivering findings that offer a view through the empathetic lens provided by the emotional connection of stories, suddenly compelling insights and innovative designs feel more tangible than ever.

That’s the power of invaluable narratives.

Founder and CEO of Motivate Design, a user experience design shop, and innovator of the Insider Insights method of customer investigation.

Published on: Mar 9, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.