The Value of Storytelling in Innovation


August 30, 2022

An idea needs six components to stick in people’s minds.

Chip and Dan Heath’s research, published in their 2007 book Made to Stick, found that an idea has to be:

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. A Story

Any leader worth their salt knows that ideas need to be simple, credible, and create an emotional reaction. But why do they need to tell a story?

Stories grab our attention. They allow us to step into a different perspective in a way facts and figures could never do. This powerful tool can transform a business’s entire approach to how open and willing people are to change and new ideas.

Beliefs and attitudes are circulated through stories, not company mandates. This doesn’t mean that business meetings have to be filled with elongated anecdotes. Rather, storytelling in the right context helps ideas resister in people’s minds and encourages innovation. Let’s see how.

Why are stories so effective?

Stories have a strong chemical impact on your mind and affect how you behave.

When we hear a story, however short it may be, our brain responds. In a 2021 study, researchers tested the effect of listening to a story on children who were patients in a hospital.

Researchers found that listening to a story increased the children’s oxytocin levels and decreased their cortisol. In other words, it increased happiness and reduced stress. The children even reported lower levels of pain.

But storytelling’s effectiveness goes beyond “making you happy.” Engaging with a narrative helps listeners see how a subject is relevant to them. Whether it’s a friend telling you a riveting travel story or your head of R&D excitedly telling you how they stumbled upon their latest idea, good stories are gripping and memorable.

How storytelling inspires

But how can storytelling techniques inform innovation? It comes down to inspiration.

Innovation is far easier when you feel inspired. Stories inspire others to believe in your idea.

If you picture a pitch on Shark Tank, budding inventors generally start with a story:

– Why they created their product
– Who they created it for
– The incident that led to the inspiration for their idea

When you combine innovation and storytelling, people want to know more. They understand the thinking behind an idea. They can picture themselves in the same situation and understand the journey you took to reach the end result.

Once people see themselves in the position you were at the start of your idea’s journey, they get on board. They can visualize an idea’s potential once they know where it came from.

Storytelling also triggers associative thinking. Even if someone doesn’t personally identify with a story you tell, they may know someone who does. Or it could invoke a memory of a similar situation they had to tackle in the past.

This appeal to imagination and emotion through a narrative isn’t just used to sell products. It can change mindsets and cultures across entire organizations.

How stories influence innovation culture

Managing innovation and managing change go hand in hand. The first enables the second.

For employees to welcome the change brought on by innovation, people need to get on board with the idea. And as we’ve seen, storytelling helps people understand and support other peoples’ visions.

The emotions and empathy that come from stories vary depending on the content. To create a culture of innovation, stories need to motivate and reassure people. Most often, this will be through stories of success as well as stories of failure.

Stories of success to improve change management

Make sharing success stories a cultural habit. Don’t look only at facts and figures when talking about last quarter’s results. Invite people to share the innovation story behind their success.

Hearing how an idea began, and how the team then managed to nurture it into a successful project or product, motivates others. It also inspires them to brainstorm how they can experience similar success.

Storytelling in this way also gets people on board with innovation if they’ve been dragging their feet. Success stories combat people’s fear of change and puts the spotlight on the positive side of things.  

Stories of failure to reassure innovators

Innovation management is hard because so many innovations fail. Former Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christiansen pointed out that up to 95% of new products fail every year.

And those are the ones that made it to market! Never mind the thousands of ideas that never make it past the drawing board.

How is that overwhelming amount of failure supposed to reassure teams? When one of their ideas fails, in whatever area or stage it may be, they’ll know they’re not alone. They aren’t doing something wrong just because an idea didn’t work out. When companies share internal stories of failure, it reassures teams that it’s okay to fail as long as you learn from it.

If teams are overwhelmed by the fear of failing, they’ll be paralyzed with apprehension and never push an idea through to completion. An honest story of failure keeps team motivated. It motivates them through the brainstorming stage, through the hurdles of execution, and toward the goal of crossing the finish line.

Creating a deliberate narrative

Storytelling isn’t just about sharing anecdotes that people can relate to. It’s also about choosing a deliberate narrative for every situation.

One way to do this is by being mindful of the language your business uses around  innovation. Thoughtful language helps guide the narrative direction of a story.

For example, your team wasn’t “inspired by and improved upon a competitor’s campaign.” Instead, they “astutely noticed a gap in the market that competitors missed.”

A team didn’t “just get lucky,” they “were able to identify emerging trends at the right moment.”

Simple as these storytelling techniques sound, they validate success within the company.

Use storytelling at each stage of innovation stage

Engaging stories and deliberate language must be used not just to encourage innovation, but in the process itself. Here’s how storytelling informs different stages in innovation.

1. Brainstorming

When you’re kicking off an idea, consciously choose stories that add color and clarity. Let people know that no idea is too simple or too bizarre, then keep a record of every idea people share.

Review the list from a storytelling perspective. Two mediocre ideas may have gotten thrown out on their own. But when combined, they could create a narrative that hits home with people.

2. Clarification

The clarification stage fleshes out an idea. Having an innovative storytelling mindset keeps people’s attitudes open and creative, rather than critical.

As teams research the users of their proposed product or project, stories continue to play a role. Gather them for market research, not just facts and figures. This helps innovators more clearly identify what users need.

Statistics alone may not identify common pattern running through user stories. Instead, their obstacles, issues, and challenges lie in this qualitative data.

3. Re-evaluating

As you work through the qualitative and quantitative data available, make sure to maintain a storytelling approach. Like the brainstorming session, narratives inform how you can streamline your ideas.

Crime scene detectives may be the most well-known for this method. They brainstorm to establish hypotheses that include all the evidence. This helps give their investigation a direction.

In a similar way, innovation teams can think through the everyday interactions that surround their project. This helps them identify opportunities for practical adjustments. The insights you gain along the way then influence how you refine the direction of your idea.

4. Testing

In the final phase, teams need to continue wearing their storytelling hats.

As you do more research, stay away from using only multiple-choice questions. They may create a bank of data, but they may also miss information that’s vital.

Instead, use open-ended questions that encourage storytelling. For example, “Tell me about a situation where…”

The insights you gain should influence your project’s end result up until it’s ready to present.

Harness the power of storytelling

Stories don’t just entertain, they captivate, motivate, and inform. A culture of storytelling improves how you  manage both change and innovation.

That said, every one of us can all get better at it. How can we tell stories that spark emotions in our peers and customers? By learning better storytelling techniques and when to use them.

Schedule a 30-minute discovery call with me. We’ll talk about how you can jump start these techniques in your business or with your team. Once we talk, I’ll send you a free copy of The Ultimate Guide to Interview Techniques for Storytellers.

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.