There are six irresistible words at the start of all major innovations: let me tell you a story. Behind every great change is a well-told tale–a compelling narrative that pulls you into its world but also teaches you something new about our own world. The best stories are both seductive and instructive. As they entertain and enlighten us, they also create a shared vision of the possible. They go one step further than merely explaining something that already exists–they generate fresh ways of seeing, novel forms of thinking.
Developmental biologists tell us that the ability to understand and create a story is a very complex skill deeply connected to our ability to be creative. In his book, The Storytelling Animal, literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall uses evolutionary psychology to show how we’re neurologically wired to process and react to stories. So it’s no wonder that all literary traditions represent story-telling as a life-giving force. In Arabian Nights, the only way for Scheherazade to stay alive and postpone her execution is to keep telling stories. Plato recognized the power–and dangers–of rhetoric and banned all spin-doctors from his Republic. Even at the height of our digital age, the importance of the oral tradition persists. From TED Talks to podcasts, the art of narrative continues to drive the way we think.
How do stories shape innovation? Storytelling weaves together all aspects of the creative process. The story we craft about our innovation project becomes our polestar. Once we have a story to tell, we can make adjustments to either conform to the story or adjust the story to align with our project. Narration is a fundamental act of sense-making: it makes the objectives and stakes of our visions clear to other people. Here are three ways to sharpen the story you tell about your innovation initiative.
1. Get Your Story Straight. Boil your narrative down to its essence. What is the fundamental action and message here? It takes a lot of work to find the heart of your story. One of the ways to do this is to change it up and then see what remains most important. Switch the order of the plot. What happens when this or that action precedes or follows a totally different action? Experiment with changing your characters. Add and subtract key and minor figures. Who is not in your story but should be?
2. Start with emotion and end with logic. The most gripping narratives have an emotional component to them. Reveal something intimate about yourself. Share a struggle or a triumph–a source of sadness or a burst of joy. Make it fun by adding humor. Use situational color, vivid details that bring your tale to life. The other powerful narrative tool is shock. Be counterintuitive: say something that everyone thinks is true and then show how it’s not true.
3. Treat your story as a work-in-progress. Season to taste. Remember that you need to adjust your tale for your audience. If you’re speaking to the Junior League, avoid using rough language, but if you’re speaking to the Fraternal Brotherhood of Teamsters, speak even more roughly than you normally would. Improve the story as you keep telling it in different versions. See what works and what doesn’t work. Maybe something you thought was a tangent is actually a crucial element that should be in the foreground. Or maybe using simpler words makes the narrative more accessible and understandable to your listeners. Finally, relate your story to other stories. For example, if you’re confronted with a difficult decision, you might draw a parallel to a similar moment of crisis in the Bible or to a recent story of adversity that appeared in the news. No stories exist in a vacuum. Your story will always fall in the tradition of stories that came before it. Use those connections to engage your audience.
Telling stories is easy. Everyone knows how to do it. But telling great stories is incredibly difficult. Novelists go through years of drafts and workshops before they end up with the best version of their work. Innovators are also perpetual revisers who incessantly rework and reimagine the stories behind their ideas. The person you might think is your villain just might turn out to be your hero.