All posts by steverawling

Academics and Entrepreneurs – mind the gaps

As a consultant, my clients are split 50:50 between academics and entrepreneurs. So here, if you’ll allow for some massive generalisations*, are some broad cultural differences you should bear in mind if you’re an academic who wants to bridge the gap and work with an entrepreneur.

1/ Speed. The private sector works faster than academia. Much faster. Meetings are shorter, decisions are reached sooner, there’s a real desire to move as quickly as possible from thinking to doing. The upsides to this are obvious; time is money, so stuff gets done. The downsides are that, sometimes, the wrong stuff gets done: 20% of new businesses fail in their first year. Maybe the entrepreneurs behind those businesses would have benefitted from “a little more conversation, a little less action,” to flip Elvis on his head.

Bridge the gap: Be prepared for speed. Is there any reason why a decision can’t be made quickly? If there IS a reason to act slowly, can you explain it in practical terms?


2/ Proof. Entrepreneurs are constantly thinking “what do people need, and can I make it for them, at a price that makes me money?” There are many, many layers of uncertainty built in to this simple statement. In this uncertain world, proof often means “what works for others”. Entrepreneurs are constantly scanning the horizon for this “social proof”: signs of what is working and clues as to why it might be so. Data can be part of this “social proof” picture, but so too can anecdote and intuition. 


Bridge the gap: As an academic, you should be good with data but also know its limitations when it comes to deciding on a course of action. Don’t underestimate the power of intuition or anything else that can’t be measured in data. Accept that illogical decisions sometimes make sense in an uncertain world.


3/ Risk. The market rewards entrepreneurs for taking risks. But as customers, we rarely want to make a risky purchase (think: how did you feel as you bought your last used car?) So entrepreneurs need to demonstrate, by a series of small steps, that the new product or service they are offering is not unacceptably risky. These steps are known in the investment community as “risk mitigation milestones.” If you only have an idea, you are highly risky. If you have an idea, a prototype and a paying customer, you are a bit less risky. Ten paying customers, even less risky, and so on.


Bridge the gap: if you are offering to work with an entrepreneur, what are your own risk mitigation milestones? Does “my work has been peer-reviewed” carry as much weight as “I’ve already got ten paying customers who think my expertise is worth shelling out for”? As an aside, this is what LinkedIn Recommendations are for, people!

4/ Authority. As an academic, when you talk about your subject, you operate within a rational paradigm. You know your literature, you assemble your data, you make your argument and you establish your expertise. Everyone else – entrepreneurs included – operates within the narrative paradigm, where people make sense of the world as if it’s a story.

In this worldview, anecdote feels just as powerful as data, especially if it’s an emotional story. In the narrative paradigm, we decide how much authority you deserve based on your role as a character in that story, not on your rational expertise. Do you live up to certain values, do you act “in character”? To give a practical illustration: imagine you are an expert immunologist who happens to have a five year old son. Have you had your son immunised? If the answer is no (or “no comment”), prepare to have all your expertise and rational arguments about vaccination ignored.

Bridge the gap: learn the rules of the narrative paradigm and tell proper stories about your expertise. Don’t just rely on the letters after your name and list of publications on your CV.

5/ Optimism. Forgive me a short sideways step into politics, just to illustrate my final point. My academic clients mostly think Brexit is a catastrophe. My entrepreneur clients see it as a set of problems and opportunities (and by no means the hardest set they face). This is less about politics and more about life experiences.

If you’re an entrepreneur above the age of 30, you are a problem-solver AND a survivor of the biggest economic crash in living memory. Your optimistic world-view has been tried and tested. If you are a career academic, you were insulated from the last recession. And, until Brexit, you never had your world-view so comprehensively challenged. You can still find academics who’ll argue about whether Thatcherism was a disaster for the UK, while entrepreneurs just got on with living in the world she made. The same will apply to Brexit (as ad-man Rory Sutherland recently pointed out). 

Bridge the gap: Entrepreneurs are, by nature, optimists. You’ll need to respect that spirit if you’re going to work with them. But also remember, optimists might need a realistic/pessimistic slap in the face every now and then, just to keep their feet on the ground. 

*I am an entrepreneur, my wife is an academic. She suggested putting in the line about “massive generalisations”.

Hooks and Stories in Presentations

Have you ever wondered why it’s a good idea to start a presentation with a question?

(See what I did there?)

Ask an audience a good question and they start trying to answer it in their heads. We can’t help it, we are sense-making creatures. Immediately, you create a one-to-one connection with everyone in your audience. You have hooked their attention, and that’s a great start. (By the end of your presentation you should have answered the question, or you’re just a tease!)

Other great hooks you can use at the start of a presentation are puzzles and conflicts. A puzzle is like a good question; it gets us thinking. If you’re talking about your work, tell us about the odd thing you noticed that stood out, that didn’t make sense. Like Isaac Asimov once said, scientific breakthroughs aren’t heralded by “Eureka!” so much as “that’s funny…

Conflict is another great hook: who or what are you up against? What are you fighting for? We are social creatures and we pay particular attention to signs of conflict in our group, which is why so many popular characters in stories are rule breakers and rebels. (If you want to  break the rules in your next project, try this creative tool)

Now you’ve got your audience’s attention, you need to establish trust with them, and that means letting them know something about your character. Stories can do the heavy lifting for you. Don’t tell them you’re resilient, tell them about a moment you overcame a setback. Here are some other stories that can show your character in action:

Well-told stories follow a very few basic patterns. Here’s one very simple story structure you can use:


Into the Woods is the story of Little Red Riding Hood, The Gruffalo and every human learning experience. We start in a safe place, but unfulfilled (that’s Twilight). Think of Luke Skywalker, bored on his uncle’s farm at the start of Star Wars. When adventure comes, we go into the woods, into the Dark, we confront our fears. And that’s where we find the treasure. Bilbo Baggins didn’t find the Ring in a sunlit field, he found it in a deep, dark cave (if it had been lying in the field, someone else would have already picked it up – nothing good is ever easy). We bring the treasure we found back into the light, to make the world a better place.

And here’s another structure; also an arc with rise and fall.

This is a simple pitch story, divided into Now and Future phases:

Problem – right now, here’s what’s wrong.

Opportunity – even so, there’s this chance to make things better.

Practical Steps – but it’s not going to be easy (nothing good ever is)

Promise – if we get it right, this is where we can end up.

Finally, we’re often asked to pitch innovative, high-risk ideas while simultaneously reassuring our audience that they are feasible. These story tips can help you bridge the gap.

More tips on Innovation Stories here.

Stories Designers (Should) Tell

The right kind of stories can help you talk about your work as designers, make stronger connections to customers and justify your “design thinking” approach to your stakeholders (who just want a solution to their problem now!)

Part 1: stories about the design process.

Part 2: stories about customers

Part 3: stories for stakeholders

There are some excellent books here on how to tell stories and put them to work in your business. And some more ideas on selling your best ideas here.

Experts: Pitching & Storytelling

Ok, so you’re an expert in your field, but now you need to shout about your work. How do you pitch your ideas to a business? And how can you tell stories that explain your work to the widest possible audience? These notes were presented to Assistant Professors at Trinity College, Dublin in May 2019.

Pitching – some basic rules:

  1. Know your audience; what’s in it for them?
  2. Know your facts; what have you got besides a good idea?
  3. Keep it simple: what are the three things you want people to remember from your pitch?
  4. Cut the crap; get rid of jargon, hype and cliche
  5. Tell great stories; about yourself and your “customers”
  6. Keep calm
  7. Practice, practice, practice

There’s a slide deck and worksheets here.

Storytelling – some basic rules:

  1. Know your audience; what are they already interested in?
  2. Make a connection: you are a character in a story, not an expert witness outside the story
  3. Get the basics right; stories work when stuff happens, people care and there’s a moral
  4. Choose your hero; tell stories about yourself and the people you want to help
  5. Tell innovation stories; not just “rags to riches” but “we’re on a journey”
  6. Grab attention; make your stories timely, relatable, unexpected and evocative
  7. Show and tell; make your verbal and visual story work together

There’s a slide deck and worksheets here to help.

Here’s a link to some excellent books on selling your ideas as stories. And plenty more tips on Business Storytelling here.

Why are “old words… best of all” when you need to relate to your audience?

I had a lovely tweet from a former client: “2 years later, I’m still finding this useful”, he wrote, underneath a worksheet I’d sent him on how to tell TRUE Stories.

You should try, I’d told him, to make your stories Timely, Relatable, Unexpected and Evocative if you want to grab people’s attention.

Lately I’ve been thinking harder about how to be relatable, in other words, how to say something that will make sense to your audience in terms they understand. Obviously, the first step here is to Know Your Audience (see Chapter 1 of my new writing course). But what if you don’t know your audience that well. What if you’re talking to an international audience who don’t share your cultural touch-points? Are there some words you can rely on more than others to make that all important connection?

“Short words are best”, said Winston Churchill, “and old words, when short, are the best of all”

Why are short words best? According to this wonderful editorial in The Economist, written entirely in one syllable words:

“They are clear, sharp and to the point. You can get your tongue round them. You can spell them. Eye, brain and mouth work as one to greet them as friends, not foes.”

And why are “old words, when short, best of all”? Well, like The Economist says, we greet them as friends, old friends we understand well. So how can we use old words to make people understand what we’re trying to say? Here’s what I suggest:

Old words that are commonly used, describing shared human experiences, are most likely to be understood by any audience.

First, let’s look at old words, commonly used. There’s a Darwinian survival of the fittest going on here. Old words survive in our language if they are deeply useful.

English is rich in terms from our nautical past, like “taken aback” or “batten down the hatches”. These were deeply useful words when around a tenth of British men sailed in Naval, trade or fishing fleets. But many similar words sank from common use as steam replaced sail. Nobody today knows what it means to clew, frap or gybe (apart from hardcore Hornblower fans).

As an island nation, you’d expect the English language to have deep ties to the sea. But every language has deep ties to the land, and many of these words overlap. From Macedonia to Portugal, many Indo-European languages have similar words for the humble sheep: owca, ovce, oveja, овца, ovelha, ouaille, all resemble the English word ewe. Researchers think old words like this point to a family tree of language, spread across Europe and Asia and dating back to the last Ice Age. They also found that “words used more than once per 1,000 in everyday speech were 7- to 10-times more likely to show deep ancestry on this tree.”

As the world becomes ever more interconnected, some old words hold out, resisting the spread of Anglo-Americanisation. “Fire, water, blood and bone” sounds like a recipe for Macbeth’s witches, but they’re actually in the top ten words that show greatest “semantic stability” across the world’s many languages. This means they are least likely to be replaced by newer words as the language evolves. A quarter of the old words on the Liepzig-Jakarta list are about humans: body parts, pronouns or kin. Then come animals, food, weather, the world around you (rocks, wood, sand) and the verbs you need to deal with it (do, make, hit, carry).

Now, let’s look at words describing shared human experiences. The Liepzig-Jakarta list sounds like a phrase book for cavemen. How useful is that? Shouldn’t we be looking for words that go beyond carrying rocks or hitting animals? Here’s where the list of Human Universals comes in. This is a list of human traits and behaviours that have been observed in every human society known to history or ethnography. There are hundreds – it’s a joy to read.

Every human has a facial expression for anger, joy, sadness and fear AND has a poker face, intended to hide emotion. Every human society has age hierarchy, gender inequality AND a sense of fairness. Every band of humans uses gossip, gestures and gift giving. We all understand time, tools and toys. We all love magic, marriage and mealtimes.

So when you are searching for a way to get your message across, for a new metaphor to replace a tired cliche, look no further. In these lists of old words, commonly used, about shared human experiences you will find something you can relate your work to. You will find words that others will always understand.

More tips on how to keep your writing simple.

Facts and Values: how to be an Expert in a world obsessed with stories

I wondered about headlining this piece “how to be an expert in a post-fact world“, but I don’t think we’ve given up on facts just yet. But I think Experts sometimes see facts differently from the rest of us.

Let’s try an experiment. I want you to read this passage and imagine a woman called Linda:

Linda is 31, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student she was deeply concerned with discrimination and social justice. She also participated in anti nuclear demonstrations.*

Now, answer this: which do you think is more probable?

A: Linda works in a call centre. Or B: Linda works in a call centre but is an active feminist blogger.

Most of my clients split 20:80 on this question, with the majority picking B. So I ask them to consider Linda as a Venn Diagram, in other words as a maths problem.

In a pool of all adult women (let’s say 25 million in the UK) the big green rectangle represents those women working in call centres (around one million). The small brown rectangle represents active feminist bloggers (for the sake of argument, let’s say there are ten thousand).

Now imagine the intersection of those two groups. This is the tiny group of women who both work in call centres AND are active feminist bloggers. This is option B – the option that most people pick. Looking at the probabilities, think again. If you had to bet £50 of your own money on the most likely outcome, would you change from B to A? In fact, if you choose A, you get B thrown in, so you can’t lose!

Despite the overwhelming odds** some people are still rooting for Linda and insist on sticking with B. They don’t want the feisty student they once knew to have given up. They hope she’s still sticking it to The Man. They want a happy ending to Linda’s story. But the fact is, in strict probability terms, nobody is ever more likely to be both one thing AND another, compared to being just one thing.

If you’re the person who won’t let go of Linda, the values of the Linda Story are outweighing the facts of the Linda Problem.

The Linda Problem nicely illustrates the difference between the Rational Paradigm and the Narrative Paradigm, as outlined by Walter Fisher. And it shows where Experts go wrong when they try to talk to a wider audience.

Experts tend to operate under the Rational Paradigm (or at least, they’re supposed to). According to this view of the world, facts matter most. The more data you have about more people or things, the better. You need to marshall your facts according to agreed standards of logic. We should believe Experts based on their facts, logic AND expertise or academic track record.

But there’s a problem: most of us, most of the time, see the world under the Narrative Paradigm. Facts also matter in this worldview, but personal moments outweigh impersonal data. Anecdotes feel more real than Venn Diagrams or spreadsheets, especially if we can relate in some way to the person in the story. The minute you visualise a story about a woman called Linda, the rational part of your brain gives way to the narrative part.

Emotions matter far more than logic in this paradigm: emotions focus our attention and fix things in our memory. We care less about the academic track record of the person telling us the story and more about their character. Crucially, we want to know what values these characters are motivated by and do they live up to them?

Just imagine finding out that David Attenborough was a major shareholder in a polluting oil corporation.*** Would it change how you respond when he told you about plastics in the ocean? We judge stories by whether they ring true. We are asking ourselves “does this story feel like other stories in my life that I know to be true?” These fundamental life stories are rich in action and values.

Experts should bear this in mind when they are operating – like the rest of us – within the Narrative Paradigm. Good stories show us how to do the right thing. Let’s break that down:

  • Show us: stories are visual, especially when they are about real people, places & things. Data is rarely visual.****
  • How to Do: stories are about action, not theory. We read someone’s character from how they choose to act, not what they think.
  • The Right Thing: stories are about values. Obviously, what’s right and wrong is up for debate. But there’s no point pretending to be value-free.

As an Expert, you MUST have facts, logic and a rational argument. But you must also be able to tell stories that bring your arguments to life. Your academic credentials may earn you credit with other Experts, but they mean little to non-experts especially if you are talking to them about their lives.

I think this is what Michael Gove was getting at when he famously said people had “had enough of experts… telling them what’s best.” Economists, political theorists – any kind of expert – must tread very carefully when telling people what is “best” in an issue as personal as how to vote in a referendum.

More notes on storytelling here. Lots more about narrative here.

*The Linda Problem is a test devised in the 1970s by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, as described in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

** Ok, here’s the maths behind my version of the Linda Problem. If there are 25 million women in the UK, and 1 million work in call centres, that means a 1 in 25 chance you’ll find Linda in group A, which means 4%. We imagined there are 10,000 active feminist bloggers in the UK. Let’s assume they are no more or less likely to work in call centres than any other woman. So 1 in 25 feminist bloggers are working in a call centre, which works out at 400. Group B is made up of 400 women in a population of 25,000,000 which means your chances of finding Linda there are 400 in 25,000,000 or 0.0016%. It doesn’t matter how you cut the numbers, you’re never more likely to be two things than one.

*** He’s not!

**** If you want a great example of an Expert who tells powerful stories, read Hans Rosling’s wonderful book Factfulness.

2018’s biggest stories: why did we love them?

So what were the biggest stories of 2018? Well, Brexit obviously, Trump probably and, I dunno, maybe North Korea? Serious stuff, big issues and yep, plenty of Google searches across the year.*

But let’s throw in some alternatives: switch out North Korea for “Royal Wedding” and see what happens.

Yep, Meghan and Harry’s big day massively eclipses even Trump, the most famous man on the planet. Now let’s add another of the summer’s big stories: ITV’s Love Island!

Wow. We really got into Love Island this summer. A longer lasting spike, a much bigger average score than all the others. Finally, let’s blow all the rest away and add in the 2018 World Cup:

So there you go, the World Cup, Love Island and Royal Wedding were by far the biggest of 2018’s big stories.

Why did we find them so fascinating? Because they are fundamental life stories.

Meghan and Harry: a classic Boy Meets Girl story. We are programmed on a deep, evolutionary level to pay attention to Boy Meets Girl stories because without them, none of us would be here.

Love Island: on the face of it, another version of Boy Meets Girl. But look deeper. Yes, we shared stories about Jack and Dani’s romance, but we were far more interested in the ups and downs of Meghan, Wes and Samira; far more interested in who was real and who was fake.

World Cup: yes it’s sport, but it’s so much more. The hero of the tournament was Gareth Southgate. We followed his journey: from the boy who missed a penalty and let his country down in 1996 to the man who led a team and made his country proud in 2018.

Fundamental life stories thrill us because they show us what it means to love, what it means to trust each other and what it means to grow up and face challenges.

So, if you want to tell a thrilling story about your work, think how you can shape it into a fundamental life story. What could your story tell us about:

  • Love and being loved (or at least, being respected)?
  • Who is true, who is fake and how we trust each other?
  • How we grow up, face challenges and become stronger?

More storytelling tips here – or a free guide to better writing here.

1,000 TED talks later… here are some of their QUIRKS

I’m working on titles for my next book proposal – on storytelling. My would-be editor says I should look at TED talks, to see how their titles draw viewers in. Scanning a database of over 1,000 TED talks (titles and short blurb), I’ve spotted some themes. I’ll call them TED’s QUIRKS.

Questions (and answers). How many question marks would you find in the titles/blurb for 1,000+ TED talks? Answer: over 300. For example; “Is this our final century?”, “Is anatomy destiny?” or “Medicine’s future?” You’ll also find 207 whats, 128 whys, 78 whens, 68 wheres, but just wait til you see how many hows

Useful info. There are far more hows (84 in titles, 581 in blurb) than questions. This reflects TED’s “ideas worth sharing” mission: nothing says “here lies useful information” than a handy how. “How technology will transform us” has come a bit of a TED trope by now. Also striving for usefulness are talks about habits (for happiness), laws (that choke creativity) and rules (for editing your life). TEDsters are also fond of calls to useful action: unlock (the intelligence), pay attention (to penguins), or embrace (your inner girl).

Ironies. Many talks grab your attention by suggesting a situation opposite to what you’d expect: “schools kill creativity” (TED’s top talk, by Sir Ken Robinson), “the opportunity of adversity”, “Black Men Ski”, or dedicating a whole TED talk to “how to tie your shoes.” Irony here acts like a puzzle – and you have to watch the talk to resolve it.

Relatable. You is the most used word in popular talks. The commonest pronouns in titles are our, we and us. The second and third most used words in TED talks are happiness and brain. Successful talks deal with topics which can be easily and deeply understood, according to an analysis by Sebastian Wernicke. Similar “let’s look closer at stuff we all take for granted” topics include psychology, food, ethics, anatomy, choices, strategies, beliefs and emotions.

Knowledgeable. The beauty of TED is experts sharing their knowledge for free. The hook goes like this: “[name of expert] on, makes, shows, helps, takes, explains [subject]” This way, you know what knowledge you’re going to get in five to eight words. But no matter how clever the speaker is, the text is short, clear and simple with no polysyllabic academic waffle.

Scale: greatest, deepest, newest or fastest are all meant to inspire wonder, like my personal favourite TED talk “Hans Rosling shows the best stats you’ve ever seen.” Human, world and global – all regulars in top TED titles – carry out the same task: making us feel connected to something bigger.

More tips on how to write well in my new free course Write Stuff or check out these learning tools.

And when it came to likes, shares and comments on TED talks, this was Sebastian Wernicke’s breakdown:

Most emailed: informative and persuasive ideas

Most favourited: fascinating, ingenious, funny, jaw-dropping, emotional.

Most commented: courageous, inspiring actions, beautiful

Jargon busting

Stop misusing jargon. Here’s how to write well with technical terms:

1. Introduce the jargon word for the first time

2. Explain it in everyday language

3. Carry on using it consistently

This reassures expert audiences that you know what you’re talking about. You need to go one step further for non-expert audiences, and help them to SEE what you mean.

Let’s take a current example of jargon: “intersectionality”

1. Introduce the word: “intersectionality”

2. Explain it in everyday language: “this means an analytic framework that attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society.”

Hmm. That’s not very everyday, is it? Too many big words.

Try again: “rather than looking for one reason – such as class or gender or race – to explain why people are poor, intersectionality suggests that all these factors – and more – get piled on top of each other and twisted round and round, and that’s what keeps people down.” (note, apart from “intersectionality” there are no big words)

3. Visualise: “intersectionality theorists might say, imagine you’re climbing a steep hill. It’s hard enough, then someone adds a heavy backpack. Other people keep putting rocks into the backpack. Each rock is a different reason why people discriminate against you: your sex, your age, your class, your ethnic background. Everyone has different rocks, but weirdly, these are special rocks that have the power to affect each other: one rock could make another rock heavier or lighter.  Intersectionality says “when someone is lagging behind, don’t just blame one rock, open up the backpack and see what’s going on inside.”

Innovation Stories Video Masterclass – Accenture 2018

Watch through these videos for the highlights of of the Innovation Stories Masterclass I gave for Accenture’s Dublin teams in August 2018. Thanks to Accenture for filming and releasing this footage.

Now watch this example of a story arc in action from BBC’s Planet Earth series:

So how can we use the rollercoaster of emotions in our own stories? And what does it tell us about why stories are so powerful?

Watch these two TV adverts run by Nike in 1984 and 2012 – and see the contrast in storytelling styles:

How can you use stories like this when talking about your own work? And what are the emotional cues that can help you uncover stories about the innovation process?

More storytelling and communication tips here.

Here’s more on the classic Double Diamond of innovation and the study of emotions and design thinking by Charles Burnette.

Here you’ll find the worksheets from the Innovation Storytelling session, and here you’ll find a Keynoteversion of the slide-deck (minus the video clips).

And here are some of the books on storytelling that I think are worth a read if you want to go deeper into this fascinating subject.

Good luck. And send me the stories you’re proud of!