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Innovation Stories

Stories are a vital part of the innovation process. A good story can help you pitch or present an idea, or describe the way you work to important stakeholders. So it’s amazing how often people fail to use the power of even the simplest stories.

Innovation stories – like all other stories – should have these basic ingredients:

It’s tempting to ignore or gloss over the emotional content of business stories, but don’t. Emotion directs our attention to what matters and helps people remember the point you’re trying to make.

And you shouldn’t just talk about positive emotions – those stories are literally “too good to be true”. You can use a classic story arc to give your story that roller coaster of positive and negative emotion that will make it irresistible. Even a humble iguana can experience a story arc:

You’ll need to tell stories about yourself (Foundation Stories) but you’ll find it easier to keep telling fresh stories about your customers  (Brand Stories). Here are two examples of one company telling both kinds of story. First, the Foundation Story, where the company is the hero:

And now the Brand Story, where the customer is the hero and the product barely gets a mention:

Get used to telling customer stories in sixty seconds or less. You never know when you’ll be able to drop them into business conversations.

Here’s a thought: can the different emotions you feel during your own innovation process guide you to where the best stories lie? This is my attempt to map the classic Double Diamond of innovation onto a study of emotions and design thinking by Charles Burnette.

Ask yourself this: did you feel any of these emotions? Did you go from good to bad or bad to good? If so, there’s almost certainly a story there.

Rules and rule-breakers are great ingredients in any story. We are so utterly dependent on social groups to survive that we pay very close attention to moral values. If they’re transgressed – or upheld – that usually triggers a story. So if you can set up a rule in your story and then have someone break it, your audience will hang on to find out what happens next. Will the cheat be punished or will the rebel be vindicated?

There’s a brilliant example of this in the US TV series Undercover Boss.

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

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

BBC Bristol training

Here’s a selection of tools to help you turn insights into ideas and ideas into stories; to help you sharpen your pitch; and to use tools from fiction to tell great factual stories.

Five short courses over two days, so make sure you pick the right downloads for your session.

  1. Insights, Ideas and Stories (Tues am) – PDF worksheets and presentation deck
  2. Creative Toolkit (Tues pm) – PDF worksheets and presentation deck
  3. Storytelling (Weds am) – PDF worksheets and presentation deck
  4. Pitch Perfect (Weds pm) – PDF worksheets and presentation deck
  5. Format Factory (Weds pm) – PDF worksheets and presentation deck

There are more tips and tools available on the website, so if you need help with storytelling, insights, new ideas, developing stronger ideas or killing off bad ideas, have a look at these.

Bad news for entrepreneurs – you are NOT the hero of your own story.

No matter how much you love biographies of Jobs, Branson, Zuckerberg or any other billionaire founder, the fact is that YOU are NOT the hero of your own story. At least, not if you want people to keep listening.

Yes there are entrepreneurs whose life stories read like something out of Hollywood, with their classic rags-to-riches story arc. And yes, you might be able to tell your own founder’s story as a hopeful journey in the same direction, overcoming obstacle after obstacle. But here’s the problem.

If you’re the hero of your story, you can only tell your story once.

I’ve listened to the same entrepreneur make two separate investment pitches and both times he spent ages on his foundation story, rather than telling us what he was going to do right now. Stories are very powerful but you have to use them wisely. As this guy’s precious minutes ticked by, we might have identified more with him as a character, but we still didn’t know enough about his product.

A better way to use stories is to cast your customer as the hero. They’re the ones going on a journey, overcoming obstacles. And guess what – you’re the one who’s going to help them. Cast your customer as the hero and yourself as their mentor (think: you are not Luke, you’re Yoda).

This has two great advantages: first, you come across more humble and less self-centred. And second, you will never run out of fresh stories. Every new customer means you can have a new hero on a new journey overcoming new obstacles, with your help.

There’s some great work on how big brands use mentor archetypes to sell their story – try for yourself with this technique. Or you can explore simple story arcs using this technique.

Video storytelling – in sixty seconds

Here’s a very short guide to the basics of telling your stories in video:

That video was made in about 40 minutes using Keynote to create a slide deck and then recording a voiceover. You could also use Powerpoint or Google Slides – the principles are the same.

If you are feeling a bit more adventurous and know how to shoot simple video on a mobile phone and how to edit video, you could try something like this:

Anyway, here are the main learning points:

Video works when you make it relevant, personal and visual. 

Video DOESN’T work when you overload it with details. It’s not the place to recite your CV or list your publications. If you want to give people details, give them text. For example, I wouldn’t use video to give you an equipment list. You need it written down like this:


What equipment do I need to bring?

Essential: laptop or computer with built in camera. Access to Powerpoint, Keynote or Google Slides.

Optional: smartphone/video camera; selfie-stick or tripod; external microphone (make sure it’s compatible with your phone/camera), access to video editing software.

I’ve never edited a video before. Can someone else edit my film for me?

Video editing takes a bit of getting used to, but it is an essential skill. If you don’t learn to edit, you’ll never be able to make your own videos. It’s like wanting to be a writer without learning how to hold a pen.

You’ll be shown the basics during the class so you can do a simple slideshow with narration, then export that as a video file you can put on YouTube.

If you are already familiar with video editing, you’ll learn to adjust audio levels and add text if you need it. More advanced students can play around with splitting audio/video on the timeline, so you can cover one bit of sound with a different set of pictures. But simpler is almost always better. No bells & whistles required, especially when you’ve got a strong story.


What kind of software do I need on my Mac/PC/laptop?

Mac users, check if you’ve got iMovie installed and download it if you haven’t.

PC and Linux users, check out these free-to-download alternatives to iMovie. I’m using a free programme called Shotcut which is very straightforward.

Remember, if you’re using a work computer, don’t download anything til you’ve OK’d it with your IT department!


We won’t have time to troubleshoot the technology in this class.

So please check in advance that you’ve got the right equipment to let you shoot video and transfer the files into your editing programme. You’ll need cables, Bluetooth or WiFi to transfer video files. Don’t forget your power cables too!

TCD Returners 2018

Here’s a short video that shows a little bit of why we love stories:

Even in thirty seconds we get a story. Stuff happens. It’s full of emotion. And there’s a moral (don’t be blinded by anger). We get a sense of justice served. Better still, we see the fall coming before the angry man does, which makes us feel smart.

The presentation deck for this class is here. (PDF files, minus the video clips)

I’ll summarise the main points.

Stories work so well in business because we use them all the time in real life. What’s amazing is how often business people DON’T use stories, and think they can impress us with mission statements, strategy documents and endless facts. Remember, we think in stories, we feel with stories and we learn from stories. So why not use stories when you need to get people to listen to you?

If you don’t have these three ingredients, you’re not really telling a story.

  1. Stuff happens: the who, what, where and when of a story. They keep your story real, rooted in concrete things rather than abstract concepts. We are not very good at dealing with abstracts.
  2. People care: how do you feel, how do others feel? This is SO important because emotion fixes our attention on the important elements of any situation and fixes the story in our memory. Leave the emotion out and you are crippling your story. If you’re not sure whether you’ve got a story, check your own emotional radar: did this make me feel anything strongly?
  3. The moral of the story: quite simply, why does this matter? What do you want us to do or think as a result of listening to this story?


Story arcs – the storyteller’s best tool

Anyone can experience a story arc, even an iguana. A story arc means a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Straight-lines of positive-positive-positive, or gloom-gloom-gloom are a turn off for an audience. A recent study found that only six basic story arcs account for the majority of stories we tell. I think you can use these arcs to tell stories about yourself, your work and your customers.

First up, the stories which end on a high (these are the nicest ones to tell about yourself):

  1. Rags to Riches: this story is NOT about getting rich, but about being recognised. Typically, the hero of the story has a hidden virtue which nobody else sees. This story ends happily with that virtue getting its deserved recognition. For example, the virtue could be hard work or resilience.
  2. Man in a Hole: this is a story of recovery. The hero starts out in a comfortable (or complacent) place, stumbles into a bad place but then climbs back out again due to his/her own virtue. Often the end is a better place than the comfort zone at the start. This is a typical story of recovering from a mistake or learning something new: confusion at first, leading to growth and confidence.
  3. Star Wars: the hero’s journey, with lots of ups and downs. This story is useful because it also introduces the idea of a mentor figure – a Yoda to the Luke. You can use this arc to make your customer the hero of the story, while you take on the role of mentor.

These are the stories which end on a low (very useful cautionary tales):

4. Fall from Grace: a bad person/action gets rightly punished. Typically with this kind of story, there’s a hidden flaw that eventually brings the hero down (think Harvey Weinstein!). We like these stories because they restore our faith in natural justice.

5. Icarus: a story of overreaching ambition or the consequences of ignoring warnings. If you’re not familiar with the Icarus story, think Faustus, Jurassic Park, Frankenstein or any other mad scientist movie, where the genius is devoured by his creation.

6. Oedipus: a tough story to use in business, because it suggests we cannot escape our fate. Updated versions of the Oedipus story might include The Godfather (you can’t escape your family), I, Tonya (you can’t escape your class) or Thelma and Louise (you can’t escape the patriarchy).

For notes on how to use stories for pitches and presentations and T.R.U.E stories – see this earlier post.

Pitch to Win 2018

A good pitch is the start of a meaningful relationship with an investor, a supporter or a client. It’s not the same as marketing, selling or networking. Your pitch is like the opening line of a conversation where both sides want to achieve something. So there are three rules you should follow when you pitch to win support for your ideas:

  1. Know your audience
  2. Know your facts
  3. Tell great stories.

Here’s the presentation deck from the Big Ideas Generator Pitch to Win sessions (Keynote file 6Mb). And here are both the worksheets I gave out (PDF files).

I’ve stripped the video files out, so the presentation is easier to download. Here are the versions of Nike’s Foundation Story and Brand Story from YouTube:

Foundation story – you are the hero

Brand story – your customer is the hero

You can also see some of my other blog posts on pitching and presenting here.

Three notebooks that will turn you into a “creative” type

Are you frightened of a blank piece of paper? Do you sit there thinking “I’m not a creative type”? Do new ideas stay stubbornly hidden when you need them most?

That’s how I used to feel.

I used to think that only a few lucky people were born creative, and that I wasn’t one of them.

Now I think I am creative.

I think you can be creative too. You just need to develop some good habits.

So, here’s one of my habits, involving three notebooks and a large table.

(Before you ask, you can’t do this on a computer, never mind a mobile phone. So no, there isn’t an app for this)

Head off down to your favourite stationary store (or a decent pound-store) and buy yourself:

Notebook One: A2 size or as big as you can fit on your table.

Notebook Two: A4 size.

Notebook Three: A6 size, as small as a passport or mobile phone.

And here’s how you use them.

Notebook 1 is for mind maps, spider-graphs, doodles and clumps of words that should go together. This helps you plan out a piece of work, or just get ideas down in a rough sort of pattern. Notebook 1 is how your brain works: a mixed bunch of ideas, loosely connected.

Notebook 2 is for a habit I learned from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. If ever you’re stuck, or just mentally restless, do this. Sit down and write three pages of A4. Just write. It doesn’t matter what, just keep going. It can be what’s on your mind right now, what’s going on outside, what happened today. It can be as simple as “I can hear Mum making tea in the kitchen.” If you’ve spent hours staring at a screen and your brain feels stale, do this now.

It will take you about 40 minutes to write three A4 pages. After five minutes, the nagging feeling of doubt (“Help, I can’t think of anything!”) fades away. Ten minutes in, more ideas are popping into my head than I can write down. Ideas are tumbling over each other in a stream. Sometimes a good idea or something urgent will pop up. And that’s when I switch to…

Notebook 3, which is sitting right beside me. I quickly jot down the idea and then switch back to finish my three pages on Notebook 2. At the end of 40 minutes, I will have two or three ideas in Notebook 3. This is also the book you carry round with you for the ideas that come to you during your day.

Finally, you take Notebook 3  to bed last thing at night. Before you settle down to sleep, make a note of three or four ideas you’ve had that day. Again, it doesn’t matter if they’re ground-breaking, set-the-world-on-fire ideas, just that they were yours. What you’re doing is training your brain to notice your own creativity. The more you’re aware of having new ideas, the more you’ll realise you ARE creative.

I’ll be honest, I don’t use three notebooks every day. But I feel better every time I do.

CAUTIONARY NOTE: don’t leave Notebook 2 lying around for all to see. If you want your stream of ideas to flow, you have to just write what comes to mind. You MUST NOT write Notebook 2 thinking that someone else might read it, as this will shut your ideas down and make them safe.

CREDIT: thanks to Zainab Khan for letting me test out the three notebook method.

NB: I also used Notebook 1 to block out chapters of my book before I started writing. I borrowed that idea from Hollywood scriptwriter Blake Snyder.

Creative advice to my 30yr old self

In my early thirties, working in a busy BBC newsroom, my editor started giving me particularly tricky assignments. “We thought we’d get you on this, Steve” she said. “You’re really creative.” What, me? Really? I feel panic when I have to fill an empty news diary. I could see “creative” people around me having original ideas without breaking sweat. But when I watched them more closely I realised the “creative” people had one thing in common:

They just needed a nudge to get them started.

An idea, a fact, an observation – any bit of information – could set them thinking “what if we applied that thing we’ve just learned to this story I’m working on?” They talked a lot but listened too. They riffed on other people’s ideas. They made conversations fun. They never scored points, they never got huffy. Combine this with true expertise in their subject, and their ideas were as fresh and strong as new cut pine.

So my creative advice to my 30 year old self would be:

  1. Use anything as a nudge. Anything you see or hear can be the start of a new idea.
  2. Listen to people and be generous. It’s a conversation not an argument, so don’t worry about winning.
  3. Immerse yourself in your subject. The more you know, the better your ideas will be.

There’s a neat trick here for using photographs as a creative nudge to bring you new ideas.

Performing Arts = Business Tools

“So what are you going to do with a degree in Performing Arts?”

I bet every student who’s ever studied drama or theatre has been asked this question. Ok, so you might get a job in theatre or arts. But you might not. Either way, you’ve acquired some really valuable skills that you could use in any workplace:

  1. Storytelling
  2. Empathy
  3. Improvisation

Here are the notes from the presentation, as a Keynote file. And here’s the basics of what we covered.


Business stories must have these basic ingredients:

  1. Stuff happens (who, what, where and when)
  2. People care (how do you/they feel)
  3. The moral (why does this matter)

People in business tend to ignore or gloss over the emotional content of your stories, but they shouldn’t. Emotion directs our attention to what matters and helps people remember the point you’re trying to make. Here’s a great example of emotional storytelling with a very clear business aim:

This TV advert – this story – came out of a business insight that 90% of laundry in India was done by women. So I set the class a challenge: see if you can come up with your own story based on this business insight:

You can use a classic story arc to give your story that roller coaster of emotion that will make it irresistible. As BBC Planet Earth II showed, even a humble iguana can experience a story arc:

In business, you need to tell stories about yourself (Foundation Stories) but you’ll find it easier to keep telling fresh stories about your customers  (Brand Stories). Here are two examples of one company telling both kinds of story. First, the Foundation Story, where the company is the hero:

And now the Brand Story, where the customer is the hero and the product barely gets a mention:

So that’s Storytelling. Let’s talk about Empathy.

Empathy means feeling what other people feel. Actors and writers use it to devise credible characters. They start with thoughts, feelings and desires then create words and actions.

But if you switch this around, you’re in the world of market research, commercial ethnography or, as designers call it, empathy. Great designers don’t just make new products because they feel like it. They base their ideas in detailed studies of what their customers do and say, then they try to work out what they think, feel and desire. Because, if you can work these things out, you can sell stuff to people.

Finally, on to Improvisation. This is a vital skill for anyone trying to innovate, to find new ways to solve problems.