Making Innovation Work: Five Tips for Successful Innovation Storytelling

With the right practices, infrastructure, and support, innovation storytelling can help amplify innovation and offer the return on investment you’re looking for.

Kate Greulich

Kate Greulich

April 11, 2024

Making Innovation Work: Five Tips for Successful Innovation Storytelling

If you’ve been following our recent series about innovation storytelling, you’ll know that it’s challenging work. To do well, innovation storytelling requires overarching buy-in to become a persistent and productive feature of an organization’s innovation culture. Significant effort, however, can yield great reward and value.

That said, our study of innovation leaders found that many leaders craved more resources and strategies to support innovation storytelling work. In fact, 30% cited a lack of systems and processes at their organization as the reason why they didn’t engage in innovation storytelling work at all. 

In fact, 30% cited a lack of systems and processes at their organization as the reason why they didn’t engage in innovation storytelling work at all. 

In this final entry of our three-part series outlining the impact of storytelling on innovation success, we’ll dive into what we call The Five Drivers of Innovation Storytelling: Impact, Alignment, Empathy, Evidence, and Engagement. The Five Drivers are essential to getting your story right from the start. We’ll cover:

  • How to leverage the Five Drivers to build narratives that win hearts and minds
  • How to pull the levers of narrative – plot, character, and setting – to create impact and engagement
  • A short list of organizational processes that help cultivate storytelling within your innovation culture.

Tip 1: Pinpoint your innovation’s impact

Impact refers to the goal of an innovation story. How does a story engage your audience and establish buy-in (both internally and externally)? 

Eighty-seven percent of the innovation leaders we spoke with rated establishing impact the most important driver of innovation storytelling. Start understanding impact by:

  1. Defining the problem. An idea is only innovative if it solves an urgent, expensive problem. Otherwise, it is an idea that is simply interesting to you - and no one else. 
  2. Honing your message. Don’t try to make your story everything to everyone. For Tisha Livingston, CEO of Infinite Acres, a lack of message specificity can lead to “impact overload,” which can make a story essentially meaningless.  “To maximize your storytelling impact, focus where you want a story’s impact to land,” says Livingston. “Trying to make everything impactful to everyone makes a story impactful to no one.” 
  3. Tempering expectations. Avoid overemphasizing what an innovation can do, which can allow skepticism of an innovation to grow among your audience. No solution can solve every problem. Focus on articulating how your solution addresses the problem your readers care about the most. 

Tip 2: Generate internal alignment 

By aligning an idea with your organization’s broader goals and values, innovators can leverage storytelling to gain buy-in for their idea, especially early in the innovation lifecycle. Stories need to highlight what their innovation can do and why it matters to others - particularly, the customers your organization serves or could serve. Why do these customers need your innovation, now? 

Answering the “WHY?” question breathes life into your idea and gives it momentum as you seek buy-in for an idea at your organization. People need to care for your idea to go anywhere, says Leslie Krohn, Chief Communications Officer at Argonne National Labs:

“The key is working with the subject matter experts to understand why it would matter. Where is this applicable, how can we connect this to something that people care about,” says Krohn. “The impact and the relatability are part and parcel of what you need to anchor your story.”

If your organization leverages processes like Stage-Gate workflows to weed out risky activities from progressing within an organization, effectively communicating what an innovation can do helps acquire champions of your idea. These individuals can further support and advocate for your idea. 

And if you are advocating for an idea that doesn’t currently fit within the existing roadmap, there is a narrative to help – The Happy Accident. You can try it for free in the Narratize product library. 

Tip 3: Leverage empathy 

Innovation leaders are just beginning to truly understand how central empathy is to a flourishing innovation culture. Jim Rekoske, senior vice president of research, development, and engineering at Ecolab, says that empathy affects all aspects of audience and customer engagement:

“It's very hard to be authentically empathetic. You can try and fake it, but people generally see through that pretty quickly,” says Rekoske.

To achieve the right impact, innovation stories should connect deeply with intended audiences on multiple levels. The story should feel relevant to their needs and expectations. Leveraging empathy can help you build those connections between your stories and the people you’re trying to tell them to. Empathy also helps balance cold hard evidence by turning facts into something meaningful.

Tip 4: Build storytelling efforts around evidence

Building a story around strong evidence allows you to, proverbially, put your money where your mouth is. It can encourage consumers and internal stakeholders to trust innovative thinking, products, and services. Data is a mechanism for improvement, says Brian Cobb, Chief Innovation Officer at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport: “If you don't measure something, you can never really improve it. So it all comes back to that God almighty data,” says Cobb.

Evidence also offers a powerful complement to empathy in innovation storytelling. That is, data should be used empathetically. Empathetic stories are attuned to an audience’s needs and expectations. Data, similarly, should be conveyed in a way that is meaningful to your audience, says Lou Gritzo, Vice President at FM Global.

“Data should always be presented, in the context of a question being asked, which then moves it from just dry information to the way to answer a question.” 

Tip 5: Increase engagement by using plot, character, and setting – the three levers of narrative. 

Telling a story that is memorable to audiences can engage audiences and encourage certain action. And there’s actually a deep science to leverage here that explains why stories engage us in the way they do. “Narrative transportation" describes the cognition of how narratives immerse readers, and you’ve likely experienced it yourself: think about the last time you were reading a book or watching a movie and became so engrossed in the story that hours slipped by like seconds. Pings from your phone, the drone of traffic, the hum of a coffee shop fell away as you fell into the plot, description, dialogue, and characterization of a fictitious world. You were transported – and recent MRI imaging suggests this phenomenon may even be measurable. Areas of the brain associated with cognitive process, emotional intelligence, and memory formation activate when we have these kinds of experiences with narratives.

Apart from being a powerful tool for engaging an audience, narrative transportation also happens to be an equally strong way to change attitudes, beliefs, behaviors. For example, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes or think the way they think can change certain discriminatory behaviors. 

Half of the innovation leaders we spoke with found the following practices helpful for increasing engagement and prompting narrative transportation:

  • Set the scene – present an innovation using different visual, sound, and tactile elements Illustrate relevant details in the world you hope to change. 
  • Leverage real user/customer voices in your narrative - and characterize those voices. Help readers understand the world they live in, their challenges and aspirations, and all the little details that impact the characters’ experience of the problem you are trying to solve. 
  • Invite your audience to participate in the story - provide opportunities for them to unravel the plot, empathize with a character, or propose their own solution to their problem, or share an insight. 

As Don Frey, CIO at The Honest Company puts it this way: “It's not an ad that you put on television, or in an ad that you put in the magazine nearly as much as it's getting that groundswell of consumers to be talking about your product and recommending it to other people. And if they feel smart about something, they're much more likely to recommend it to someone else in person or through their blog or through their podcasts or whatever.”

Make innovation storytelling work at your organization

While a helpful starting place, trying to implement the above tips and practices without a robust plan can be a recipe for failure. The following processes can help reduce how much time your organization spends on innovation storytelling and improve the effectiveness of innovation storytelling efforts overall:

  1. Assess how your organization does innovation storytelling, including strengths and areas for improvement 
  2. Develop a guiding innovation narrative and a subsequent content strategy to support its deployment across the organization 
  3. Train employees in innovation storytelling best practices 
  4. Document innovation stories as they grow within an organization and amplify them to reinforce innovation values

With the right practices, infrastructure, and support, innovation storytelling can help amplify innovation and offer the return on investment you’re looking for. Innovation storytelling is at the heart of Narratize. Read more about how this peer-reviewed research informs our approach to generative AI.

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