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Innovation Through Storytelling

There's a science to memorable stories, and it can be used to drive innovation.


For the Skimmer:

  • Humans remember and connect with stories in ways unlike facts or data

  • Storytelling plays a role in several parts of the innovation process

  • There are specific qualities of impactful stories


Spencer Silver accidentally created a solution in search of a problem. While working as a chemist for 3M, Dr. Silver developed a “low-tack” adhesive that was strong enough to hold papers together, but weak enough that the papers could be separated again without ripping. As interesting as that was, Dr. Silver was actually trying to produce a new super-strong adhesive, not a wimpy one. However, he knew the new substance could be commercialized somehow, and he persistently communicated his discovery through internal 3M seminars for years.

It wasn’t until Art Fry, a fellow 3M scientist, became frustrated with losing the bookmarks he used in his church hymnal that an application became obvious. Together, Silver and Fry experimented with the new adhesive and scraps of paper until they ultimately developed what we now know as the Post-It Note.

Drs. Fry & Silver Making History

There’s a good chance you remember hearing this story before. We remember stories not just because they’re intriguing or inspiring, but because stories are simply easier to remember than data. Humans have evolved to process our lived experiences sequentially in scripts similar to a story’s narrative. Our memories organize information that can be later recalled like a story – highlighting certain concrete facts, assimilating new knowledge with existing memories, and sometimes filling in the gaps with fiction. Neuroscience demonstrates that our brains respond to the telling of a story as if it were a genuine real-life experience. In other words, when we listen to stories, parts of our brains well beyond language networks are activated.

Our brains respond to the telling of a story as if it were a genuine real-life experience.

There are basic elements that define any story, typically including a sequence of events in which a protagonist interacts with their world, confronting and resolving problems along the way. The beauty of stories is their ability to build shared meaning without direct personal experience. For instance, we understand the excitement Dr. Silver felt at his discovery, as well as his frustration of being ignored by his colleagues. Stories are personal because we can see ourselves in the protagonist.

But storytelling serves purposes beyond summarizing the past. Stories can also be used to frame our own creative thinking, and to inspire it among others. Within organizations, stories are used to build consensus and alignment behind new ideas, visualize challenges and potential solutions, and capture lessons that will inspire future innovations.

Researchers Natalya Sergeeva and Anna Trifilova interviewed leaders of construction/infrastructure firms to capture examples of storytelling used throughout the innovation process. Importantly, well-told stories of innovation are critical to gaining funding and organizational support for creative ideas. As one innovation manager described it, “sometimes we get ideas which should be really good and should be an easy win, and they find it harder [to get buy-in] because the people presenting it are less skilled in the storytelling element. It’s not a fair but realistic thing.”

Telling the story of innovation is famously part of Amazon’s culture, where every significant new idea starts with a mock press release. The tech giant uses this format to work backwards from an ideal outcome to ensure shared understanding, and to surface challenges they may encounter along the way. The strength of an idea is tested through what former Amazon director Ian McAllister described as “Oprah-speak,” in which innovators are encouraged to “imagine sitting on Oprah’s couch having just explained the product to her, and then you listen as she explains it to her audience. That’s Oprah-speak, not Geek-speak.”

Imagine sitting on Oprah’s couch having just explained the product to her, and then you listen as she explains it to her audience. That’s Oprah-speak, not Geek-speak.

Stories often carry important messages related to an organization’s values, such as tolerance for risk and individual perseverance. For example, 3M champions Dr. Silver’s story because it highlights the value of chance in discovery, and his commitment to pursue a good idea. By featuring this story on their website, 3M telegraphs their commitment to innovation to consumers.

Likewise, participants in Sergeeva and Trifilova’s research pointed to failure stories as lessons worth sharing. As the Head of Innovation of an infrastructure engineering firm described it, “I think stories of failure are equally important because you can say look: we thought that was the right approach. We followed a process, but we were not sure and we decided to take a chance on it.”

Some stories are more impactful than others. How can we channel the potency of a good story in our own work?

  • Select the meaning or message you need to convey. If the point is to describe an imagined user experience, describe the journey of a customer or product user. In my own experience, I walked an HR leader through the unpleasant candidate experience of his company’s career site in order to get funding for process improvements.

  • Make the story relevant to the audience, not you. Stories are more memorable when we can personally engage with the content. When the audience can take the perspective of the protagonist and consider what choices they might make in a similar situation, the message is more engaging and personal. For example, research shows stories that involve characters acting in morally ambiguous ways leads to deeper moral evaluation by the listener.

  • Tell the truth, at a slant. It can be disappointing how easily straightforward facts are dismissed by some audiences (e.g., anti-vaxxers, etc.). For a story to be memorable, sometimes the truth needs to be seductive. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant, success in circuit lies ... The truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.” Facts are only so interesting on their own when they are presented without emotion. Connecting a factual message to a relatable protagonist (like Dr. Silver) combines truth with emotion.


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