Small Story = Big Empathy

With storytelling, smaller is bigger. I recently met a screenwriter and he told me about a project he’s working on, a cross-cultural romance. In his story, a feminist from the West falls in love with a chauvinist from the East. He was having trouble creating the backstories of these characters, why they are together despite their differences. We kept coming up against sticking points and the story wasn’t working.

I asked him why he needed to tell this story? He said when he was 19, he met a woman who changed the trajectory of his life. He was what he called a ‘thinker’. He hadn’t seen much of the world and was very sheltered. He met a woman who was adventurous, what he called an ‘explorer’. They become very, very close. And because of her, he experienced a lot of things for the first time, going to clubs, meeting people from different sexual orientations and different worldviews.

She changed the way he lived his life. They were so close that they would spend hours and hours and hours talking. Their relationship was a platonic and yet closer than a normal friendship. He loved her, but he knew he wasn’t in love with her and that one day the relationship would end. Eventually, it did as they went their separate ways in life.

The story he wanted to tell was this process of getting to know her, of exploring the world through her eyes. He felt he owed her a lot and he would never forget her.

It was the story of a ‘thinker’ and an ‘explorer’ who fell in love but didn’t end up together.

His story wasn’t about a big culture clash and diametrically opposed worldviews. It was a coming of age story where someone learns new things about themselves. And through that process understands what they need in life and in a future partner. In this story, two people realised that even though they loved each other and grew together, they were on different paths. This is a big step in a person’s maturity.

It’s something that we’ve all experienced. We have all learned from a relationship that ultimately has no future. It’s a beautiful moment of growth. We go through our lives owing a lot to those people and experiences.

This is a universal moment, and it’s going to connect very deeply with an audience. One of his goals is to create a story that is cross-cultural. This hits the mark, many cultures around the world have these coming of age situations.

He went from telling a big grand story full of drama and tension to a beautiful contained moment in time that was authentic. One that many would believe and connect with because it is true and they had a similar experience.

How does this relate to the world of business stories? A very common thing I hear is, why would anybody care about my story? We tend to discount our own stories because they aren’t always a big grand adventure. This could not be more wrong, the power is in the small moments of authentic emotion someone else can connect with.

This is the power of empathy.

These small empathic connections transcend time, space, culture, everything. Moments of empathy are crucial to telling a story about a new product or service. Critical to telling a story to break down silos between different departments. The perfect way to explain a cultural shift or change within an organisation.

It’s small, not big. It’s real, not fantastic. This doesn’t mean don’t dream big. Create an ideal future state you want to inhabit after a new project or service has launched. Paint the grand vision of where innovation is taking us. But among the big dreams, there has to be small pinpoints of authentic emotion. Truthful connections are the glue that holds the grand vision together.

This is why narratives are so powerful. Stories are your day to day and the narrative is the future. The narrative is the future place that you want to inhabit together.

Good stories are a collection of small moments that add up to empathetic connection, to inspire, connect and build trust to bring your audience into your ideal future state.

Don’t be afraid of your own story and don’t be afraid of the small things. Even if the vision is grand, it’s the intimate emotions that build the empathetic connection you need to make your story something you can leverage to meet your business goals.

This is how culture is changed, built and created. This is how new products and services are launched. This is how innovation solves problems and propels solutions forward.

It’s through empathy. It’s the small moments. It’s the beautiful things.

Story: A Tool For Design Lead Innovation


Once upon a time there was a president who was known primarily by his initials, JFK. He and the nation he represented was upset that Russia was beating them in a competition called the space race.

Every day the USA and Russia ran against each other to be the ‘first’ when it came to exploring outer space. Russia had sent the first cosmonaut into space. Since that first was taken, he decided that the USA would be the first nation to send a person to the moon. 

One day he delivered a speech to inspire all in the land to dream as big as he did.

“We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

 NASA and the government and many, many others worked for seven years to turn that statement into a reality.

Because of that they worked and worked and worked until one day, a man called Neil stood on the moon and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Until finally they learned that all innovations start with a vision for a future. If that vision is stated clearly and shared with passion that future can become reality.

Does this story sound familiar? Yes of course it does, it is the story of the space race in the ’60s that resulted in the first moonwalk. A dream that has long fascinated humanity and finally one day became reality.

That is not the only thing that should feel familiar, let’s examine the story structure itself. If you have seen any Pixar movie, you would have seen this sequence played out –

Once upon a time there was __________________

Every day, ________________________________

One day __________________________________

Because of that, ____________________________

Until finally _______________________________

Pixar uses this formula to tell all of its stories. The character and plot changes, the structure is the same.

For anyone working in innovation, working within an established structure to produce vastly different outcomes should feel familiar. Innovation projects work with its own framework, it is known as the double diamond of design lead innovation.

Story is an core part of the design process.

The double diamond creates a framework for innovators to solve complex problems in a process focused manner. What if there was a structure of gathering and telling stories that strategically worked within the double diamond process of innovation? What if I could you that such a framework exists? But first, a story…

Why Innovation Needs Stories

Innovators are at their core of their beings’ explorers. They are willing to go where no one has gone before, to visualise a future that others would say was impossible and make it their job to make those crazy visions into a reality.

How do you make a new future feel real? We must be able to state our goals as a vision with a mission for the future. We then must be able to connect the dots between where we are today and our desired future state.

In 1805 the explorers Louis and Clark were looking for inland waterways to connect the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Their mission was to explore the unknown territory, establish trade with the first nation people and affirm the sovereignty of the United States in the region.

Every day on their journey they wrote in their journals the things they did, the places they saw and what they learned. This helped them understand not only where they had been, but where they were going. These stories gave their journey meaning. The mission included establishing trade with the first nations people, in order to do that we must record stories about the people they meet so they can share all of the important information back to the US government.

Let’s dissect this exploration into three different story tools that slot into the innovation process.

Using The Ancient Wisdom of ‘Story’ To Shape Our Future

Innovators are the explorers of the new world and not the new world as in Christopher Columbus discovering America. The new world of the future, the world that is yet to come. The wisdom of our ancestors is important for shaping our future. They intrinsically understood and used the power of storytelling to navigate the world, because well, there was nothing else. Story was the most powerful tool on the planet, and what guess what it still is!

Bold statement, but true, I will lay out the process below:

Creating the Future Ideal State with Strategy Narratives

  • Establish your grand Vision and Mission For The Future, when JFK declared America’s vision to set foot on the moon, he was making a stance to inspire the nation.
  • This vision is co-created with the whole team and ideally the organisation
  • This is critical to get buy-in from the greater organisation, it answers the question of what we are working towards together and creates the critical empathic buy-in is necessary to move a project forward

Building Proposals and Progress Updates with Storytelling

  • Creating simple story-driven content as opposed to a long report that is hard to understand, read and digest. Stories create accessible, interesting and digestible content. This keeps the team and organisation abreast of the changes as they are happening.
  • To motivate your team or organisation, people must see progress to feel inspired to continue through the murkiness of exploration. Remember the journals of Lewis and Clark? This is exactly the same concept! Reflecting on the day to day creates meaning and provides insights. What are we doing? Are we headed in the right direction? And most importantly the meaning behind why we are on the journey.

Gathering Deep Customer and Coworker Insights with Short Antidotal Style Stories

  • Check-In interviews with team members who are actively using the innovations in their work. This is key to chronicling the ongoing stories for use in reports and other updates
  • All explorers must understand and share learnings along the journey. It is impossible to achieve great things if you are not aware of all the details. Think of the level of detail that the engineers had to operate under to get to the moon. Without computers. Without the intimate knowledge of every step from all key players, they would not be able to understand what went right and what went wrong.

And Then What Happened?

According to master storyteller and novelist Neil Gaiman, the most magical phrase in storytelling is, ‘And then what happened?’

This a magical phrase because it means you have the audience hooked. And now I am hoping that you are asking the same of the process outlined above. So now what happens?

I will be presenting a talk with a special collaborator, Marco Regis, in Melbourne in June on this topic. I would love to send you the details and invite you along. Simply fill out the formand I will be in touch.

Or for a one on one chat, get in touch here, I always love talking story!