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!


A Story Bridges The Gap From Innovation To Implementation!

Working in an innovation space can feel lonely when only a small number of people outside of your team understand what you are trying to accomplish. Or you are proudly rolling out a new project that solves a client’s problem, but they don’t understand how they fit in the solution. The program may be badly needed, but if the people who need your service don’t understand how it helps them, it won’t succeed. It is impossible to sell a product or service if you cannot clearly define it to your ideal customer, clients or co-workers.

Seeing your concept with an unbiased point of view is sometimes called ‘The Curse of Knowledge”.  While you may understand the value that you deliver if you cannot concisely explain why someone needs your offering getting a ‘yes’ can be very difficult. This applies to work colleagues as well to clients. If you cannot convey why a new process is important or what the changes to a program mean it is very difficult to get people to comply.

We can solve this problem with a strategic narrative.

A narrative strategy distils a complex concept into a simple story to create clarity around a project, product or service. This shareable story assists in forming a culture of understanding around your innovative solution to motivate people to get on board.

Let’s explain this in further detail with a simple story.

Your ‘Story’ needs to cross the bridge that divides a ‘New Project’ from the land of ‘Implementation’. Once the ‘Story’ journeys across this bridge it explains where it is going to people in the land of ‘Implementation’. ‘Story’ is successful on its journey because people in ‘Implementation’ understand how they can help it on its way.

This is how a story can work to bridge the gap between a new product or service and being embraced by clients, colleagues or the community.

True innovation relies on a clear vision for the future. This is where understanding your unique story becomes truly powerful.

Stories are not born spontaneously in a magical puff of smoke; they are shepherded into the world by a guide and supported by a flock. This shepherd is a strategic narrative advisor who creates clarity around the story of your work so it can move into the future.

Creating the world that we will live in tomorrow requires a bridge to connect your vision to a community. Let your story do the work for you.

Let’s chat! Schedule your 15-minute strategy call now!

Psst, Hey Wanna Get High? On Stories?

Stories make us feel good. Yup, that good.

According to novelist and neurologist, Robert Burton, when we hear something with a beginning, middle, and an end, we get a hit of dopamine. Dopamine is our natural feel-good, high chemical. This is why we love and are addicted to stories. From childhood fairytales to novels, to TV shows and movies, stories have us hooked.

From an evolutionary standpoint getting high on stories makes sense. Stories serve many purposes in society. A few of the primary functions are to educate, inspire, motivate or entertain. A story that creates a shared point of view allows us to see from the same place of understanding. This is key to creating a culture of agreement and shared values.

The following is a story my mother told me about road safety when I was a little girl.

When my mother was a girl she lived next door to a boy who liked to play basketball in his front yard. One day, when he was playing ball, it bounced out into the street. He ran after it, without looking both ways. A car swerved to miss him, but it was too late. He was rushed to the hospital with a broken leg and needed a cast. Even worse than that he needed bed rest and his birthday was a few days away. He had to miss his own birthday party. And that’s why you always look both ways before crossing the road.

When you are a kid death is a big concept to grasp. Even as an adult, it is difficult to come to terms with. But missing your own birthday party? That is terrible, we all know that!

I am now an adult, but I will never forget that story. It has taught me to remember to look before crossing the street and become a useful storytelling tool. Thanks, Mum!

It is a simple story, but the message is clear, ‘Always look both ways before crossing the road.’

Are there any challenges you are facing within your business or organisation? A simple story maybe just the thing you need. Imagine a story that explains how a product or service works, or a narrative that inspires your customers to follow you on a social media storytelling journey.

A narrative strategy could be just the ticket. A narrative strategy uses the power of stories within your personal or professional realm to create a strategic way to inspire, education or motivate your employees, co-workers or clients.

I used the story of the little boy who missed his own birthday to explain how attaching a story to a message is effective. It conveys a message in a memorable and efficient way. The right stories addressing the right pain points within your business or organisation will create the same results.

If you want a hit of story, get in touch about my mini-narrative strategy sessions. I come to your location and run a short session to create a story for a problem that you need to solve.

Feed your story addition with me, it will feel good, I promise!

Who Is The Mysterious Lady?

There was nothing unusual about the small wooden pipe except for a tiny glass rectangle protruding from the bottom of its bowl. This piece of glass is so small it could be easily missed. For those who don’t miss it will see a black and white image if they press their eye against it at just the right angle. A magnified image of a woman wearing a peasant style dress with loose dark waves of hair around her face sits within a gold frame.

The woman in the image has a slight smile on her relaxed lips, not unlike that of another mysterious famous lady, The Mona Lisa.

How can one compare the Mona Lisa to a miniature photo of a peasant woman magnified on the bottom of a pipe? The similarity lies not in what it is, but what it represents.

The image in the tiny glass window the size of a hole in a large knitting needle is fascinating. Who was this woman? Was she the wife, daughter or lover of the pipe’s owner? And who was the skilled crafts person who created such a small and perfect magnified glass image on the bottom of this pipe?

This is something that I am not ever likely to find out. That is what makes this story great. It is a mystery with more questions than answers. This pipe and its hidden treasure are very old and the woman, the pipe’s creator and the original owner are all long gone.

A good story does not have all of the answers. A good story leaves something for the imagination of the reader to insert his or her own interpretation into. A story that asks questions allows the audience to create their own meaning in the story.

Who is the lady in the pipe? Who do you think she is? Tell me in a comment below!

Want To Know A Secret?

I have a secret super power, the power of story. I am not the only one who posses this power. We all have it. Some of us understand this power and use it to the best of our ability. There are others who have not yet fully realised their powers.

There is always a period in every super hero’s story where the power comes out unexpectedly and surprises everyone. Take for example Superman. When Superman was just a boy on a farm named Clark Kent, a tractor rolled over trapping his father underneath. Clark heard his cries for help and rushed to him, pulled the tractor off and saved his life.

There is a plot device in storytelling called the Hero’s Journey. The mythologist Joseph Campbell coined this term. He says that all stages of a hero’s journey are similar. There is always a part of each narrative where adventure calls a character to accept a journey. The character then trys to talk himself or herself out of taking the challenge. The call is eventually answered and the hero goes on to meet their destiny. This is what happens when Clark Kent accepts his extraordinary powers and becomes Superman. The challenge and journey represents the process of becoming yourself. It is also what unlocks your ability to help those around you.

So what does this have to do with the power of storytelling? Your stories are your super powers. Your story can connect you to the right people to move your personal and business goals forward. Stories ‘show’ people the kind of person you are, what your skills are and what makes you unique.

Like all super powers storytelling is something we are all born with. It just takes time to hone it with training and persistence.

How do you do this you ask? I will be running my interactive Storytelling Board Game soon.

Stay in touch with me here and I will let you know more!

Life Is Lived In The Little Moments

Life is not about the big stuff. Everything that is important is quite small.

We tend to think of a person’s life as a long and complex story. A biography shouldn’t be a short easy read right? It should be a complex narrative that examines a person’s loves, struggles, accomplishments and failures.

What if I said while life is complex, it is the little moments that count. Each life journey is made of millions of micro stories. All of these tales collected together create a much larger narrative. But the tiny moments carry the most meaning.

For example, the story of a wedding could start with a chance brushing of hands on a train during a morning commute to work. If that chance encounter on the train didn’t occur this couple’s life may have turned out differently. Our couple would not be tying the knot all of these months later. The moment they first touched is when this love story began.

What moments have you experienced today that you would like to share with your audience? Your ability to recognise and explain the relevance of seemingly insignificant events are the way to create the story of your life or business.

Pay attention to the little things, the small details. This is where your greater story comes together and the meaning of your life unfurls.

The next step is to tell them to the right person to move your personal and business goals forward.

Explore Your Story

Explore-Your-Story-Spendlove-and-Lamb

Where do your most meaningful stories come from? From your lived experience. They come from your childhood, your friends, travels or working life.

How do you identify the stories that move you? You don’t forget them. You see or hear something and it reminds you of that event or time in your life.

Take note of this and take a moment to explore this story.

Ask yourself –

Why do I keep coming back to this story?

What aspects of this story do I re-tell the most?

Does this story motivate me to do something different or remember what is important to me?

There are no easy answers to these questions. They are open to interpretation.

Your unique life is a well which you can draw on. All the wonderful stories you need to tell just waiting inside you.

Use them to illustrate a point in a presentation or create a blog post or explain your business to a prospective client.

Remember if it is important to you, it is important to someone else. It will resonate. Tell and share your story.

Learn Through Listening

How do you learn about someone? Listen to their story.

In July this year I ran a workshop with Megan Spencer, Deep Storytelling : Creating A Culture of Connection. We assisted an amazing group of people’s ability to refine their own story and create a community around their message.

The focus of this project was to learn how to connect to others through listening to how they perceive you. We produced a podcast as a way to not only record their deeper connection to their story; also as a way to look back from the future. The participants will be able to see how their story has shifted and changed over time.

Life and stories will change. As our narratives shift we must also shift the way we connect with our story.

I would like to invite you to listen to the journey of this weekend. Listening for the learning, in our podcast.

Image credit copyright Megan Spencer

Endings and Beginnings

I don’t know about you, but there seems to be a lot of endings and beginnings going on. Why do we tend to do similar things at about the same time? Is it the collective consciousness?

I would say it is the power of story. We tend to make decisions within similar time frames because we are talking to each other sharing our stories. We influence the people we know. The six degrees of separation says that in theory we know almost everyone on the planet in one way or another.

We post about our life decisions on social media, throw parties to make announcements or just open up to people while having a chat. Just now we are all in a phases of beginning or ending businesses, relationships, or changing where we live or work. It is a time for flux and I wish you all well in your endeavours.

Remember that you don’t have to fight or work like the devil, you just have to live. Live well and take care of yourself. This means looking after you so know one else has to. You are the only one who knows what you need and the only one who can understand how to meet those needs.

If you trust your ability to always make the best decision for yourself, you will be fine whatever path you chose. Be that path dark or brightly lit, alone or with someone else or in a new and unexplored place.

So there you are – just go out there and live!