Why won’t your remarkable innovation breakthrough, take root across the organization, and scale?

We speak to Susan Lindner, award-winning CEO, disruptive storyteller and Founder of Emerging Media, who shares why stories are the missing link between innovator and company-wide buy-in.


It’s 09:32 on Wednesday morning – 28 minutes until pitch-time. It’s the pivotal moment you’ve been waiting for, the presentation which will see your solution, and the sweat and tears poured into it, take root in the minds of many.

A sea of 200 faces from the core organization patiently wait for you to tell them why this product will change the world.

They’re waiting for you to persuade them to care. To carry your vision through the business, to customers. To be early adopters, see the potential, and believe in it enough to fly the flag on your behalf.

The pressure mounts as your phone vibrates with a calendar reminder: 10 minutes to go.

It’s time. And your presentation flies by. It’s all product bells and whistles as a glorious check list. You shared your “how I-did-it” story in the first person and you even included 5 different product shots screaming, ‘look-at-this-cool-thing’. You focus on racing to the finish line of your success. Your big finale? The feature battles, smart integrations, scalability, streamlining, time-to-market, and you even played a little customer-centric buzzword bingo for good measure.

You mentally cross your fingers and hope it’s a crowd-pleaser.

Reaction?

Zero.

Another opportunity missed, and your remarkable innovations keep getting stuck.

Why?

For all the beautiful breakthroughs, and prototypes bursting with potential, innovators do not struggle to build the next cool thing.

Where innovators get stuck is in talking about the impact their creation will have on the world; telling a story which makes their listeners – potentially their biggest advocates – want to be a part of it, take the innovator’s message forward and participate in bringing that vision to life.

More fear, more problems?

‘It’s no wonder that innovators struggle with this’ explains Susan.

‘A lack of storytelling know-how in this space is the result of a worldwide education system which says “if you’re going to innovate, stay in your lane”.

Engineering, computer science, and game design are very STEM-specific fields – and their programs don’t allow you to walk over to the other side of campus to study journalism, communications, advertising or public relations. More importantly, STEM disciplines are often so focused on the outcomes, they don’t take a moment to ask questions like “What inspired you to build it? Why is this important to you, your team, your field, the world?”

For corporate innovators, there’s a great deal of pressure to deliver in a KPI-led corporate framework which seems stacked against them. A natural tension exists between them and those driving the results of the core business – a tension which can seem like a conflict of interests.

‘There is tangible fear surrounding the innovation process. It is the innovator whose responsibility it is to say “‘this may not be here for 10 years. Will you continue to fund me in the absence of a guarantee?”

The business is going “I need these resources, this brain power, for the quarterly results that all of us are supposedly here to give. How do I justify a massive innovation budget and brain drain, without a definite outcome for shareholders?”

This very uncertainty and fear is the burden the innovator must carry. But there is also fear from the core business – a fear of being made irrelevant:

‘On the other side, those delivering on the bottom-line are saying “You know, if the innovation group’s project succeeds, I may be out of a job?” The fear on all sides is real.’

How can innovators step up to the plate, overcome fear, and rally their troops together; working with, rather than against one another to make a solution become a success?

How can we begin to change some fundamental behaviors to help shape the stories we want to tell?

Learning to listen

“For whatever reason, visionaries are able to ascertain that the time has come for a change: they’re able to pick up on the context – the triggers that say you can’t continue doing things the way we’ve always done it because terrible things will happen.

This could be losing time, money or productivity in the business world. It could be the fact that we can’t keep littering, and we need to be more responsible for the planet. That we can’t continue to treat women, minorities and LGBTQ communities as second-class citizens. The time has shifted.

So innovators are really good at sensing that change; they’re really good at tapping into why it’s so hard to continue doing things the old fashioned way. But the secret to being a great storyteller is really being able to listen, and then afterward, reframe the problem according to their listeners.”

Cultivating the ability to really listen means repositioning the listeners and early adopters of innovation into heroes, by putting them at the center of the story.

The result is that you not only have a great product-market-fit – but a legion of followers who want to be an active part of your story… because this is their story too.

Exercising empathy to empower your heroes

Poor storytelling is egocentric. It needs to incorporate the listener – and what their life looks like at the center of that change.

‘If it doesn’t involve the listener, it fails: it’s just a lot of chest thumping, a lot of ‘look-at-me’, ‘look at what I’ve built’, and this is of course due to fear and the need to prove value.

How can creating empathy look in practice, across an entire value chain?

‘Sometimes there can be multiple heroes of the same story, but with something fundamental in common.

We worked with a healthcare giant to help tell the story of their data-rich ultrasound machines, but we needed to tell this story not only to the pregnant women who received the ultrasound – but the government regulators who make the trade agreements, the hospital administrators and procurement, all the way to healthcare providers such as doctors and nurses giving the patient care.

They all touch this machine: What if, we imagined, that every person who came into contact with the technology in this process was a woman? In this instance, what is the most important connecting factor across the entire value chain?

That she has a right to know.

By shifting the message from product-centric to empowering the protagonist with knowledge, the healthcare professionals have a right to know all they can about their patients. The pregnant woman has a right to all the information possible, to set her mind at ease about her baby and body.

But this also empowers the employees of the ultrasound manufacturer: now, they must know more; from learning about the machine’s capabilities to understanding what every facet of pregnancy is like for the patient.’

This shift in making the woman the hero – created a shift from the product and the manufacturer being in the spotlight, and refocused the discussion and the priorities, and frankly, the best attributes of the product itself. Now, mothers routinely ask for their monthly scan in this ultrasound devices over any of the competitors. That’s practically unheard of in a hospital environment.

Showing greater vulnerability to cultivate trust

‘So feel free to talk about how fantastic your product is, but also talk about how hard it was to get there, and the giant mistakes you made along the way. Talk about the endless deadlines that you missed and the self-doubt that crept in. Like the heart-wrenching frustration that Edison felt 10,000 times over on the way to discovering the light bulb. Tell us about that.’

‘I call it running through pudding. It’s that feeling when you have no idea if you’re going to get to the finish line, but you just keep on going anyway.’

As humans, the way we find the way into each other is NOT through shared successes, but more often on the soul-to-soul recognition that we’re fallible. We relate around our trials and tribulations that make us human.

It’s not about talking up the finish-line and what that feels like, it’s about the journey to get there and the human rollercoaster you rode.

Sharing vulnerability also allows other people to share theirs. From a leadership perspective, it demonstrates that visionaries are not perfect; and that there is no expectation to be so.

When we take this expectation off the table, great things can happen.

‘And we don’t actually know that it will work… that is why the story is so important. We are asking them to join in the process before we know that it will ever stabilize and scale.

It could be a giant failure, and that is why a collective story and sense of trust is so fundamental – because there is something greater than the physical product performance which your collective success hinges on.’

It’s storytime for innovators

Much of innovation is about strategic direction and operational challenges: we’re all about answering questions like ‘how can I build the best prototype?’ and ‘how do I structure for innovation?’ or even ‘what does my innovation accounting system look like?’

These things are of course critical to getting the job done.

‘When I speak at Innov8rs, I feel like I come in after-hours hardcore innovation strategy discussions and say “now it’s story hour with Susan,” which is something completely different. But at the recent Paris conference, I was humbled by the headcount and the feedback: I didn’t realize how thirsty people were for this kind of content; about how to share innovation stories and get others excited about their projects.”

And yes – you can learn how to craft a story compelling enough to win you space and time to hone your idea, and bring together a team to help you build and launch your disruptive innovation.

The best part is when your co-creation begins to grow exponentially, becoming greater than the sum of its parts and taking on a life of its own, because your heroes are telling this story on your behalf.

After all, they’re the heroes. Taking your story and your innovation and sharing it with the world.


If you’re keen to master telling powerful stories, join Susan at Innov8rs New York (August 1st), for another of her hugely popular “Storytelling for Innovators & Disruptors” workshops. These sessions serve as a safe space for innovators to discover and create groundbreaking narratives about their best work- and it’s fun too!