When telling stories, imagine you are the writer and director of a film that people have shown up to see. Photo by Sergey Polishchuk

How to Tell Stories that Influence People and Inspire Action

Steal these tips from seasoned IDEO storytellers

Imagine this scene. You’re an aspiring leader at your company and have a big, game-changing idea. You and your team have worked tirelessly on this idea for months, carefully refining it into the wee hours. The hitch? The CEO’s not so sure. She wants to meet about it. Now, it’s show time. The story you tell in that fluorescent-lit conference room will either rocket your team’s idea into the world or kill it, right there, on the spot.

Are you ready?

If you answered “no” or “maybe so,” it might be time to strengthen your storytelling chops.

Let’s face it, the future’s not easy to measure. Great leaders need to imagine and articulate what’s possible before they can make it real. As renowned business strategist Roger Martin has said, “it’s not possible to prove analytically that a new idea is a good one in advance. If an idea is new, there’s no data about how it will interact with the world.” Which means no amount of data can take the place of a great story. So, tell a great story, and people will be more willing to go out on a limb for you and your idea.

To that end, here’s a sneak peek from Storytelling for Influence, IDEO U’s new online design thinking course. My fellow IDEO writers and I give these guidelines to our project teams to help their stories — and designs — have greater impact.

Embrace your inner Orwell. Recent studies from both The New School and Carnegie Mellon show that reading fiction can increase empathy. Psychologists and neuroscientists have found that stories stimulate parts of the brain that help us understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. If you want to lead people to do something that’s never been done before, you’ve got to help them imagine what this new world could look like and describe a future state that touches people emotionally, so that they stop thinking with their analytic, nay­saying minds, and start seeing and believing with open, generative minds.

What’s your point? What’s your story really about? What’s the ONE thing you want to stick in the brains of your audience? In a sense, you’re the writer and director of a film that people have already shown up to see — what do you want them to remember as they’re driving home afterwards? Sure, you’ve had a trillion ideas to get to where you are, but at the end of the day, your story will be clearer and have more impact if you can focus on nailing just one, BIG idea.

If you’re having trouble figuring out your point, take a Bar Exam. Grab some colleagues, go to a bar, and tell them your story. Unlike conference rooms, bars are friendly, relaxed places. When you tell stories in bars, they’re engaging, concise, and jargon free. And the only visuals you might use are simple drawings on cocktail napkins. If you can’t keep your colleagues’ attention in a bar, it’s because you don’t know the point of your story. Keep taking Bar Exams until you can. (And remember to drink lots of water!)

Empathize with your audience. Empathy is a critical part of human-centered design. Try to imagine what’s most important to the folks you’re presenting to. Will you be telling your story to a team of managers who are desperately looking for ways to improve the next quarter and move up in the ranks? Or, like in the opening example, a group of skeptical execs? Don’t just stop at the first thing you think of. People are complex, and so are their needs. You’ve got to dig deep. The more you can empathize with their situation, the more connected you’ll feel — and the more compelling your story will be.

Prototype, prototype, prototype. At IDEO, we’ve built prototypes of classroom chairs out of sticky notes, apps out of paper and foam core, and mobile food carts out of clothing racks. We find the same iterative process applies to stories, too. Draft up something and then retell it in different ways, with different audiences. Gather feedback and use it to make your next draft even better. Every time you tell your story, you’ll get better at it. And you’ll have the chance to hear what other people think about what you have to say–which will help you make your point stronger and clearer with every revision.

Now go, fearless leader. Time to tell your story and change the world!

Annette Ferrara is a Senior Writer and Marketing Lead at IDEO Chicago where she produces such live storytelling events as IDEO Stories and “The Future of the Midwest.” She is an advisor to IDEO U, the company’s new online learning platform. Outside of IDEO, she co-produces of Mortified Chicago, a comedy show where real people read their childhood diaries in front of a live audience.



Annette Ferrara
IDEO Stories

Senior Writer + Marketing Lead @IDEO + Co-Producer @MortifiedCHI