Saul Kaplan: Stories Can Change the World

“Facts are facts, but stories are who we are, how we learn, and what it all means.” My friend Alan Webber, Co-founder of Fast Company and author of Rules of Thumb, has it exactly right. Storytelling is the most important tool for any innovator. It is the best way to create emotional connections to your ideas and innovations. Sharing stories is the way to create a network of passionate supporters that can help spread ideas and make them a reality. We remember stories. We relate to stories and they compel us to action.

Storytelling is a core value at the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). We believe that advancing our mission to enable system change in health care, education, energy, and entrepreneurship is critically dependant on our ability to create, package, and share stories from our work. Everything we do is about storytelling and our Innovation Story Studio is one of BIF’s most important capabilities. By openly sharing stories about the process and output of BIF’s work we are strengthening our community of innovators and becoming more purposeful with every new story.

It is no surprise that BIF’s upcoming annual Collaborative Innovation Summit, BIF-6 on September 15-16, is all about storytelling. I will never forget meeting with my friend and mentor Richard Saul Wurman (RSW) to get his advice prior to our first summit six years ago. As an innovation junkie it doesn’t get any better than having RSW as a mentor. He founded TED for heaven’s sake. I went to the meeting prepared with an approach that I had worked on for weeks. As an MBA, of course I had a matrix, with speakers organized by theme. RSW heard me out and could only shake his head saying, Saul you have a lot to learn about how to create an emotional connection with an audience. He patiently told me to throw away the matrix. He said it was as simple as inviting people to a dinner party. Ask speakers that you want to have dinner with to share a personal story that you are selfishly interested in and invite others to listen in. RSW has been a storyteller at every summit we have hosted and I can’t wait for his story at BIF-6.

Saul KaplanI love RSW for that advice. That is exactly what we do. No PowerPoint presentations, no matrix, just stories. One glorious story after another in no particular order, from storytellers (not speakers) sharing personal and raw insights about what innovation means to them. After about four to five stories back to back with no boring Q&A to break the rhythm we take a long break where all of the storytellers and participants can interact, connect, and share their own innovation stories and experiences. No breakouts, flip charts, or prescriptive assignments. It is up to the 300 participants to decide what is compelling and which connections are most interesting and valuable. We trust our audience. The most interesting collaborations every year come from connecting unusual suspects that find value in the gray area between their interests and disciplines.

Every year one of my favorite things to do is connect with each of the storytellers to discuss the upcoming summit and their stories. I just completed these calls for BIF-6. Talk about a kid in a candy store. To talk with each of these innovators is inspiring and a great joy. Check out the storyteller profiles on the BIF-6 portal and you will see what I mean. These innovators are asked to give speeches all of the time. Many of them have written books and do speaking tours. They all have PowerPoint presentations in the drawer and a stock speech they can give in their sleep, which they are not allowed to use at a BIF summit. I always find our storyteller’s reactions interesting when they discuss preparations for sharing a story versus giving a speech. They all say that it is far more interesting and challenging to tell a story than to give a speech. Regardless of their fame on the speaking circuit there is always trepidation in their voices when we discuss their stories. Every storyteller over six years has said that they are excited to hear the stories from the other storytellers and will be glad when they are done sharing their own. That is why they take the gig. It is a refreshing break from the grind of the speaking circuit. Storytelling is harder but more personally rewarding.

I can’t wait to hear the stories at BIF-6. This year we will live stream the summit so anyone interested can listen in to the storytelling. We will also post audio after each story and videos within a few weeks in the BIF Innovation Story Studio along with the videos from BIF-1 – BIF-5 so everyone can access them. We also expect a lively conversation throughout the summit on the #BIF6 Twitter stream.

BIF-1 storyteller and storytelling expert Steve Denning says, “People think in stories, communicate in stories, even dream in stories. If you want to get anything done in an organization, you need to know how to use the story to move people.” I agree with Steve, stories can change the world and storytelling is the way to make it happen.


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