Unexpected Ways to Use Storytelling at Work

In this conversation, resident IDEO storytellers Zena Barakat and Brian Janosch talk about the importance of stories in the world of business and innovation. Get started weaving stories into your work today with real life examples and tips for using stories in four business scenarios. Dive deeper with our 5-week online course, Storytelling for Influence, where you’ll create a story brief, explore different mediums, and create multiple versions of your story to gather feedback from others.

Who is a storyteller? Yes, novelists, film directors, and anyone who’s done a TED Talk would qualify for that title. But storytellers also play an important role in the business world—in meetings, board rooms, and brainstorms.

IDEOers Zena Barakat and Brian Janosh have been honing their storytelling chops for many years. Formerly a documentary film and video producer at The New York Times, NPR, and more, Zena is well versed in video as a visual storytelling medium and is now a Design Director at IDEO. And Brian—formerly a writer and editor at The Onion, Adult Swim, and Google—is a Principal Designer at IDEO. Every day they help IDEO teams communicate bold new ideas to clients through humor, emotion, and human connection.

“Stories motivate us, they help us connect to one another, and they help us envision a future that we can't do otherwise,” says Zena.

In this Creative Confidence Podcast episode, Zena and Brian talk through examples from IDEO projects and share four business scenarios—beyond marketing—where stories can have an outsized impact.

Storytelling outside the marketing department

Most people think of marketing as the storytelling element of a business. That makes sense, and they’re not wrong. The marketing team is responsible for the most visible stories a company tells to the world. But Zena and Brian say stories can have an impact in every single area of a business, from human resources to leadership. “It’s about communicating, sharing an idea, and aligning people behind a vision,” Brian says of the power of stories.

While every business must pay attention to facts and figures, data alone can’t propel innovation. In fact, research shows an argument based purely on numbers is less effective at changing someone’s mind. Stories help connect data to emotion and open people’s minds. They’re especially helpful when you're trying to rally support for a new idea. When there’s no data to prove something might work, a powerful story can do a better job of showing potential.


“Stories motivate us, they help us connect to one another, and they help us envision a future that we can't do otherwise”
Zena Barakat


Getting others on board with a new idea

When you’re pitching a concept that’s outside of the norm, your goal is to tell the most compelling and persuasive story possible. Zena shared a time when IDEO was working with an insurance company who wanted to understand the future of retirement. Through research, the IDEO team discovered that the company’s current messaging was not aligned with how people really felt when approaching retirement—that it’s a time when they can be most themselves. But convincing the insurance company to make a big shift in messaging would be a challenge.

“Instead of talking about it, show it,” Zena suggests. “How can you find moments of showing what’s in the future?“ Instead of telling the client their messaging was off, the IDEO team created a walking tour of the retirement roadmap to immerse them in their customer’s actual experience. They created a rough video prototype of an ad that captured the emotion the retirees felt as well as mock copy for a new website and audio interviews with clients. By sharing tangible examples of what this new messaging could look like, the client was able to see the benefit of making such a big change.

An exercise you can try to help others see the benefit of an idea more clearly is writing headlines for the future. Prompt your team to each write a headline they’d like to see when the project you’re working on is released. “It’s not just imagining what you want the product or service to be like,” Brian says. “What do you want the reaction to the service to be?” This story about the future can help drive decisions today.

Making shifts in leadership or strategy

When a company is undergoing a big cultural or business change, people are often in a state of fear or discomfort. Your goal here is to tell a story that shows the why behind the change.

“Often people are looking for a vision and direction to be clear, tangible, and to see themselves in it. It's when there's a void of that, that they feel the most discomfort,” Zena says.

IDEO was working with a large organization that was shifting to function as a parent company to several smaller businesses. The organization had begun to feel like a collection of disparate parts and it was hard for employees, investors, and customers to see the value of the whole. Beyond work to rebrand the organization and create brand guidelines, Brian and his team also created story guidelines to help the client understand their new role in communicating to the public. The parent company was now responsible for telling a compelling story about broader challenges and opportunities in the marketplace and the people they were working to serve. That allowed the smaller companies in their portfolio to tell stories about the products and services they’d created for those challenges and connect to a larger mission, as well as to each other as part of an ecosystem of solutions.

The company also created an awards ceremony to highlight employees embodying their mission. This surfaced stories of authentic change within the organization and helped paint a clearer picture of what this big shift meant for employees. People could now see that this change wasn’t demanding new behavior—it was already happening all around them.


“Use empathy for customers to make you think more broadly and to design things that work for their lives instead of using a story just to prove your point”
Zena Barakat


Building empathy for customers

Loads of market research data can convince businesses that they know exactly who their customers are. But data can’t tell the whole story. And it can also be used to selectively surface just the stories we want to see. Brian and Zena are advocates of storytelling to build empathy for your customers and understanding them as humans, beyond the numbers. To do this, you have to look for edge cases, not just the ideal customer. Those are the stories that will inspire new ideas, and that’s your goal as a storyteller in this situation.

“Use empathy for customers to make you think more broadly and to design things that work for their lives instead of using a story just to prove your point,” Zena says.

When working with a gig economy company, Zena recalls a video the IDEO team made to help the client understand the joys, challenges, and overall experience for their workers. The client already had lots of data about their workers, but didn’t understand what those numbers meant for their day-to-day experience. At first, the client was focused on brainstorming new product ideas, but once the IDEO team showed the video, the discussion immediately shifted to brainstorming ways to create a better experience for their workers.

If making a video feels advanced or time consuming, “audio is a compelling and simple way to integrate more voices into your story,” Brian suggests. It can often capture more natural responses as well, since people can feel intimidated by cameras. Zena suggests setting up a Google Voice number and offering a small incentive, like a $10 Amazon gift card, for people who respond to a few questions. She gathered rich customer stories for a client from around the world in only two days using this method.

Explaining interconnected systems

Every business is part of a larger system—like a hospital whose patients need at-home care before and after a visit—but it can be difficult to see the big picture without a little help. The goal of a story in this situation is to simplify complex information.

A company that sells pipes reached out to IDEO for just this kind of help. They wanted to innovate their product but were having trouble understanding how, so IDEO created an infographic to show how they fit into the larger urban water management system. The infographic helped the company see how something that happened upstream or downstream in the system influenced their business, and it helped get everyone in the room on the same page. IDEO and the client were able to jump into ideation mode much faster with the help of the visual storytelling aid.

The best way to start is to just get started

Storytelling can be intimidating. But the value is undeniable if you want to spark new ideas, improve communication, and boost morale. To build your storytelling chops, “try to tell stories at every turn,” Brian urges. Whether it’s written word, scrappy video, or audio of your customers voices, bringing emotion into the meeting room will help you make a more compelling case.

“Stories are how we share experiences and how we connect as human beings,” Brian says. They help us keep real people’s needs at the center of business and bring more creativity into our every day.

Learn how to create a story brief, explore different mediums, and create multiple versions of your story to gather feedback from others in our 5-week online course Storytelling for Influence.

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