Eight Principles for Storytelling in Innovation

Eight Principles for Storytelling in Innovation with Lisa Shufro

In a conversation with Fabric CEO Tom Bassett, Lisa Shufro (Chief Storyteller for What Matters) shares eight of her principles for storytelling, based on her work with John Doerr’s Measure What Matters ongoing movement, and her experience curating conference speakers for innovation forums around the world. She is the former Managing Editor of TEDMED. 

#1: Identify the human problem—not the process problem.

Shufro’s title is no accident. “What is significant about the term Chief Storyteller is the emphasis on the importance of the human connection,” she explains. Measure What Matters is more than instructions on how to use Objectives and Key Results, and so are the stories on whatmatters.com  “I ask what human problems are leadership solving for, rather than what processes keep them all feeling like they’re checking all the boxes. I think that’s a different lens.”

#2: Most innovation stories follow one of three archetypes:

“In the innovation space—where I spend most of my curatorial time—I would say there are usually stories of discovery or ongoing inquiry. For example, the discovery of coffee: Why did it take 250 years for Sweden not to arrest Swedes who drink coffee? Or what’s going on with quantum computing and how we got there? That’s another ongoing inquiry/discovery kind of story.”


“Florence Nightingale, or the discovery of germs, or turning the telescope around and making it the microscope….that’s challenging a widely held belief. Being among the first to say, ‘Hey, I don’t think that we catch cholera because people smell bad. There’s probably a thing called germs.’ That is equivalent to ‘Hey, the earth is not the center of the universe.’ We did nasty things to people who said that; that’s a challenging a commonly held belief story.”

Call to action

“The call to action can kind of take one of two forms: ‘Hey, come with me, there’s good fortune this way.’ Or there’s, ‘Hey, everybody, we’re heading in a scary direction. Get it together, folks, we’ve got to go over here.’”

The clearest talks tend to focus on only one of these archetypes.

#3: Determine the scale that creates the most relevance.

“The thing that varies the most in my opinion is something I call scale. What a lot of people miss is: when I’m giving you data, it’s at human scale or it’s at business scale or it’s at societal scale or national scale. And then I need to come up with a story that brings it to a scale that’s relevant to the listener.

“So if it’s a story about Fatoumata, the farmer in Mali who needs access to seed and tractors in order to go from sustenance farming to small agri-food business, that’s an individual level story. But maybe what the organization that I’m working with wants to do is change systems, and create entirely new agrarian markets. So, the story of Fatoumata doesn’t reinforce their desire to change systems.”

#4: Establish shared context with audiences.

“A story works if you either establish or reveal shared context. If the story lands, you were successful in building or revealing relevance. 

“So if you tell the wrong audience the wrong joke…let me give you an example of a joke I’ve always liked: ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ Now, I think this is cute, but I once told it in Africa and their response was, ‘We don’t eat elephants.’ And so the joke failed because it wasn’t relevant to them, there was no shared context.” Stories work the same way. Build or leverage shared context in your stories. 

#5: Understand the relationship delta.

“Where we see both OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) fail to achieve their full potential in an organization—or stories fail to achieve their full potential—is that they fail to elucidate a very important relationship between where we are right now and where we’d like to be.”

#6: Diagnose the hardest part first.

“I was trained as a musician, and I learned very quickly that in order to get onstage, you don’t have the luxury of rehearsing from the beginning to the end of the piece. You have to figure out the hardest part of the piece first. And so you often practice the piece out of order. Diagnosing where to go first is something I’ve been practicing my whole life.”

#7: Work out the story rhythm.

“I call the pattern of tensions ‘rhythm.’ Was it bad, but it all turned out okay? Or It was all great, and then it fell apart? I base the rhythm of tensions to determine which specific example we’re going to use. So a speaker who’s speaking to a general audience—versus a bunch of machine learning technologists—may use a different pattern of tensions to convey the same idea.”

#8: OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are about transformation, not activities.

“The activities are not what makes a good story, and are not what makes a good OKR. The activities are the things that result in internal transformation or external transformation.”

Interview responses may be lightly edited for clarity. 


POV: Qualitative Sample Sizes


The purpose of this content is to provide a point of view on the ideal sample size for a qualitative market research study, because that’s one of the most common questions even the most seasoned researcher asks us.

Industry norms

Adequate sample sizes have been debated extensively in the market research industry for many years, in part because quantitative sample sizes are statistically easier to measure. Often, quantitative research frameworks get applied to qualitative research because quant norms are concrete (e.g +/- variance), whereas qualitative sample sizes are difficult to prove, mathematically.

A number of studies have been published over the years on the topic of adequate sample sizes for qualitative research. Here are a few:

    • Creswell, Glaser, Morse – all pretty much agree that sample sizes of 30-50 respondents reaches a point of saturation, where adding more respondents does not significantly alter the findings
    • Springer – Springer puts forth the argument that anywhere from 5-50 is adequate, but that 25-30 is considered to be the right number
    • InterQ – recommends 20-30, or even as few as 10

Fabric POV

Qualitative research is more art than science. Bill Bowerman (Nike co-founder) tested his shoe designs on a relatively small sample size, yet was able to scale the innovation to millions of people, in large part because it was the right sample of runners.

Typically, clients turn to qualitative methods to understand meaning – the How and the Why. 

So while we believe there are minimum sample sizes that should be employed in qualitative research, there are some critical variables in the equation we consider:

    • where you are in the process; in our opinion, earlier stage projects (e.g. exploratory product innovation) can employ smaller sample sizes, because more iteration and development will be conducted as the project moves along
    • the business impact: we feel that the higher the business impact of the research, the greater the sampling (qualitative and quantitative combined) should be
    • geography: it can be as easy as domestic and international, but one critical question we consider is how broad the target audience is, geographically
    • research design: how the study is designed can have a huge impact on results (e.g. which questions to ask in what order)
    • research vendor: when you buy a qualitative research resource, you are buying a filter (like a water or air filter). One important variable is how equipped that resource is, down to the people, to field the study and interpret the results
    • quality of recruit: back to the Bowerman example, it’s very important that the people in the study be the right people; beyond technically whether they qualify, we ask ourselves whether the people we interview “feel” like the right consumer. And we will over-index the input of those whom we deem more influential (for example, a starter on an AAU basketball team in Brooklyn may be more insightful than a practice player on a D3 team in the suburbs)
    • analysis: who is interpreting the data is highly important. 
    • methodology: there are a number of qualitative techniques to choose from, including IDIs (individual interviews), focus groups, in-homes, friendship pairs, small group interviews, intercepts, observational research, ethnographies, and digital (online, mobile). In Fabric’s case, the methodology is unique in that it’s effectively “1-on-none” – meaning it’s asynchronous, and there is no moderator present. A lot has been written about the effects of group-think in focus groups, where an ‘alpha’ respondent will influence others. Similarly, the confessional style of the Fabric methodology enables what researchers have called the “online disinhibition effect” where respondents are more open to express themselves because there is no fear of disagreement or conflict with a moderator. For consumers, communicating asynchronously via video is a very comfortable and common medium

Fabric POV

Our short answer when clients ask us about the right sample size is to go with 30-50 respondents, but the context as outlined in the “Fabric POV” section above guides us beyond.

Follow up questions are welcome: please email tom@fabric.is.


4 Tips for Getting the Most out of Your Fabric Video

What’s the best way to go through video responses and glean insights? Tom Bassett, founder of Fabric & mindswarms, discusses best practices for extracting relevant data and weaving powerful stories to share within your organization.

Mobile video surveys provide powerful first-person accounts that speak customer truths. But how do you get the most from your data? Using his more than 20 years of experience working with companies like Microsoft, Virgin America, and Nike, Tom Bassett shares 4 tips to help you effectively analyze your data and draw conclusions.

Reviewing Results

When analyzing your mobile video surveys, there are a couple of things to look for. First, you’ll want to identify patterns and themes. What are people identifying with? What are the recurring problems or issues with the product, service, or experience? Come up with a list, aiming for no more than 5-10 patterns. Once you’ve identified these, it’s important to run them through your brand filter. Ask yourself: How are the insights related to my brand? Which are the most relevant for you (versus insights that are not related to my brand)?

During this stage, it’s also important to look for original insights – outliers. For example, what’s something you didn’t expect the respondents to say? What’s something unique you noticed, when seen through the eyes of the consumer? Since it’s very hard for brands to differentiate these days, the off-speed pitch is often where you find the interesting angles.

Organizing Results

Next, you’ll want to bracket your insights into two main buckets: problems and opportunities. This is a relevant way to share insights back internally at your organization. Senior leadership teams often want to help solve problems – but they also want to understand where the potential zones of opportunity are to help grow. Are the respondents articulating a problem or need that hasn’t been met? Have they mentioned a totally new idea? An expansion of idea?

Identifying Story

This is an important step because although it’s great to have lots of insight, it’s essential to find a focal point. Ask yourself: What is the overarching story? How do you articulate this? Try to hone in and articulate one story. Philosophically, we like to see things through the eyes of consumers. For example, for a Yahoo Personals project: “Women don’t want to let go of the idea that Fate played a role in finding the partner of their dreams.” Once you determine THE story, you’ll want to come up with chapters, or building blocks that help build that story. Ask yourself: What are we trying to teach or tell people? What’s the big reveal? In simple terms, there is a beginning, middle and end. The middle is usually the reveal (the point of tension, the climax) while the beginning introduces it, and the end wraps it up.

Sharing Results

When you give your presentation to colleagues, use the videos to really engage them! Videos lift heads, because there is sight and sound and motion. So, make sure to show video clips of respondents in order to get their attention. It’s worth it to put together a 2-3 minute series of clips in order to share the data in the most powerful way possible. But don’t use video to be a surrogate for PowerPoint; use video to tell a compelling story. Otherwise, if video just lists points as opposed to adding up to something singular, viewers will be confused. (One additional tidbit: we also like to sprinkle in single Fabric clips throughout a debrief deck, to help keep things lively. These clips can be links to the study matrix, or videos can be downloaded and placed into the presentation).


4 ways Fabric works with traditional qualitative research

Recruiting for ethnography.

Rather than show up at a respondent’s home with an Excel spreadsheet and fingers crossed the participant is good, Fabric has been used to recruit in advance for ethnographies. Not only does it help identify cream-of-the-crop candidates, but it also informs the research process early on, and can be used to sharpen discussion guides.

Pre-in field.

What we have often done is a wave of Fabric research in advance of doing any kind of field work (focus groups, IDIs, in-homes). A lot of clients are anxious to get projects moving quickly, and instead of waiting two weeks to begin traditional qual research, Fabric can gather insight within days from a very broad geography to begin to inform the project.

Post in-field.

Fabric has been used as a way to bounce ideas off consumers after the traditional qualitative field work has been completed. So, for example, on a project with product designers, sketches of ideas inspired on the road were bounced off Fabric respondents after the initial wave of research had been completed to help validate a direction.

Extending reach of focus groups.

In most countries, the tendency is to conduct traditional qualitative research in major markets because that’s where the lion’s share of volume comes from. But Fabric has been used in a remarkably quick way to access consumers in every level of markets to help balance out a more urban skew to the recruitment. So, for example, in the US, rather than hit the usual NY/LA/Chicago markets, sprinkling in a nationally representative wave of Fabric recruits helps provide a more representative picture of consumers nationally.


How to Write Effective Mobile Video Survey Questions

The art of asking questions

In any and every study, elements of great research, creativity and innovation revolve around asking the right questions. Since the Fabric methodology is unique, below is a set of best practices for asking questions on the platform in order to reach the “unlock.”

Start broad, then get specific

We are big proponents of trying to understand consumers in the broadest possible context, including culturally. So beginning studies with a sense for how they think the culture is changing is a great way to anchor their later insights within a cultural context; so much consumer behavior is shaped by much greater forces than product features.

Ask specifically vague questions

It’s tempting to go straight at an issue or a problem. But often times, it’s best to understand where THEY will take the story. So, for example, if you ask whether they like cars – or not – you will understand whether they like cars. But if you ask them to explain their relationship with cars, you’re never sure where they will take that story. And understanding the broader context of their automotive relationship may be much more insightful than a specific like/dislike question.

Ask very pointed questions

Seemingly contrary to asking specifically vague questions is to flip the script and be VERY direct and pointed. Sometimes even revealing the real question at hand can help consumers provide highly pointed responses.

Be provocative

Video is the most emotional medium, so embracing what it captures best by provoking (without, of course, insulting) can be an effective tactic. Prompting them with statements, or published articles will allow them to react. For example, linking Millennials to an article about their perceived attitudes and behaviors and asking respondents to weigh in on whether they agree or disagree can provide deeper levels of understanding.

Use polarizing questions

Respondents are opinionated. Take advantage of their strong opinions by asking them what they love or what they hate, especially if an emotional response is what you’re looking for. For those who are less opinionated, forcing them to choose left/right or high/low – basically making them choose – helps clarify which side of the divide they are on.

Ask why

The thought processes behind the decisions that people make are perhaps even more important than the decision themselves. Have the respondents explain their perspective and why they do things. Asking “why” seems perhaps too elemental sometimes, but by asking the obvious why question, it can help unearth new ways of understanding consumers (e.g. why do you run? Why do you shop?).

Get respondents into relevant space

The big advantage of using mobile video (and webcams) is that you can be in the respondent’s space. Have them bring you to the environment that makes the most sense for your mobile video survey. We have had respondents record from their kitchen, bathroom (for a shaving study), garage, pantry, bedroom (for a closet dive), den (for home entertainment studies), and more.

Don’t cram 5 questions into 1

Imagine we toss you a tennis ball. Easy enough to catch, right? But what if we toss you three? Not so easy. Stick to one question (or tennis ball). At Fabric, respondents have one minute to respond, and you have 200 characters to write your question. You don’t want respondents to spend the entire minute just listing off things or juggling their focus. A good stress test is to make sure you are only using one question mark – at most, two.

Tug at respondents’ emotions

The best insight comes when people talk about things that they really care about, whether it is something that they love or a secret pet peeve of theirs. Ask questions that aim at eliciting these emotions. To that end, for a pet food study, we had consumers introduce us to their pet in the first video; people projected voices, personalities and deep emotion in the first response. Similarly, for a study about Millennial women and cleaning, we had them hold up a photo of their mothers in the first reply, and it choked some of them up!

Use their language, not yours

Use language that the respondents are comfortable with, and would use if they were talking to a friend. For instance, a respondent might not know what an “asset” is.

Allow for open-ended questions

We’ve found that respondents usually have some additional thoughts at the end of the survey that haven’t been addressed by any questions. Giving them the freedom to share these thoughts with you can lead to even more novel insights.

Refine on the fly

Time permitting, what we like to do is have the first few participants respond to see how they interpret the questions. Questions can be amended as the study progresses, so sometimes even slight alterations to questions can be help drill down to a deeper level.

Be creative

Put your respondents in hypothetical situations, use similes and metaphors, or ask a question that is completely “out there.” The more creative your question is, the more creative (and interesting) your responses will be.