For effective innovation, don’t skimp on storytelling

Mark Mann
October 28, 2020

In this era of rapid change and economic upheaval, Canada’s leading STI organizations must balance an array of complex and urgent priorities. With so much hard work to be done, it’s easy to let communication take a back seat. But storytelling isn’t a bonus or an add-on — it’s essential to the success of any innovation endeavour.

At a panel convened for the Research Money virtual conference last week, the CEOs of all five superclusters were asked what mistakes they’ve made so far. In her response, Kendra Macdonald mentioned that she was told at the launch of the Ocean Supercluster that she didn’t need a communications person. The good news, she said, was that she ignored that advice: “Telling our story is a huge part of what we do."

Some of the other CEOs were quick to agree. Bill Greuel said he was so focused on getting the Protein Industries Canada supercluster up and running in the beginning, he sacrificed communication with his stakeholders. “In the absence of outward communication, people fill in the void of what you’re doing,” he observed.

The panel’s moderator, Research Money senior correspondent Mark Lowey, conducted a live poll during the discussion, which served to underline this point. Responding to a question about whether the superclusters are benefitting SMEs in Canada, 36% of respondents said they were unsure. Clearly, if Canada’s superclusters want to convince the skeptics, more storytelling needs to be done.

A subsequent panel discussion between federal science advisors further highlighted the centrality of storytelling. Shawn Marshall, the departmental science adviser for Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), emphasized the importance of communication. An environmental scientist, Marshall said that prior to taking his role with ECCC, he wasn’t aware of “even half” of the scientific work that was being done in his field by federal scientists.

“I don’t think it’s meant to be a secret from Canadians, but there’s tons of amazing government science that we’re not aware of because it’s happening internally,” Marshall told the panel.

Canada’s science-based departments and innovation agencies cannot afford to drop the ball on communication. It’s essential to keep public awareness and buy-in at the heart of every plan to deepen support for critical research, and to foster prosperity in the knowledge economy. Thankfully, as the Research Money conference showed, this is a lesson that’s top-of-mind for many innovation leaders.

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