A Creative Tool For ...


I love the idea of rabbis holding a workshop with Hollywood writers – picture the intersection of “Desperate Housewives” and Moses – to strengthen their storytelling in front of their congregation.

The point is, business storytelling benefits from other vantage points.

That’s why I welcome today’s perspective from Nancy Dodd whose credits range from screenplays to her latest book called the Writer’s Compass which guides aspiring novelists through the storytelling process. Nancy also teaches at the Graziadio¬†School of Business at Pepperdine¬†University where she’s gained first-hand experience in exploring storytelling in a business context.

In today’s post, she tackles kickstarting the creative process.

writers compassBy Nancy Ellen Dodd

Storytelling is about creating and developing ideas. Most businesses do the same thing. Why not use the same tools storytellers use to stimulate business ideas?

In my role as an academic editor in a business school at a university, and as an adjunct in the creative writing department, I’m exposed to very different forms of writing. Academic writing is formal, stiff, and usually difficult to read, understand, or at the least to decipher. Why say it in one sentence when you can stretch it out to a paragraph of multi-syllabic words that are seldom used in every day conversation. Business writing is just the opposite: crisp, clear, direct. Creative writing is about flourish: developing ideas into storytelling. Because I work with all three forms, my interest includes developing crossovers, one of those the ways that businesses can use storytelling and creative writing tools to enhance their thought processes.

The following exercise is a way to stimulate idea generation as well as a way to learn how to express a new idea. This can be done as team exercise or by an individual.


Clustering for ideas, also called mapping, is a storytelling technique developed by Gabriele Rico, Ph.D., which she presented in her book Writing the Natural Way. The process is a way of playing with language to create a cluster of tightly or loosely associated words that will then begin to form the genesis for idea development.

Start with any word in the center circle, nouns or verbs are best, although it might be a concept such as “love” or “freedom” or “enterprise.”¬† Around that word create new circles with secondary words brought to mind from the center word. Around the secondary circles, create new circles with a third tier of words that are associated with the secondary words. For example, if the center word was cat, secondary words might be hair, disdainful, string, tongue, cat food, windowsill, mouse. Around hair might be fur; connected to disdainful might be arrogance and aloofness,

A roughly drawn cluster might look something like this, with a word in each circle:

storytelling cluster

Off the top of my head, the story I might write about the cat could involve an unwanted visitor who the cat sitting in the windowsill sees coming to the door. The man breaks in to burglarize the house, which is full of cat hair, to which the burglar is allergic, and the cat seeing the man begin to sneeze things the glove he is wearing is a mouse and attacks the unwanted burglar. Now this is a silly little story, but if I keep drawing this idea out, I might find the genesis of a story.


The first part of this exercise is for you to create a cluster of words. Now look at these words, as you were writing them, what thoughts came to mind? What random associations could you put together to create a story? Try writing a story, any story. Even a weak or an abstract story is a starter.

The second part of this exercise is to use what you just learned about writing a story to develop a business idea. This is the scenario. The CEO of the company you work for has just come to you and explained that the board of directors would like for your department to come up with something new. Either a new product, a new service, or a new way of doing a task better that you are already performing. The CEO needs a one-page synopsis for a proposal from you right away for the board members to look over.

  1. Start with clustering some ideas using related words for your company, product, service, or particular department issues.
  2. What relationships did these words make you think about? Did any new ideas occur to you?
  3. Write a brief summary for putting these ideas into action.

The first part of this exercise is to help you to see ways to develop a story from word associations and to experiment with creatively expressing your ideas. The purpose of clustering in the second part of the exercise is to help you pull together random ideas that may be in your head, but not clear to you, and to see their associations. The third part of the exercise is to use the storytelling technique to help you express those ideas.

For the more analytical person, sometimes this exercise works better in a group where people with both analytical and creative outlooks can combine and synergize ideas.

Nancy devotes her blog to the craft of writing and finding your audience. She can be reached at nancy.dodd@pepperdine.edu.


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