Career & Success

Question Your Questions: How to Spark Creativity in Your Communication

In this episode, we discuss how curiosity and storytelling can lead to more innovative online and in-person communication.

September 25, 2020

“Sparking communication starts with asking why or what or how.”

On this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Tina Seelig, the Professor of the Practice at Stanford’s department of management science and engineering and the executive director of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, chats with host and lecturer Matt Abrahams about the importance of asking questions about everything we do.

“Having a mindset of curiosity opens the door to great communication,” Seelig says. “The more questions you ask, the more you learn, the more engaged you will be with others.”


Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.


Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: There you are staring at the blank screen. What do I say? How do I say it? Where do I start? If you’re like many of us, having to communicate in high-stakes situations can really zap your creative juices. Finding inspiration and catalyzing your creativity can really help.

Hi. My name is Matt Abrahams. And I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to “Think Fast, Talk Smart,” the podcast. Today, I am thrilled to be joined by Tina Seelig, who is a professor of the practice in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University.

She is also a faculty director at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Tina teaches courses on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

She is the author of many books including Creativity Rules: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World and inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity. Tina is a passionate, student-centered teacher who is just a dynamo to learn from. Welcome, Tina.

Tina Seelig: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Matt Abrahams: Great. Thank you. Shall we jump right in?

Tina Seelig: You bet.

Matt Abrahams: So how can people develop a more creative, innovative approach to their communication?

Tina Seelig: This is really, really important. I know that you think about this a lot. And what I’m going to tell you probably is something that you think about all the time. But my world opened up dramatically when I realized the power of storytelling.

I saw people who were great communicators. But what I didn’t realize is how they were using storytelling to really effectively get their message across.

So at this point, I teach storytelling tools and techniques and the power of storytelling in almost every one of my classes because, no matter how exciting your idea is, if you can’t tell a story that truly engages other people and make people feel excited about the idea, the whole thing is going to fall flat.

Matt Abrahams: So what are one or two of the things you teach in that storytelling that really could help everybody listening in?

Tina Seelig: Great. So I’m a huge fan of the story spine. Are you familiar with that – [crosstalk]

Matt Abrahams: I am. But why don’t you share with others?

Tina Seelig: Yeah. So the story spine is super simple. It starts out like this: once upon a time and every day. And of course, that sounds familiar. But it essentially sets the stage for where you are now. You know, once upon a time. And describe the problem and the consequences of that problem.

And then, after that is until one day. And that is your intervention. That’s what you’re going to do that’s going to change the plot. And after that, it’s because of that and because of that and because of that and because of that.

You can have as many because of thats – that’s essentially the consequences of your intervention. And it ends with an ever since then. Okay. So it then paints a picture of the world after your intervention has essentially been adopted by the world.

So it goes once upon a time and every day, until one day and because of that and because of that and because of that until finally and ever since then. Now, it sounds really, really simple. But it’s actually quite difficult to do.

So I give my students – I’ll give them an opening prompt like, “There once was a girl who dreamed of flying.” Or it could be some problem like, you know, “There are 500 million people in the world who suffer from some ailment.”

And I set the stage for a problem and then have them tell a story. It’s really amazing to see them start mastering these skills that allow them to then communicate the ideas they come up with in class to really share those ideas that are really compelling [like].

Matt Abrahams: I really like leveraging the story spine in that way. I use the story spine as an example of the power of structure in communication in general. And what’s so cool about the story spine is that it really invites that creativity from the get-go.

And it requires you to really stay focused on your audience and their needs. To my mind, one of the most important things of any storytelling is making sure that you engage the audience and make it relevant to them. And that approach that you take puts that at the forefront. So that’s really powerful.

Tina Seelig: Yeah. I also – one of the other things I think is extremely important is to think about the hook at the beginning of the story. And there’s so many ways to have a great hook. It could be a really surprising fact. It could be something funny.

It could be a question. In fact, I usually like to start with a question, a provocative question because it very clearly engages the audience in thinking about, wow, how would I answer that question? That’s a really provocative question.

Matt Abrahams: So Tina, I am literally picking up my soapbox. I am putting down and now standing on top of it because you just touched something that is so important to me. I am on a personal mission to have people stop starting their presentations and meetings with, “Hi. My name is –”

Tina Seelig: You bet.

Matt Abrahams: “– and today, I’m going to tell you about –” that is so banal, so boring. And what you just mentioned about how to start in a provocative, engaging way can dramatically change an interaction, a communication.

And it certain helps in storytelling. So thank you for giving me an opportunity to share that we have to change the way we start because it just – it puts people in a position of passiveness and disengagement if we don’t do it right.

Tina Seelig: I completely agree. In fact, here’s a fun thing that you might want to try in your classes as well. Just a couple years ago, we started a new program. And the students would go around the room and introduce themselves.

And they do this like, “I’m Joe Schmoe. And I study this. And my research is that.” And everybody is, you know, snoring. So we switched around. One of the students started using a different framework. And it caught on.

And this is the framework. She started out saying, “Imagine a world where –” and then she would talk about, you know, “Imagine a world where we traveled to space as frequently as we get on an airplane.”

And then, she’d say, “And my name is so-and-so. And this is what I’m excited about. And this is what I’m studying that’s going to help me get there.”

So we now do that in all the introductions. The students all have to start out with what they’re passionate about. Imagine a world where – and then, they have to start with that before they tell anyone who they are or what they’re studying.

Matt Abrahams: I love that. I love that. And it dovetails nicely with what I teach, which is start like you’re an action movie. All action movies start with action. And then, you learn the title of the movie and the credits. And what you’re doing in those introductions is the same thing.

Start by getting people passionate and engaged. And then, you can introduce yourself. I love it. I love it. So my next question has to do with what we spoke about in the introduction to this podcast about feeling stuck about how and where to start when we create a high-stakes communication. What advice and guidance do you have for sparking our creativity and getting us started in on our communication?

Tina Seelig: Yeah. That’s a really good question. As with most problems, the best place to start is with really understanding the needs. And this starts with asking questions.

Matt Abrahams: Hmm.

Tina Seelig: So sparking communication starts with asking why or what or how. So having a mindset of curiosity opens the door to great communication. And the most questions you ask, the more you learn, the more engaged you will be with others.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. I think a lot of us go into these things saying I have to say all this, or this is my time limit. And I feel a lot of pressure. And I really like this idea of asking questions. Do you have other advice on question asking?

Tina Seelig: My goodness. I spend a lot of time in my classes teaching students how to ask questions. The question you ask is the frame into which an answer will fall. And this might sound like, what are you talking about?

But I can give you some really interesting examples that hopefully will just like blow your mind and make you realize how powerful this is. [Would you like an example]?

Matt Abrahams: I would love for you to do that. I’d love to hear some examples because that statement about the frame sounds very Zen-like. So I’d love to hear what it means.

Tina Seelig: It is actually. It’s so core to everything we do. I can give you several examples in fact. Let’s start with a simple example. Okay. I could ask you to build a bridge. And you can go off and build that bridge. Or you could come back and say, “Well, Tina, why do you need a bridge?”

And I’d say, “Well, I need a bridge to get the other side of a river.” And you go, “Wow. Well, there are lots of ways to get to the other side of the river.” I mean, Matt, how many other ways are there to get to the other side of the river. What could you do?

Matt Abrahams: I could think of three or four different ways right away: get a boat, swim across, things like that.

Tina Seelig: Right. Exactly, a tunnel, a hot-air balloon, you know, all sorts of ways to get across. So if I ask the question, do you want to – how to get across the river, it’s a really different solution set than how do you build a bridge?

But my favorite example is one I use in my classes where I have the students come up with all the things they hate about their suitcase.

Of course, we’re not using as many suitcases right now because we’re not traveling as much. But you know, what are all the things? And they quickly make a list of: it’s too heavy; the clothes get wrinkled; the wheels get locked; the handle doesn’t work; all sorts of things, you know; it’s not the right size.

And so I go, “Okay. Great. Go design now a brand-new suitcase.” And they come back with all these new fancy suitcases with all of these new features. And they think they’ve done a good job until I say, “Did we ask the right question?”

Because the real question is, why – just like why do you need a bridge, you know, why do you need to go across a river – the question is, why do you need a suitcase?

So the initial answer – people think I’m just being flippant. And they go, “Well, you know, to carry my stuff.” But that’s actually not why you use a suitcase. Nobody likes to carry a suitcase. We use a suitcase despite the fact that we hate packing it.

We hate dragging it around. We hate it getting lost. We hate storing it. And yet, we use it. And we assume that we need a suitcase. But the real reason – when you start going down that rabbit hole, you start realizing the real reason you use a suitcase is to have the things you need at your destination.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm. Sure.

Tina Seelig: So how might you solve that problem? And they look at me and go, “Well, that’s kind of interesting. How might I solve that problem?” And I urge them to think not just today. But what could you do in five years or 10 years or 50 years to solve this problem?

So you could say, “Well, what if I had 3D printed clothes?” So essentially, my closet, you know, had a virtual closet in the cloud, okay, so that, when I get to my destination, I go, gosh. I really wish I had a jacket. I’m going to print out my down jacket.

Or gosh, I really wish I had hiking boots. And I’d print them out. And at the end of your trip, you kind of melt them back down. They go back up in the cloud. Or maybe there’s Airbnb for clothes. Right. You go somewhere, and you rent all your clothes. And then, you give them back.

Or maybe your suitcase – maybe you have one suitcase that travels around the world independent of you. And you just go online and say, “Suitcase, go to Paris. Suitcase, go to Rome.” So – and it follows you.

So the fact is that you need to question the questions you ask. And this is one of the most powerful things you can do to unlock really, really innovative solutions.

Matt Abrahams: Well, first, I’d love to live in that reality because I hate schlepping suitcases. But second, the idea that we have to question our questions to spark creativity can help in not just creating communication but I think in lots of facets of our life. Thank you for sharing that.

As you’ve just demonstrated, you’re a master teacher. And I know you have embraced virtual teaching, as many of us are having to do. Can you share best practices you’ve developed that can help all of us as we communicate more and more remotely?

Tina Seelig: You bet. I think about this a lot. It is a really different learning environment. And a virtual classroom is quite different than an in-person class. I am trying to figure out, how do I make that experience as powerful as possible for the students?

And one of the first things you have to think about is setting the stage. Right. And when you go into a classroom – it’s one of the reasons I teach in the D school is the space is so great. And I can set the stage for a class.

But since I can’t do that online, how can I set the stage? So I do it in a number of different ways. One is I always start my classes off playing music. And I play some upbeat music so that everyone starts out actually sort of like dancing.

You know, everyone is bopping around before we start the class. It sets the stage. It allows us to know we’re now moving into the classroom. And then, we turn off the music. We start. The other thing is I often have the students – we all decide where we’re going to go.

We’re like, okay. This week, we’re going to meet in Antarctica. Everybody changes their backdrop to a picture from Antarctica. Or we’re going to go to New Zealand. So there’s just a fun way of getting everyone in the space.

And you sort of set the stage, the fact that you’re together. You’ve all listened to the same music. You have the same background. And we’re now ready to dive in.

Also, I think it’s really important to change up activities really quickly, like every 10 to 15 minutes. I almost feel it’s almost like Sesame Street, you know. Every 10 to 15 minutes, you need to change, you know, watching a video to doing an activity to breaking into small groups.

You know, folks get bored looking at a screen if things are static. So you need to plan a lot in advance. I view myself as more of a producer when I’m planning an online class. There’s a tremendous amount of thought that goes into essentially scripting the whole experience.

Matt Abrahams: So the point about setting atmosphere upfront I think can make a really big difference. You’re doing it with music and common backgrounds. But just taking time to think about how do we set the tone for what we want this communication experience to be like is really important.

And your colleague, Bob Sutton, and I talked very similarly about switching things up every 10 to 15 minutes. And that’s really important. And that notion you mentioned actually was just something I highlighted recently when I was asked about teaching and presenting virtually and that notion of being a producer.

So we often think, hey, I just have to focus on my meeting contribution or the agenda or my presentation. But when you’re presenting virtually, you have to have this other task to focus on, which is the production aspect, the timing of it.

When do I do things? Do I have things lined up? So it can be an added burden. But if done well, it can really change the engagement. And the whole interaction can be much more powerful and memorable.

Tina Seelig: Exactly. One of the other things I do is I always have a check-in with the students. And it’s interesting. I used to do it in my classrooms where we’d stand in a big circle. And everybody would say a sentence about what’s going on in their life.

And I’m like, [now] I’m going to go to Yosemite this weekend. Or I’ve got a big exam after this. Or I just have a job interview, whatever it is. But guess what? I can do this now on a Zoom whiteboard. And it happens really efficiently.

Everyone can kind of populate it. I can ask a different question like, “What are you looking forward to? Or what’s your best quarantine treat?” or, you know, anything you want. And people will quickly populate it. And you get this wonderful snapshot of where everyone in the class is at the moment.

Matt Abrahams: Again, it’s bringing people into the room, setting the tone and the mode and –

Tina Seelig: Exactly.

Matt Abrahams: You and I were talking about – just before we started recording this podcast – this notion that people are so focused on the deficiencies and the things we’re missing in the virtual environment when, in fact, there are some things that can actually help.

And that notion of using a tool like a whiteboard that’s collaborative is something that would be really hard to do in person, yet virtually we can do it. So taking time to embrace what this environment can allow us to do I think is also very important.

Tina Seelig: I couldn’t agree more. There are some things that actually work much better online than they do in person. Of course, there’s some things that have been sacrificed but to look at the things that work well as opposed to things that don’t.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. You know, you have had amazing opportunities to interview and work with lots of entrepreneurs. Do you have any key insights or takeaways that you’ve gleaned over the years that you could share with us that we could benefit from?

Tina Seelig: Sure. There are so many. One that comes to mind is that failure is a normal part of the entrepreneurial journey and that, if you’re doing something that’s really innovative, really hard, that no one’s done before, there are bound to be false starts and missteps.

So you need to be prepared for setbacks. And you need to think failure as an opportunity to redirect your energy and attention. And that’s really important is having a mindset of resilience and bouncing back.

Another one is then and all you have is your reputation. If others don’t trust you, if they don’t find you to be authentic, then it’s going to be really difficult to bring your ideas to life. You need to make sure that you spend time thinking about your values, and make sure that you uphold them so that you can build a community that really is supportive and trusting and works really well together.

And my favorite lesson is that there is a huge benefit in seeing problems as opportunities. And with that mindset, the world is opportunity rich. It’s full of possibility. Essentially, entrepreneurs are ultimately optimists who are able to see and seize opportunities that others don’t immediately see.

In fact, if you come to our office at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, you’ll see painted on the walls in very big letters – on one wall, it says, “Every problem is an opportunity. The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity.”

And on another wall, it says, “Entrepreneurs do much more than imaginable with much less than seems possible.” And these are the mindsets I think that are extremely important and that very successful entrepreneurs have – embody them.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. Those are really powerful lessons. And they echo very nicely some of the topics that we’ve covered on the podcast in terms of failure and reputation and reframing things not as problems but opportunities.

And all of us can benefit from reflecting on that and using those as a way to guide us as we are entrepreneurial in whatever our endeavors are. So thank you for sharing those. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions that I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that?

Tina Seelig: Sure.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. All right. Well, question number one, if you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a five-to-seven-word presentation slide title, what would that be?

Tina Seelig: Wow. That’s so interesting. I’m going to hearken back to what we talked about before. And I would say know your first and last words. When you are giving a talk, you should know where you’re starting and nail it and have that opening line or the opening story completely set. And you should know the last words.

Everyone knows in the middle it can sort of – it can move a little more organically. But being able to like nail the first and last words, you end up really engaging people in a way that they know where you are. They know where you’re going. And they’re with you until the end.

Matt Abrahams: That is such profound and useful advice. A lot of people get nervous. So they really focus on what they want to say first. But many people just figure, when I get to the end, I’ll just know how to wrap it up. And I’ll tell you, in all my work that I do, the most frequent ending I hear is, “Uh, I guess we’re out of time. Thanks.”

Tina Seelig: Exactly. Exactly. Ridiculous. Or they just sort of trail off at the end and turn around and walk off the stage. Wow.

Matt Abrahams: Right. So that advice – very sagely. Not only should you know the first words but also those last words. Great. Let me ask you question number two. And I’ll be very curious to hear your answer to this. Who is a communicator that you admire, and why?

Tina Seelig: We have had so many amazing speakers. I think the most compelling speaker I have heard on our stage is Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. He is the only speaker in the series that has ever received a standing ovation.

Matt Abrahams: Wow.

Tina Seelig: His storytelling ability is incredible. He’s super funny. He’s really humble. And he used such motivating examples that everyone was sitting on the edge of their seat. I have to say I just aspire to being such a masterful storyteller and communicator as he is.

Matt Abrahams: Very cool. I have seen him speak. And I completely agree. And I have to fess up to something. He actually exercises at the same gym that I belong to. And I have wanted to go up to him, but I am way too intimidated. So – [laughs]

Tina Seelig: Well, he’s [so] humble. You should just go say hello.

Matt Abrahams: I w – but I’m often really sweaty. Anyway – but –

Tina Seelig: [laughs]

Matt Abrahams: No. He’s a great speaker and a great guy.

Tina Seelig: You can tell him I told you to do it.

Matt Abrahams: Okay. I’ll say Tina told me. And I’ve learned in my life, Tina, that, if I follow your advice, good things happen. So thank you. All right. Question number three – what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Tina Seelig: Well, you know what’s interesting. I do a lot of public speaking. And I did a little exercise a couple of years ago, a project called 60 weeks to 60. And in the 60 weeks up until my 60th birthday, I gave myself different challenges.

And one of them was that I went to a professional speaking coach. And she was amazing. She watched videos of my talking. And some of the most important things I learned from her were to stand tall. You know, just hold the space.

Sometimes – I mean, there’s a tendency to want to rush through what you’re saying and to kind of be – feel like somehow you’re taking up people’s time. But they’re there to hear you. So you want to stand tall, slow down and tell the story.

Matt Abrahams: Those three bits of advice are fantastic, helpful and direct. And many people, if they were to take time to watch their videos and have others give them feedback, would note exactly what you learned, that these are things that we often don’t do. And yet, they make a big difference. Stand tall. Slow down. Tell a story. Great advice.

And Tina, the whole conversation was fantastic. Thank you. As I knew would be the case, your insights and ideas about creativity and communication were spot on, very helpful. And everyone listening can benefit from taking the bits of advice you shared into practice and in really thinking about how they themselves can be both creative and innovative. Thank you so much.

Tina Seelig: Thank you. It’s been a please.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for listening to “Think Fast, Talk Smart,” the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. To learn more, go to Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.

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