The highlights of a one hour talk with +Acumen, about social impact, effective empathy and reinventing your organisation as much as yourself. An interview by Irina Savin.

Teaching the world effective empathy.

Lien De Ruyck has been a storyteller since she remembers. “As a child, I’ve always been fond of ‘Brave New World’ kind of stories, and on holidays I used to imagine my own stories on my granny’s typewriter,” she says.

A self-admitted ‘happy wordaholic’, Lien began her career as a teacher of languages and technology, but after two years she decided to follow her passion for writing, and she was eager to tell stories outside of the classroom as well. So she took on two different writing jobs – as editor and author for an educational publisher from Monday to Wednesday, and a freelance copywriter in the advertising industry for the rest of the week.

“They’re two different worlds,” she admits. “The clash between them couldn’t feel bigger at times.” And it was while working on educational projects with shoestring budgets at the publisher alongside well-funded campaigns for big commercial brands that made Lien question the social impact of the latter. “That battle between reaching large audiences and creating a social impact became an internal fight for me. My moral compass really went crazy because of that. So that’s when I decided I want to do things differently and merge the best of both worlds, but didn’t really know how to do that,” she adds.

“I really believe businesses need more empathy and soft skills, and on the other hand social enterprises need to believe in the power of marketing tools.

So it’s like the two worlds are looking at each other, but they don’t like each other, like the boys and girls in the dancing room when I was a kid. They’re looking at each other thinking: I hate you, but I kind of like you, but I hate you anyway.”

During a meet-up in Ghent, the Belgian city where she currently lives, Lien heard peers talk about social innovation and human-centered design. Eager to find out more, she went home and continued the research online; she came across +Acumen and enrolled in a bunch of their courses. “I really got into the courses because they helped me think in a different way, or to rethink and learn to see things from other perspectives,” she explains.

Three courses in particular – Lean Startup Principles for Social ImpactStorytelling for Change and the Facilitator’s Guide for Introducing Human-Centered Design – helped her refine the storytelling strategy for a team project she was working on called Together against poverty (Samen Tegen Armoede), a Belgian national platform for the fight against poverty. The platform was designed to raise awareness of the dire, less known reality that 1 in 7 people in the country are living in poverty, but by throwing a positive spin on the story – for each person struggling with poverty, there are 6 others who are ready to help.

“People living in poverty often feel neglected, they say ‘our story is too invisible to people, because people think of those in poverty as dirty and lazy’. But it could happen to any of us tomorrow,” Lien says. “We decided to talk to people challenged by poverty and we captured 7 of their stories. We used the 1 in 7 metaphor everywhere. In the main campaign visuals, every single one of them looks like you and me, doing regular things. But it’s only once you are willing to look behind that smiling face that you discover the story that’s often unseen or unheard.”

The aim of the platform is to put a ‘local face to poverty’ and help give visibility to more than 100 local organizations that exist to help people living in poverty, while also encouraging others to share their own stories. More than 500 groups of people contributed their photos to reinforce the bigger story. Thanks to everyone involved, the campaign helped raise €972.000 in two months. The team didn’t think their job was over once the website was launched; so Lien gave a storytelling workshop to the local organizations behind the national platform to help them empower their local message.

“They really are the true change-makers in my opinion, but they’re not always experienced enough to bring a message to a larger public, or are not familiar with marketing or storytelling techniques, which they dislike almost by nature,” she adds. “So I helped them through a workshop and I started by telling my own story. ‘Yes, I have a marketing background but I’m here to help you because I believe in your story as well. We should join forces; we should reach out to each other. Companies should help you and vice-versa.’ So it’s again a story of merging best of both worlds, focusing on the outcomes and creating shared value. I believe that merging best of both worlds is possible through what is called ‘effective empathy’.”

In the backdrop of the recent events, from the terrorist attacks in Europe to the refugee crisis, I think we need positive social change today more than ever. And empathy is our most valuable skill, both in life and in business, because it’s what makes us human after all.

“I think it’s easier to think that other people will fix it for us or other companies will do it. I think we all have to stand up and believe that we can make a difference ourselves.” Encapsulating this idea, she says, is a billboard in her town which bears the slogan ‘The next big thing will be a lot of small things’. “I love it because it says that we can make a difference, and we can make a contribution, even if it’s something small.”

As a storyteller working on both social impact and commercial projects, Lien sees her role beyond simple storytelling – as a teacher and a facilitator, building bridges between companies and social enterprises. “My work as a freelancer is re-educating people as well, so I think I’m still a teacher in a way. I think we have to re-teach companies how to tell stories in a human way,” she says. “We all need a wake-up call, we as humans but businesses as well, and we need to start believing again that it’s all about the people and not about the products we buy.”

Lien plans to do this by launching a new creative agency to help companies become true and human, striving for positive impact and telling the ‘right kind of stories’; at the core of her unique marketing approach will not be the classic 4 Ps – Product, Price, Placement and Promotion – but human-centered ones: People, Purpose, Participation and Path-making.

“I really think the world is definitely changing and we need to change too,” she adds. “It’s a relief to see the +Acumen community of people that are doing the same things and chasing the same dreams as I am. I don’t know what I will be doing in five years for example, but I know I want to be part of that path-making community, I want to keep doing this and believe that it’s possible to make a change.”

Interview by Irina Savin, as published on:

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