After the challenges of 2020, the new year is a moment to notice and consolidate the skills we’ve learned, so we can benefit from our new learning in 2021. One such key skill is story.

Storytelling has shone out for me as an important way to connect during the last year, so I wanted to explore how to use this in the wider context of work and leadership, as well as in the more obvious setting of marketing and communications.

In 2021 we’re not expecting things to be easy. The pandemic continues to rage around us and lockdown measures are ramping up as tight as ever, but still we can approach the new year with solid hope. As resilient human beings we find ways to adapt. And one of the most profound ways that we do that is to share our stories of facing up to adversity. This is a fundamental way of connecting and supporting each other and it applies to work as well as to life. Stories of success have a special role to play in the world of work, but the stories of difficulty and failure have a place too.

Through 2020, I noticed people in the workplace using positive stories to inspire, develop relationships and enable growth. I heard people tell stories about how they had adapted services, met needs and developed new approaches. I heard people tell stories about helping their own families, reaching out to others and solving problems. And I heard people tell stories that inspired others to take action.

One such story , shared in a workshop, was about how someone in a key public sector role was reflecting on their experience of managing the roll-out of a vaccine to troops in a war zone and applying that lived experience to the here-and-now. It’s reassuring to know there are people with that kind of experience-based insight poised to help right now.

These stories make us who we are. The positive stories we tell about ourselves and about our work create the potential to survive.

Of course the stories are not all upbeat. Right now many have stories to tell of hardship, difficulty and loss – stories where we’ve still no answer. We need to share those too, because in sharing the challenges and failures, we can perhaps work together to find routes to deal with these tough situations.

Story is such a fundamentally human form of connection. It’s as old as human interaction itself and yet it translates easily to the online setting where so much of our interaction now takes place.

In some ways our business practices may have changed rapidly last year, but for the most part, what we did built on fundamental core skills that are well established. While the circumstances might have pushed us into new activities, in reality the principles develop reassuringly slowly, surviving the rigours of repeated use to refine and rub off the hard edges.

Here are some of those well established principles that are relevant to how we use story in a leadership setting as well as for the more obvious comms and marketing purposes:

  • Use stories to lead and inspire
  • Value digital
  • Understand the audience
  • Listen, actively listen
  • Start with the end in mind
  • Be human first and last

1. Use stories to lead and inspire

girl on top of a mountain reading a storyWith such limited opportunities to connect face-to-face we need to be ever more deliberate in how we create real engagement and story is a powerful way of doing that. For example, when meeting online, we need to take turns to speak in a more formal way than we would in a round table situation. So there’s value in preparing a personal, relevant story to share in that setting – something that people will remember and form an emotional connection. By seeking out great examples to illustrate our key messages we can help people to connect with our agenda far more effectively than simply sharing a few facts or statistics.

In his book, Lead with a Story, Paul Smith says,

“For most of man’s history on the earth, storytelling was a natural part of leadership.”


“Experience is the best teacher. A compelling story is a close second.”

The book is full of business stories that are includes as stories that can be used directly to inspire and influence people and also used as models to develop our own storytelling methods and ideas.

So, in the workplace, people will respond if we share relevant stories. As leaders, we can empower others by telling stories about our personal involvement in a situation. We make ourselves vulnerable and show our humanity. We can also share stories that recognise the value of others or show that we understand. We can use stories to build confidence and courage and to help teams to work together. In fact a culture of storytelling can act as the glue to enable an organisation to function more effectively.

2. Value digital

Digital has had an enormous role in helping us all through the last year. And some people did see it coming! In an article The Changing Face of Marketing, published by McKinsey in, wait for it…. 1966…. John Louth analyses six major changes that promised to transform future marketing efforts. One of the six was “the rise of the computer”. Was it possible, more than 50 years ago, to imagine the role that digital would play in the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020? Was it possible to foresee the way in which digital has influenced marketing over the last two decades? The centrality and power of mobile phones? The increased pace of change? Perhaps not entirely, but nonetheless the seeds of all that change were there and their significance was being recognised and discussed. The forces outlined by Louth way back then have indeed proved to be influential as predicted and just go to show that although change is rapid and we now live and work in ways that would have been hard to imagine even a decade or so ago, yet everything revolves around some hard won principles, shiny with repeated use – proved in the forge of experience – or something along those lines!

In many ways, digital is really what has kept us going through the pandemic. There is already decades worth of knowledge about the power of social media – for both good and not so good in our lives and businesses. And of course social media is really driven by stories. Digital is our most prominent way to connect for business, for marketing and at the moment for social interaction. We can choose to rail against it, or we can use it as the vehicle for our stories of overcoming challenges, our stories of inspiration and connection.

3. Understand the audience

When I deliver digital writing skills training. I always invite participants to start by thinking about their audience. Once we know who it is we are writing for, we are so much closer to being able to present our story in a way that makes sense to the listener.

You might think of your audience as customers, as service users, as readers. You might categorize and analyse in all sorts of different ways, but fundamentally, if you want to connect with those people, you need to understand them and know what they care about.

In his book, Building a Story Brand, Donald Miller suggests that if we want to connect well with the audience we need to realise that they – not us – are the hero of the story, but we can come alongside to be the guide and help them to solve whatever challenges they face. In other words, we need to tell stories from our clients’ perspective. Marketers understand how to do that and of course are sometimes mis-trusted for the sense of “spin” that can result if there is a gap between the offer and the reality of the situation. However this marketing thinking translates into the world of leading – by listening to and really understanding our audience, knowing what their issues and problems are, we can figure out what stories will make a real difference.

In a workshop about storytelling a few months back, participants reflected on how sharing personal stories about the impact of change could be relevant to dealing with the complex needs of service users. They recognised that their personal stories could provide new insight for people in challenging situations and help the organisation to deliver a better service.

4. Listen, actively listen

This leads us on to the need to listen. Active listening is a core skill for counsellors, but it’s relevant in the workplace too, because it’s how we build connections. Good storytellers take their audience with them. Good listeners take time to understand before leaping in with a story. We need to be both.

Active listening means taking the time and effort, giving the speaker our full concentration and showing that we are doing that. One of the challenges of our online work practices is the temptation to try and multitask – to be at an online meeting while simultaneously trying to complete other work tasks, feed the cat and occupy children . This may be a reality of lockdown life, but it’s not the route to good listening.

5. Start with the end in mind

As a result of the pandemic I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with the amazing team at YouthLink Scotland. My immediate task was to help deliver a training programme around digital youth work, supporting youth workers to sustain all -important connections with young people during lockdown. Highlights of the year included organising a training programme that reached over 1000 participants, running a two day online digital youthwork summit and developing, an online hub for digital youthwork. A key element in many of the training sessions was enabling participants to share their experience – the stories of navigating through the challenges to deliver youth work online. By articulating their experience, participants were able to notice their own situation and learn from it. And beyond that those stories helped other youth workers develop the confidence they need to support young people online. That was a real application of starting with the end in mind – sharing stories with the understood purpose of improving practice.

“Start with the end in mind” is one of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, from the best selling life and management book by Stephen Covey. One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was how Covey illustrated all of his pointers with stories from the world of work and then a whole other layer of stories from family life. Somehow that made the workplace principles feel much more grounded – the fact that they worked in the “real world” as well as the world of work.

5. Be human first and last

girl needing helping handThrough the pandemic we’ve faced new barriers to human connection and how we respond to them is hugely defining.

There was the story about the man who was jailed for ten days because he bought himself a jet-ski and used it to try to get to the Isle of Man as the only way to see his girlfriend. There the sea, the distance and the regulations were the barriers and he was looking for a way through, but broke the law in his “crime of passion”.

More mundanely, most of us have been struggling with digital as the barrier. Many people have found it difficult and exhausting to engage via a Zoom call. We are distracted by our own image, confused about where to focus and miss the body language which influences at a subconscious level. Despite all this, the desire to connect means that people will press in, work through the barriers and meaningful conversations can and do happen in that online space. Because it is such a natural thing to do, story is a way of winning through these barriers that we are facing at the moment.

There’s a native American quote that I love: “Tell me the facts and I’ll learn, tell me the truth and I’ll believe, but tell me a story and it will live in my heart for ever.” Story is really the oldest and most fundamental way of communicating, and that’s what makes it so valuable as we head into a new season of change and development.

So, looking back on a difficult year I’m sure it’s true that lots of people are pleased to see the back of 2020. It’s been a year of challenge and change quite unlike any other. It’s shaken us up, forced us to rethink and made us evaluate what’s important. As we share the stories of the year that’s past, we can use them to develop our understanding, notice successes and turn even the difficult moments into learning for the future. More than that we can use them to strengthen the connections between people that really, truly make the world a better place. That’s my hope for 2021.

Find out more about business storytelling at Cygnus Extra.