Sharing stories at a historic coaching inn

It’s a Monday afternoon in June, and in the picturesque village of Ripley in Surrey, the Tektronix EMEA marketing team has gathered at the historic Talbot Inn for its awayday. A number of colleagues have come from as far afield as Russia and India. Marketing director Sally Wright, who heads the team, has had a somewhat shorter journey: she lives next door. What better way of gathering her team to their inaugural awayday than welcoming everyone into her home? Tonight Sally will be hosting a World Cup screening and team BBQ in her garden.

The Talbot Inn dates back 500 years and boasts a famous regular: Lord Nelson once used to tether his horse here. The venue is billed as one of the UK’s “most storied” coaching inns which makes it an apt backdrop to an afternoon that’s all about storytelling.

So whether people have travelled far, or have popped in from next door, this afternoon is about taking the team on a storytelling journey, opening everyone’s eyes to the power of stories and how they make an impact. I kick off my presentation with an example of my own: how getting a tiny, red transistor radio as a child fuelled a passion in broadcasting.

It’s essential to broaden our points of reference and to take inspiration outside the industry we’re operating in. Examples from Toy Story, The New York Times, Humans of New York and Netflix are used to illustrate how a good story captures the imagination and draws the audience in.

Small brands are often effective storytellers — leveraging their story is how they get us to notice them. We’ve all heard of David Vs Goliath — it’s an enduring tale that pits the small guys against the big ones. We root for David, and small brands know that in order to stand out, they need to shine a light on what makes them different, better and unique. My favourite examples include Hiut Denim, with its mission to bring jeans-making back to the town of Cardigan; and the red wine Gran Cerdo, whose maker really did stand up to the big bankers who turned them down, and in so doing named his wine “Fat Pig” in their honour. But you don’t need a sexy product like jeans or red wine to use storytelling: there’s an example from Excalibur Screwbolts, a small inventor-owned firm literally sureing-up the UK’s biggest engineering project, Crossrail.

Before we wrap the first part of the afternoon session, there’s time for my top ten tips: 1) be curious to discover the hidden stories; 2) create an emotional connection with your audience; 3) make it human; 4) paint a picture to give the audience something to grab hold of; 5) lift a lid on your organisation and tell the inside stories; 6) keep it simple and free from jargon; 7) know who your audience is; 8) use the three-act structure to introduce drama; 9) shine the light on the customer, make them the hero of your story; 10) make it the best you can.

It’s a sunny afternoon so next we head outside into the hotel courtyard for an improvisation game. This is designed to get everybody warmed up and in the story-creating zone. Each team member gets dealt three picture cards. Standing around in a circle, the task is to use the cards to make up a story on the spot. Like the best stories, most of these get everyone engaged and laughing.

Now everyone is comfortable with storytelling, it’s time for another activity. Attendees are asked to craft their own stories around a journey, whether a life journey or a travel adventure. First we look at how a story is crafted, with a before, middle and end. Each team member is to create their own story with these three parts in mind. To help, I provide an example of my own life journey. Then they are off, working in pairs sitting outside, thinking about a memorable journey of their own. Their partner is there to help them tease out elements that will form their narratives.

Thirty minutes later, everyone gathers together back inside to share their stories. It’s a revealing session — there’s honesty and empathy, respect and support. It’s an afternoon where we hear stories of challenge and triumph, of issues surmounted, of unexpected happenings, of stoicism and bravery.

What a collection of lives we’ve lived. Here is a snapshot of some of those stories shared around the table:

  • traveling across India in difficult conditions and the lessons learned about the generosity of strangers and dealing with the unpredictable along the way;
  • a couple trying to have a baby without success and then a New Year’s Eve that brought good news and the arrival of an unexpected daughter;
  • a senior executive recalled the shock of regaining consciousness in a hospital bed ten years ago. It became the wake-up call for rebalancing his life and not working such a crazy schedule, flying around the world;
  • a woman whose love of football as a young girl was inspired by her father, how she learned from him that she didn’t necessarily need to be the best at something, but just give 100%;
  • the challenges of working in a male-dominated industry in a previous role and how one woman rose through the ranks to become the first female sales manager there;
  • the rigours of one woman planning for a 100km trek across the Namibian desert only to break her toe tripping over her suitcase as she was headed to the airport. She carried on regardless and made it across the finish line;
  • one man’s experience realising he was in the wrong job, having the courage to quit and then taking a big risk to leap to a new role in order to get back on track and find his path again;
  • a woman learning the importance of hard work from her father, and that experience fueling her own journey to be the first member of the family to get to university. Then raising a daughter herself at a young age who would go on to be the second member of the family to go to university;
  • how working at Tektronix had been the best sixteen years of one team member’s working life, finding her dream job and realising her full potential;
  • one woman’s holiday alone in India after a relationship break-up. Falling in love with Asia and rediscovering self confidence and happiness.

When we think about using stories in business, it’s easy to lose sight of the basics and over-complicate things. This awayday was a reminder that stories are the fabric of our lives, and that the best stories are both simple and memorable. The kind of stories that naturally get passed and shared around.

The session drawn to a close, everyone is off to play rounders in the sun and to get to know each other better. No doubt there’ll be more stories to come…

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