Category Archives for "Stories"


How Telling Stories Supports Your Business

Everyone seems to be telling stories these days.  Stories are a fantastic way to market your business.  A good story told well makes a big difference.  There is a lot you can do to shape your story, to get your message over.

I am leading a lunch and learn meeting about business story telling, starting next month.  If you are in the Sheffield area and can get along to The Rude Shipyatd, 89 Abbeydale Road at 12.15 on 2nd and 4th Thursdays, you can join a dynamic group of story tellers and business owners.

One thing I shall do is explore how we use stories in all aspects of businesses.  Here are five approaches to business story telling.

Your Personal Story

If someone visits your website or hears you speak, they don’t really know you as a person.  So, telling a story that speaks about your values, what really matters to you, is an effective way to become known.  A powerful personal story speaks on many levels and can help you find people who belong to your tribe.

This is perhaps the most common way business-owners apply story to their business.  A problem for some is they have no big story to tell.  In truth though, everyone has not one but many stories.  The challenge is to find a good story and make it compelling.

These stories work really well at step 4 of the awareness ladder, where your prospects seek more information about you.

Case Studies

Case studies are stories that draw on the experiences of your target audience.  They may be stories about your clients or people like your clients.  They may be accounts of their work with you as a coach or stories about problems they face.  Sometimes case studies can lead to questions: what would you have done under these circumstances?

The purpose of case studies is to show you understand and can solve your clients’ problems.  They can be used between steps 3 and 4 of the awareness ladder.  Testimonials may be a source in your clients’ own words or you can write a case study with your client.  They can also be effective at step 2, where you need to show there are solutions to the problems your audience experiences.

Business Origin Story

This is a story about the origin of a product or service.  You may be at the centre of the story and can show how you observed, identified a problem and developed a solution.

These are step 3 stories, where you show how your offer differs from other people’s’.


Many businesses have a cause, where they not only deliver a product or service but use it to change their wider community.  This may be a story about a neighbourhood or some issue you know your audience cares about.

This may be a step 1 story, a story that establishes a problem exists.

Your Marketing Plan

If your marketing plan is a story, everything you do is part of that single coherent story.  The story needs to be in all aspects of your business, its design, website, logo, advertising, packaging.  Everything points to the central story that makes your business stand out.

The aim is to build a business that stands out in people’s’ minds, so that they remember you and can find you again.


Telling stories and so making business can be a challenge, if you are to present a coherent narrative to the world.  We can all benefit from spending time together, working on our stories and as we explore each of these types, build a lively approach to business story telling.

So, please let me know if you can think of other story types businesses can use.  And if you can, come along to “Telling Stories: Making Business” and join in the debate!

My First Keynote Talk

Here is the first ten minutes of my first keynote talk!  The rest of it has not been written yet and altogether it will last about 40 minutes, with options to do some group exercises.  This excerpt comes in just under 10 minutes.

I’m not going to explain what has gone into it but I would be interested to hear your reactions.  I have to watch it a few times and spot my mistakes as a part of my public speaking course.  So any feedback would be really helpful.

The rest of the talk will cover the four cornerstones of local marketing.  I shall illustrate them using a worked example.  Then there can be opportunities for the audience to work on their own business in the light of the content.  The final section will be a call to action, an opportunity to sign up for my community marketing conversation.


Comments on either the content or the structure and delivery of the talk would be really helpful.

Please note I occasionally walk off-camera to address the audience.  I mostly forgot about the camera!

See if you can spot the main sections of the talk.  These include the initial hook, how I establish my authority and then set up the main section of the talk.

My first ever presentation of the full keynote talk will be on 21 June, in a couple of weeks time.

Real Time Computing

One of my stories is about my Masters degree in Computer Science.  It dates from 1975, which I think was about a year before they  announced the discovery of silicon chips.

I studied at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK.  There was one computer in a tower basement.  It had remote teletype terminals.  Mostly we programmed using punch cards and our output was via a line printer.  There were a few on-screen terminals, all hard-wired to the computer.  There was one computer game I remember which was a dungeon exploration game.  I don’t remember anyone ever finished it!

The operating system had, we they said, a million errors.  Every month they received a disc with corrections to the operating systems errors.  The disc itself contained a thousand errors.

There were limits to computing.  If the Newcastle University computer were the size of an orange, they would have to keep it in liquid nitrogen because it would overheat.  I suspect a decent mobile phone today is more powerful than that old computer.

The main difference between then and now is certainly communications.  We had lectures looking ahead to IT and communications convergence and even some stuff about network theory, which nobody understood.  Although we didn’t rate it as particularly important.

We had loads of languages to choose from and learning languages was very much the core of using computers.  These days you need know nothing about languages.  My favourite was called Simula, based on queuing theory and Algol 60.  I enjoyed it because thinking in Simula opened up new insights.  You could visualise things you could not see without it.

Still Relevant

Which brings me to the main similarity between then and now, Real Time Computing.  Sometimes we called it Systems Analysis.  This was about the interface between machines and people.  Our course focused a lot on languages and how to program computers.  But their power is in their interaction with human systems.  I’m sure the manufacturers of hardware and software understand this.  I suspect many people don’t.

Computers are entirely dependent on humanity.  They have no purpose without us.  To allow hardware or software to determine our behaviour is to allow others to decide our lives.  We would resist it in other walks of life and so we should when using ICT.  There are loads of options available and it is our responsibility to choose how we use them.

Good Leaders are Mortal

Something said during Citizens’ Organising training in the early 1990s had a profound effect on my community development practice.  At the time there was a lot of enthusiasm about introducing Citizens’ Organising in the UK.  For some reason it never took off and whilst there are still a few citizens’ organisations around they have had little overall impact.

One of the things I remember from the training was one of the characteristics of a community leader is they know their own mortality.  This means not only do they know they are going to die, they are constantly aware of that fact.  At first glance this may seem to be a disadvantage.  My observations over 20 years have found it to be profoundly true.

It leads to a practice citizens’ organisations call ‘sloughing’, where no-one occupies a permanent leadership role.  (The word slough (pronounced “sluff”, is usually used of snakes shedding their skins.)  When someone vacates a leadership role it is to occupy a new role, thus extending their experience of leadership and vacates a place for someone else to fill and extend theirs.  Good leaders share knowledge and experience because they cannot know they will be around for sure.  Their role is to pass on leadership, not to build their own power base.

In June 1997 I traveled the UK visiting economic development projects.  I visited only one place twice. On my first visit to Moss Side in Manchester my host, then chair of their development trust, was moving into a new office.  He was a Church of England vicar and had just retired.  He was moving into the vestry of a local church from where he could continue to support the work of the Trust.  I found he was someone who had taken the basic tenets of leadership to heart and so agreed to visit again in a couple of weeks to continue the conversation and visit the trust.

One year later I was writing a report and wanted to refer to my visits to Moss Side.  I needed more information and so I phoned my contact.  A woman answered the phone and told me he’d been incapacitated by a stroke.  She had taken on his work.

What was impressive was she knew who I was (she must have had some record of his contacts) and was able to answer my questions.  It was as if I had met her first.  She told me my first contact had prepared her for his own departure.  He knew he would not last forever and so he made sure his work would continue in his absence.

Next Friday I’ll explore what happens when leaders forget they are mortal.

How to Tell a Story

I’ve no idea how to tell a story!  Let alone how to do it online. Story-telling is not my natural habitat.  Perhaps it needs to be.  I’ve found this simple formula which may be helpful and will share it because you might find it helpful.

I don’t remember where I first saw this but the idea is that you can write in four modes.  The first is the most popular with writers and least read by site visitors.  The fourth is the hardest to write but is more popular.


Most writers, myself included, write in the theoretical mode.  I trained as a scientist and so that cold distant, objective approach comes naturally.  I have no problem writing in this mode and the words flow.  I suspect those who attempt to read it have difficult staying awake.

As I’ve explored this I see the value of this style of writing as a resource I can adapt to other styles in the future.  When the words flow, I can at least capture them and then work out how to use them later.


This style answers the question, how?  I have a post category called Technique and on Thursdays I try to focus on the practicalities of looking after a website.  This style of writing is more popular than theory because people often need to find instructions about how to do things.


This style answers the question:what change do you want to make in the world?  This is not mission statements (Theory!) but genuine accounts of change I have witnessed or change I hope to see.  This is where telling stories is the primary style of writing.


This final style answers the question: why?  Occasionally a story touches on something deeper.  It is at those moments that a story will go viral, because it moves people when they read it.  Perhaps it is not possible to set out to write such a story.  But it is where a story somehow communicates how things are or perhaps a possible future.  These stories reach out and touch the lives of their readers or hearers.

How have you learned to write stories that transform or transcend?

My Origin Story

Two Fridays ago I shared a simple story from my past and last week I wrote about digital storytelling.  Today I’m going to share my origin story; the story that explains why I have set up my community web consultancy.  This story is a work in progress and I shall re-write it many times.  Stories are fluid, there is no final version.  This one still needs more work!

At the time of publishing there is an earlier version on the About page on this site.  I expect to take it down once I’ve re-written my origin story to my satisfaction.

One late afternoon in 1996 Attercliffe in Sheffield UK, my friends took me to Pizza Hut, and not leave me in the office on my own. We had a meeting coming up that evening and I was shaking. I’ve never felt that way before or since. My hands were visibly involuntarily moving.

It was stress and it led to my first diagnosis of high blood pressure, for which I still take medication. Looking back I wonder whether anything is worth that sort of stress.  But what brought it on?

Well, we had over 3 – 4 years set up a Trust, Attercliffe and Darnall Community Enterprises, and the idea was that it would be the successor to the Lower Don Valley Forum. The Forum covered several neighbourhoods but it was a small group of dedicated activists with little local support but with the support of the Local Authority.

With my support (I worked for Industrial Mission in South Yorkshire, a church-linked ecumenical organisation) the Forum had developed several community enterprises and businesses. The Trust was an essential step towards providing support for these projects into the future.  The meeting should have been a simple transfer of assets from the Forum to the Trust.

However, the closing of the Forum was a step too far for the activists and in the weeks leading to its AGM their opposition came into the open. I had made a lot of mistakes. I’m not always sensitive to peoples’ feelings and had underestimated their strength of feeling.

My friends did what they could to calm me with pizza and then we went to the meeting. What was at stake? Everything legally belonged to the Forum but it was not a company and lacked the democratic structures for it ever to be properly accountable. They had recently won significant grants but they were for the Trust and depended  upon the transfer of assets.

There were a lot of problems with several projects in the area; all of them were struggling with accountability. I wanted to show it was possible for local people to run an organisation to professional standards. The reality though was this meant the old Forum members would lose power. There were others who wanted to be involved and were delighted the Forum had been successful in its grant applications. They supported the change but were there enough of them?

It wasn’t fair because the Forum’s rules allowed anyone living in the Valley to vote at AGMs. This was one reason it wasn’t suitable to go forward. It is the reason why the old members lost the vote when the doors opened and about 60 people marched in.  I hadn’t expected these numbers and they were all members of the Forum under its rules even though they had never been to a meeting.

The Forum’s activists split off and instead of closing kept it going with council support. I lost friends and colleagues I had made over the years. It was a professional victory and a personal defeat for me. Even though the Trust had support from local people it took several years for the Council to concede it was well run and accountable to the community.

This experience set me on a new path. I had seen community economic development as simply about setting up projects. I realised there was more to it and relationships were just as important, maybe more important than funding. Good relationships without funding can achieve a great deal. Funding with poor relationships achieves nothing of lasting value.

Over the years I have seen the same story repeated time and again. Large sums of money thrown at communities that lack the relationship capacity they need to make anything of it.

Why? Because we base so much of our practice on the assumption altruism motivates people to volunteer or become an activist. Self-interest motivates successful groups and is effective in transformational change, not altruism.

Self-interest is honest. I benefit when the people around me benefit. I understand that working for the benefit of others benefits me too. In working for my benefit I benefit others.

In the UK we separate self-interest from community; compare with the nineteenth century, people understood self-interest and achieved an astonishing amount through mutuals. The retail co-operative movement was the most important example of this but mutual principles motivated or influenced almost every institution we use in modern society.

It was a way of harnessing entrepreneurial spirit to local solidarity. People who owned their own businesses believed they were working for their communities. Not only did they create jobs they also endowed the local authority with gifts of buildings and parks.

Today community work happens in community centres. Most people see small businesses as part of the private sector, where people do unspeakable things with money. What I’ve seen is the opposite. Time and again I’ve seen large amounts of public money go to projects that lack accountability and business acumen. They flame and burn out.

Meanwhile small businesses quietly support the local economy. The thing is when you know you can generate income, then the value of money changes. You can be generous because you know how to find more. Grants are time limited and bring instability to our communities.

The future of our communities is with the entrepreneurial spirit and not community groups. This means the future is with entrepreneurs, whether they are small business owners or running social enterprises. These people need to work together both in their local areas and online.

They need to work together locally because together they can get some purchase on the flow of money around the local economy. Wrestling control from the multinationals will never be easy but it is has to be through the local economy.

Online because partnership can happen between areas, sharing stories and ideas, learning how to market online as well as locally. Together we need to face up to the ideas that marginalise community work in the third sector.

Work in Progress

Perhaps the story is too complex to fully grasp.  Explaining the back-story can possibly lose the reader.  Also the end becomes rather theoretical and I need to find perhaps another story to bridge from this one to the present.

Currently an earlier version of this story appears on my site’s About page.  I could move it to a more prominent place on the website.  It could be told in text or by video, which is certainly something I want to explore.  Many people have several versions of their origin story suitable for different situations.  They tell the story at meetings, during training events, in videos …  This story as it stands doesn’t quite trip off the tongue but I’ll keep working on it!

Any feedback about how I might improve would be welcome.

Digital Storytelling and Social Media

On Wednesday I attended a seminar, “Plugging the Gap: Young people skill up older workers in social media”, organised by Voluntary Action Sheffield for Learning 2.0gether.  Its worth capturing something about the conference, especially as the keynote speech links comfortably with my thread about telling stories on your website started last week.

The idea of learning 2.0gether is to match up young people with skills in social media with older people with experience in business for mutual learning.  (Mutuality is important and not reflected in the conference title.)  This is the approach this blog advocates and so it is worth visiting their site for more information.  Whilst this particular project is local to Sheffield, similar work is happening across Europe and at the conference we had speakers from Germany, Spain and Italy as well as the UK.

The keynote speaker was John Popham, digital storyteller.  He covered similar ground to the ideas I began to share last Friday and so I thought it might be worth summarising what he said here.  This is my interpretation of his talk and if you are interested it may be worth checking his website.

People don’t read formal reports online.  Actually how many people read formal reports at all?  No matter how glossy the report may be, the chances we skim it at best.  Reports simply tell you what has happened, what is dead and gone.  Stories change things.  Our lives are full of stories, think about soaps or programmes like X Factor, which are vehicles for stories about the contestants.  This summer someone threw a Baked Alaska into a bin and the country was outraged.  More people watch the Great British Bake Off than watch Doctor Who; maybe the stories on the former are better.  Such stories are inevitable when programmes have such massive followings but how effective are they at generating change.  Marketing should be about stories that make a difference.

John Popham suggests digital technology is rehumanising our society.  He argues we once lived in villages and then, with the industrial revolution, moved into cities which was dehumanising.  Migration to the cities took away natural interactions and these may be restored by the digital village.  Social media builds relationships, just as if you live in a village.  Business depends on relationships, social media helps build them, potentially across the world.

Whilst I agree the move from rural to city life must have dehumanised the new industrial poor, there is plenty of evidence for that in the eighteenth century, I am not so sure that the same applies in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century.  The co-operative movement for example demonstrates community building locally and between localities.  The reasons for decline in community are complex but post-war perhaps it was the growth of mass media and powerful corporations that dehumanised society.

The trust people have, living in a village, will depend upon how well they know each other.  If they know each other they are more likely to trade with each other.  Social media can help people become known to one another online.  Stories are a good way of building relationships online and essential if you are marketing through trade or causes.

Where trade used to be based upon barter and mutual exchange, many people are experimenting with similar arrangements online.

One example is NeverSeconds, a blog written by a nine-year old schoolgirl.  I followed this when it became well-known, although it hasn’t posted since February this year.  After it went viral many people visited it and donated to Mary’s Meals, a campaign to build kitchens in schools in Africa, and the amount jumped from a few thousand pounds to hundreds of thousands.  Veg, the blog author’s online name, has a fantastic story about how her school banned her from photographing her school dinners after the newspapers claimed she had said the cooks should be fired (she didn’t).  Thousands of people subscribed and the school had to back down.  It’s a brilliant story, told on the blog.

We have never had so much technology to hand to help us tell stories.  Blogs are one example and video is a second.  John Popham claimed that videos from a mobile phone can be as good as professional cameras and many of us aren’t even aware we carry such a powerful tool around with us all day.  Of course we need to work out how to use it but you learn by doing.

There is little doubt stories are more effective at communicating than any amount of academic text, a lesson this site perhaps needs to learn.  Have you any stories about how you’ve told your story online?

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Telling Stories on Your Website

On Tuesdays I am currently reviewing a few online marketing trends.  I’ve still got a few to cover and one of them will be using stories.  This Friday thread will explore stories at a deeper level.  I shall share a few stories and discuss how they might be used to promote your organisation.  Telling stories can be used in different contexts, not only online.

This first story is about something that happened to me many years ago:

Psalter Lane runs close to where my parents lived in 1972. You climb up the steep tree-lined hill and discover it has a brow, a few yards, and then it runs downwards just as steeply. But you can keep on climbing when you reach the top! To the left a driveway took you to the Omega restaurant.  The name Omega lives on but it changed hands in 1980. I went there once more in 1999, when they had infamous toilets but that’s another story.

We went there for the first time to celebrate my A-level results. Three Bs meant I qualified for university, a first in my family.

I don’t remember much about the evening, it was a family meal. There were probably four of us, with my sister or six with my grandparents.

I remember the scallops; a rare treat. I’ve possibly had them since, maybe once or twice. The restaurant  served them in the traditional white sauce with piped mashed potato and presented on a large platter. The waitress served me from the platter and asked if I wanted more. I said yes and kept on saying yes.

I had so much to eat I couldn’t finish it. Everyone thought I was being greedy. It wasn’t greed, it was ignorance. I thought the plate was a single portion and the service was part of the deal. The thought never crossed my mind that it was enough food for more than one person. I didn’t know the rules of the game.

I suppose I was in a powerful place, having achieved so much. But even when celebrating I didn’t necessarily get everything right.

So, a minor incident from the distant past that returned to me as I listed stories I might share online.  Why this one?

  • It is a simple story. You don’t have to tell long complicated stories.
  • I suspect others have been in similar embarrassing situations, especially during teenage years.  If you groaned in recognition or remembered a similar event in your own life, then the story will have connected.
  • It is a trivial incident.  I doubt anyone remembered it after a few months.  Some stories are about life-changing events and if you have one or more of those, that’s brilliant.  But small events such as this, events that didn’t have a major impact on my life or anyone else’s, can be effective.
  • I suppose it is a story about pride before a fall.  But how might it be used?  The customer is not always right.  We cannot assume our customers are not confused.  I didn’t understand how “posh” restaurants work.  If it reminded you of a similar incident where you got things wrong, it may help you understand where your customers or clients are coming from.  Is the client who wants a website with all the bells and whistles really understanding what they are taking on?  Sometimes our role is to discuss the implications of a decision our client is making, to help them understand the implications of the decisions they are making.

So, what do you think of my suggested use for this story?  Can you think of other uses?  Or other stories with the same use?