Theme 2 – Benefits of a storytelling approach

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When quizzed about the perceived benefits of using a storytelling approach responses tended to focus on 2 main themes. The first was around how storytelling might enhance existing activities. The second was more complex and dealt with ideas of developing a sense of identity. Both these themes could be subdivided according to whether the benefits related to outward or inward communication on one hand, and on developing Netskills’ own approaches or that of the groups they were supporting on the other. All these themes and subdivisions overlapped.

Enhancing existing activities

Overall, participants chose not to spend much time talking about the functional benefits of storytelling, although six of the seven mentioned it at some time. CF, TG and RY identified storytelling as a means to increase awareness of a marketable product. The implication was that the nature of storytelling that had been identified as grabbing an audience’s attention meant it was well suited to this function.

 “Looking outside, we have a number of intentions when we communicate.  We have to sell things, go out to market, get attention. Storytelling has a role in there. If overt or subtle it’s powerful in those situations.” CF

“[It’s] a way to reach our audience, to differentiate Netskills from commercial providers; a soft form of marketing.” RY

SH, CF and TG highlighted how storytelling would have a positive impact on the programme “synthesis” work they did. “Synthesis” in this context means taking the outputs from a diverse range of Jisc-funded projects under particular programmes and distilling the lessons from them into guidance that is usable by the rest of the sector. All three talked about how important aspects of a project’s activities were missed from the synthesis as the required project reporting methods didn’t generate “the evidence that we need” (SH). In particular CF picked up on how storytelling is one way for a project to articulate better what its eventual impacts and benefits were. He added that digital storytelling was an effective way for projects to disseminate their outputs more widely.

TG saw benefits of explicitly linking storytelling with producing a business case by projects;

“We’re very bad at getting projects to produce a business case which would provide a better platform from which to tell a story. A business case goes in to depth about the situation [a project] is in, the problems [they] face, how [they] might resolve it…[They’re] building the story there from the beginning.” TG

He also saw the aspects of storytelling that relate to overcoming obstacles as helping with project management.

“We are trying to use techniques to get projects to tell a better story. Projects are very unclear about where they’re starting from, where was the beginning and how they got to the end; what was the story behind it all.” TG

SH saw storytelling as a way of capturing the benefits of doing a certain project in a richer way that means they are able to demonstrate to senior managers in their institutions why what they did was worthwhile.

Developing a sense of identity

More attention was paid by the respondents on more existential thoughts about identity, reputation and self-esteem. This was seen from inward and outward-looking perspectives.

Helping others understand us

It was of particular importance to BD, CF, KV and EP that storytelling could be used as a way of demonstrating value to Netskills’ stakeholders and the wider educational community. The feeling for some was that Netskills has been shy in the past of talking positively about itself and storytelling approaches would allow that to happen in a way that people were enthusiastic about doing.

“We’ve always recognised …it’s not a crisis… that we’ve undersold ourselves; letting people know who we are, what we do stand for… There’s no magic bullet (and that includes digital storytelling) but it [storytelling] can take us down that road.” EP

“It’s great for us and our stakeholders (Jisc and the university). It will get them to pay more attention to us; see us as more important and relevant to them.” EP

“Look at our varied backgrounds. People might say “what the hell are they doing, doing all this stuff?” There’s a linguist, an engineer, biologist. If you talk to us you understand why we do this stuff… It exposes our unique selling point” BD

For RY and TG, storytelling said something deeper about an organisation’s priorities of openness and trustworthiness. A crucial aspect of storytelling was about being authentic and truthful. As RY said…

“When I see an organisation that is honest about themselves…[it] creates a hugely positive image. It seems they have nothing to hide. They can be trusted.” RY

Helping us understand each other.

For CF, TG, RY and KV, there was also a focus on how storytelling would affect self-perception and perceptions within the team. Better understanding might also lead to better working practices. TG noted that storytelling was a revelatory process, both for the storyteller about themselves and also from hearing the stories of others.

 “For people telling the story, you learn a hell of a lot about yourself, what it is you’re trying to do and about the people around you.” TG

For KV, storytelling provided an opportunity to make deeper connections within the team. By sharing more effectively and engagingly what activities people were doing through stories, it could lead to a stronger sense of common purpose.

“Us doing it is massively beneficial to how we’re perceived and how we value ourselves…There’s powerful stuff that could be linking us together. We do lots of disparate projects but there’s a core of something – our story – what we’re trying to achieve…It’s sometimes forgotten in the rush to say how much stuff we’ve done.” KV

CF talked of a “crusade” toward ever-greater openness within the team and more collaborative working within the team seeing storytelling internally as a way of fostering that. He added:

“The more you understand each other, the better you’ll be able to work with one another. Storytelling has a powerful way of sharing and developing understanding of the people you work with.” CF

Next page: Theme 3 – Disbenefits of a storytelling approach