Stories and storytelling

6th November 2014

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my coaching work is discovering people’s stories. Wherever they’re from, whatever they’re doing, however they’re feeling – everybody has something important to express. In coaching, my role is to listen, empathically, and to work hard at understanding the beliefs, values and motivations embodied in these stories. Stories prompt questions, reflection and fruitful discussion – and sometimes, the story that one tells oneself just isn’t helpful. We can tell ourselves negative things and ‘catastrophise’ events – making them far worse than they actually are. These familiar stories only serve to hold ourselves back in our professional life as we find ourselves repeating the same old patterns.

When people express a limiting belief, a belief that seems to limit one’s capacity, the coach’s task is to assess whether it would help the person to ‘reframe’ the story, to look at the evidence behind it (what actually happened) and to encourage the person to look at it from a different perspective. I find that this ‘reframing’ technique can have a big positive impact. Not only does it help people to challenge their limiting beliefs, it helps them to shape new stories, very real and authentic stories. Those stories express what they do more fully and can give clients, employers, managers or colleagues a more realistic and positive view of their strengths and potential. Personal stories are shared naturally in conversation, person-to-person, but how about connections between an individual and a business? How about something that makes you smile when you think about a certain product? Or something that makes you want to do business with someone or with their company? These emotional connections are what marketers are trying to build every day. And one way of doing this is through storytelling.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of working with the University of Southampton and FutureLearn on designing and creating an online course on digital marketing. Our goal was to provoke conversations amongst the many thousands of participants. We made the course as personal as we could and it seems that our learners liked the light-touch approach too, “I really appreciated the conversational style of the presentations”. Early on, I came up with the notion of storytelling as a theme for the course, and as well as sharing stories of businesses and contributors, we encouraged learners to share their stories too.

Storytelling is a tactic used by businesses the world over to attract you to their brand. One of the most striking things about the course was how micro-businesses, small businesses and marketeers in large businesses all picked up on its importance. “I am constantly using the experiences I have with my clients as conversational pieces with new clients”, said Peter Larkham, who runs his own business. He described the storytelling process as a ‘pacifier’ for his clients who can sometimes feel ‘panicked’ about a problem. Catherine F, who works in the charity sector, told us that “storytelling is essential. Potential supporters and volunteers will be more likely to contribute their time, or give a donation, if they know the story of a beneficiary”. Storytelling also holds great benefits in education and learning. This report from the Open University spells out the reasons why storytelling is an effective tool to increase understanding. I’ve even used storytelling in my own business. Many of the quotes that you’ll find dotted around this site are examples of storytelling – clients of mine describing their experience of working with me.

So how can storytelling be used in your business?  How can you connect the experiences of your customers, your former clients, or your own people to potential clients? Ask them! You may be surprised at how much people will open up if you start a conversation – and really listen. If you’ve done a good job at listening, you may find that clients will describe their own experience of using your business or service. You don’t need a huge marketing budget, or a raft or marketers to use storytelling successfully. Just find ways to have conversations with your clients and see if they have stories to share.

Telling the story of your business and the stories of your people is another way to let ‘outsiders’ see the inside of your business, so think of ways in which you might ‘invite them in’ to meet the people that make your business great. Just a simple photo and a line or two of text can tell a great story if you think it through with care. Here’s my story and a video excerpt from the Digital Marketing course. I’m continuing to research storytelling, both for coaching and for marketing, so if you have a comment or an insight you’d like to share, do get in touch.

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University of Southampton

Coaching, teaching and employability projects to develop academic staff, students and researchers. I career coached MBA students each year and project managed the design of a massive open online course (MOOC) on Digital Marketing, attracting 17,000 learners.


Writing national guidelines to help staff manage internships and placements

St. George’s Hospital

Working on career development strategies with early career researchers

National Oceanography Centre

1-1 career coaching to develop awareness of careers outside academia

Elsevier Publishing

Working on the future of publishing with European Marketing Directors


Designing and producing online and video based learning for IBM (UK) Sales

Oxford Brookes University

Team coaching and 1-1 coaching for education professionals

Open University

Leading teams of writers and media developers to design and deliver flexible distance learning

CGI | Admiral plc | Logica plc

Working with clients to train their staff online and as Admiral’s Corporate Marketing Manager

Isle of Wight Council

Coaching and support for staff affected by change and redundancy

University College London

Designing online learning for university professionals

Land Registry

Writing and sub-editing online versions of the Land Registry Annual Report

University College of Estate Management

Consulting to other universities and working with tutors to produce online learning

Royal Agricultural University
Centre for Empowering Patients and Communities

Project management of an online course to empower patients with long term health conditions

Education consulting

“Madeline is always spot on, always reliable, great to work with.”

(Partner in a university online learning project)