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The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

A million voices, telling the story of your university

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Within and beyond our university walls there are thousands of stories. These are the foundations of our individual and collective narratives. They are the key to help us understand how to connect better with each other, and ourselves.

What are the stories being told at your institution?

Here is a small selection we’ve heard over the last two years.

Stories are about how people feel

The way we talk – with empathy, energy and passion – begins to tell a story about where, and how, we work.

When I return from being in another country and find myself in a crowd, my ears sometimes deceive me. I’m convinced I can hear, in the babble of talk around me, that everyone is speaking in the language of the place where I’ve been.

This can also be how it feels after the end of a successful project or programme in a university. When all the participants have left the room and we’re packing up and getting ready to go, I often take a last look around.

My eyes scan the empty chairs and tables. I see the notes and scribbled diagrams people have left behind.

In my head, I can hear their voices ringing in my ear: kind comments or keen observations volunteered by students and colleagues as they make sense of the narratives they’re creating for how they lead and learn in their organisation.

“Staff are really bothered about their students, they really care…What’s normal here is not the same at other universities.”

“This is the loveliest morning I’ve had at work since I can remember.”

“Just saying: one day I could be doing what you’re doing, as a facilitator for Invisible Grail!”

This last comment was one that really touched me. It came from a final-year undergraduate, who in this brief moment shared with me how what we’d achieved on co-creating learning and teaching narratives had encouraged them to imagine, however fleetingly, a different way to see their future.

What these comments all have in common isn’t just the kindness in which they were given, but they are all great examples of how the way we talk – with empathy, energy and passion – begins to tell a story about where, and how, we work.

I love the idea of writing in polyphonic voices: multiple and independent melodies which create a texture all of their own. Hearing the rich voices around me in universities helps me to identify and remember what makes each institution distinctive and unique.

When universities engage with students, staff and communities to create experiences that make people feel so good that they want to tell others, there’s a story.

It’s these stories that are our gold dust: they are a conduit for our emotions, revealing to ourselves and others how we truly feel, and if we tune in and listen to the melodies, we can find ways to better connect with ourselves and with one another.

Universities help us all connect

Imagine how many times, in any given year, people tell one another about the university which means most to them.

After my co-director Louise and I first met, one of the first things we learnt about each other was that we were graduates of the same university. We had even studied in the same building. This helped to create a bond between us which we often talk about. It meant a shared cultural and social compass, and agreement on the values of the institution which had mattered for both of us.

Imagine how many times, in any given year, people tell one another about the university which means most to them.

Picture a university where 5,000 students graduate each year. If each of them tells their story to twenty people, that makes 100,000 stories. If only half of those people tell that story to someone else, there are a million new voices every year.

Multiply that by all the universities on the planet, and there are nearly 25 billion stories, singing out around the world. And in a cosmic sense, across the universe.

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last ten years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in Higher Education.

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