Invisible Grail began as a husk of an idea. A sense, not wholly formed, that higher education deserved more from the words we so often choose to use. Impact, yes. Outreach, certainly. Engagement, a must. These words in their own right can pack a punch. But what if they could be, and do, more?
‘We’re a narrative species,’ said the scientist on the radio recently. ‘We understand the world in terms of stories.’ He was talking about the MMR vaccine and how the tales of danger that have grown up around it have deterred many parents from vaccinating their children against harmful diseases.
He was right about our narrative instinct, and that in itself is a story. Since time immemorial, stories have been helping us to make sense of the world, and sometimes to change the way we see it.
There’s a growing body of neuroscientific evidence to support the claim that we are hard-wired for them. We absorb information more deeply and process it more effectively when it is presented in the form of a story, because stories reach the emotions and the imagination in a way that bullet points never can. Stories make no assertions but leave us to form our own judgements. Where arguments ‘push’, stories ‘pull’.
But what does this much-overused word really mean, particularly when it comes to our working lives and the organisations we represent? How do we tell stories about what we do when that may seem too complex to be reduced to a simple narrative, or too prosaic to offer any real narrative potential?
First we need to frame what we do differently. The world of work loves to think in abstractions, but to tell stories we have to think in concrete, human terms. Who, not what, is your story really about? That’s the question we need to ask.
Is it the ordinary people whose lives will be changed by your research? Is it the staff and students whose teaching and study will be enhanced by the new library that needs funding? And who are the players making these things happen, what are the challenges they’ve faced? There are no stories without people. Even the seemingly driest of subjects have human consequences.
As well as people, stories need structure: a beginning, middle and end, the sense of a journey. Research, for example, has all the classic characteristics of a quest, a voyage of discovery, complete with setbacks and breakthroughs and an end point where transformation of some kind has taken place.
Then, what about your institution itself? Whatever its purpose, it will be on a continual journey of development from the day of its founding to the present and beyond – with all the human activity, all the struggle and joy, that that entails. And that vacant chair. How will you find the best person to fill it unless you can tell a compelling story about who and where you are and what you can offer?
There’s the way you tell the story, too. Organisations love the language of abstraction, but this doesn’t work for stories. We have to use simple human words, the language of everyday conversation, the language you would use if you were sitting across the table from your reader. Colour, warmth, rhythm, humour, imagery – these are the ingredients of storytelling, of language you’d enjoy reading or hearing yourself. Why bore someone to death when you can engage, even entertain, them?
It shouldn’t matter who your audience is – a funding body, your academic peers, government policy-makers, colleagues or students. If you have something important to say to them, something you want them to remember and act upon, be bold and light up their imaginations. Tell them a story.
‘What’s in a Story?’ was created by Jamie Jauncey, a Programme Director at Invisible Grail. Find out more about Jamie and the Invisible Grail team through our own stories here.
Invisible Grail offer open and bespoke programmes focused on fostering greater, and more confident, writing and communication skills for all who work in higher education. Take a look at what we have to offer, or get in touch if you would like to know more.
Writing for Impact
One-day workshop for anyone who needs to create greater impact and engagement with their writing.
Writing your Future
Two-day residential programme for academic and professional services managers and leaders.
Unlocking the Creative Leader
Three-day residential programme for senior leaders.
Working with you and your team to design a programme to fit your needs.
To find out more, contact Louise at Louise.Clifton@invisiblegrail.com