simply workshop: Strategic storytelling with Stuart Maister- review

Storytelling workshop

Yesterday saw us congregate in Hammersmith for a simplynetwork workshop with Stuart Maister, former BBC journalist and now Chief Storyteller of Strategic Narrative, to learn how to develop a strategy that encourages colleagues to engage in storytelling, but to do so in a way that aligns with the organisation’s vision and focus.

Stuart Maister
Stuart Maister

Communications leaders from a wide range of industries were in attendance: from charities such as Shelter and government organisations like Network Rail and Council of the European Union, to British Airways, We Are Social and satellite communications pioneers Inmarsat.

They were prepared for the day by bringing a comms programme or initiative they were working on. These were as varied as the organisations: think plans for new cultures and strategies arising from newly merged and demerged businesses, centenaries and anniversaries, as well as company reorganisations and launches of new tech and intranets. Stuart provided them with the framework for developing a plan to tell the story of the project in an inspiring and engaging way, both in shorter-form, and as part of a broader narrative.

Stuart’s method is informed by his background of TV and radio journalism: the goal is to distil the complexity into something the audience can understand and be interested in, through the process of cutting through the noise and ‘sifting the interesting bits’.

The aim of the workshop was to take that distillation of the story, and present it in a way that people in an organisation can take ownership of it and riff on. This is a nod to Stuart’s philosophy that ‘business is like jazz’, illustrated by clips of performances of The Girl from Ipanema, showing how Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald can sing the same tune and make it their own. In business, you need to write the tune – and get everyone singing the same tune – but ensure the they are given the space to deliver it in their own way, add colour, and put their own spin on it.

And so we got to work on really defining the story and ‘getting to the truth’ through some very interactive exercises.


Drafting the story:

  • Define Who

All good journalism begins with defining the audience. What are your audience going to find most interesting about your change programme? Who needs to know the story?

  • Define Why

This section is split into two: why you? And why them?

These are the questions you need to ask yourself:

You: Why are you doing this? Why are you launching this internet, why are you creating this new strategy and vision? And why do you exist? What is your purpose? Is ethics core?

Them: What are their motivations? What do they get out of this?

For this, we want to consider what we want our audience to feel, to know, and to do. Stuart provided an exercise in which we created three columns for ‘feel’, ‘know’ and ‘do’. As a brainstorm, fill the columns with everything that comes to mind. Examples for ‘feel’ could include adjectives such as ‘empowered’, ‘engaged’ and ‘valued’. For ‘know’, we saw that we want our audience to know ‘that change is inevitable’ and ‘why change is coming’. For ‘do’, examples included ‘get involved’ and ‘embrace change’.

Once this has been completed you then pick three words or phrases from each column – don’t overthink it, it should be the ones that jump out at you immediately. Hopefully, if you have your leadership involved, they will cluster. Then you will have the word choices that can characterise your story.

  • Define How

How will the change happen, and how will you approach the project as an organisation? Think of the words that come to mind when you ask yourself ‘How are we going to do this’? Also consider what makes yourself different from other organisations. Could anyone else do this?

  • Define what

What exactly is happening? What do you actually do – and how will that play out in your story? The answer may be complex. But remember the idea of this activity is to distil that, and describe it succinctly. Your story may be about how you want to grow your business – but what are you going to do to achieve that?

Stuart Maister Presents

Writing the story, and building the news pyramid

Now you’ve got all those details down, we need to start writing the story. Find the most important points in there. Back to thinking about number one: your audience. Who is this is all for, and what will they most be interested in? What will they get from this, and what difference does it mean to them?

From this information you can then build a news pyramid, as illustrated by a typically salacious front-page example from The Sun. In tabloid journalism, we have a headline, and the story in 150 words on the front, and the nitty gritty of the story inside the paper. From your skeleton of the Who, What, Why, How exercise you should have enough information to pull out a headline – one phrase to sum up the programme or proposition – and a 150 word blurb on your story that sums up the who, why, how and what. This can then be fleshed out with three key themes that can be explored in detail in the longer form. These should comprise the narrative themes, which are the tunes you want people to riff on – they’re the big ideas that underpin the strategic narrative.  And the evidence – the details of the story the facts, figures, case studies, and capabilities that support the above.

The attendees try out Stuart’s techniques.

Bringing the story to life

Now you’ve got your story in different forms, you can think about how they can be put in front or your audience.

In the headline, you have perfect short form content that can be used on Twitter, for example. The 150 words you produced can be used as an opening section of a website, document or slide presentation – or your elevator pitch when people ask.


 Simplynetwork events and workshops

The day culminated with the simply summer BBQ, where we headed over the bridge to lovely Barnes for drinks and a delicious supper in the sun. Stay tuned for other events planned for our members, including a day of two great simulations to help you with the communication and adoption of new projects and technologies: The Adoption Game and The Communication Maze, to help you with your O365 rollout and align communication managers in your organisation.

By Emma Mackie