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What Harry Potter teaches us about storytelling

25 Apr

There’s no denying that JK Rowling is one heck of a story teller. But, I must admit the inspiration for this blog post came as somewhat of a surprise to me.

Last week, as a birthday treat for my husband, we visited the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford. He’s a bit of a film geek and absolutely loved the films (and books!) so I thought it would be a fun day out. It was more than that.

Now, I should make clear that I am in no way a Potterphile. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read and enjoyed all of the books but that’s as deep as our relationship goes. It didn’t take long for that to change.

Whilst queuing to enter the tour, soaking up the atmosphere and marvelling at the extensive gift shop already in plain sight, I noticed a quote from JK Rowling that had been blown up and hung on the wall.

“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”

You know when you’re talking to someone and they have no idea what you’re talking about? When you spend time and effort explaining something a hundred different ways and they still don’t get it? When you feel like you’re banging your head on a brick wall and then suddenly there’s a breakthrough? This was my breakthrough. The moment when my thoughts and words became clear in one succinct phrase that was easy for everyone to grasp.

In the world of PR and communications, and particularly in local government, we hear a lot about stories. We’re told that we need to “get more stories out there”. It’s often a reaction to negative coverage and is sometimes seen as the solution to kill any flack or criticism that we may be getting. It’s no solution.

Churning out stories is one thing but making people listen is something else, and if nobody is listening it doesn’t matter how many stories you get out there. Now, I’m not suggesting we don’t tell stories. I’m saying we need to do some leg work first.

We need to be the listeners. We need to listen to our audience and find out what they care about, what they are talking about and how we can link into that in a real and relevant way. In doing that we can make a connection with our audience. Without that connection our audience has no reason to care about what we say and they certainly have no reason to listen.

Here are my corporate storytelling tips:

1. Identify your audience – know who you are talking to. It will make it easier to write the story.
2. Be an active listener – before you write a word, listen to your audience. What are they talking about? Learn about them.
3. Ask and answer ‘why would my audience care?’ – the strength of your answer will tell you if your story is worth writing or not.
4. Be real and relevant – your audience will smell a rat if you are not being genuine. Lose their trust and you lose their ears.
5. Mean it – believe in your story. If you don’t no-one else will.

In learning to listen we can figure out what it is that people really care about and we can connect with that. It’s that connection that makes all the difference. The difference between being heard and being white noise.

And, in case there are any Potterphile’s reading this, here are a few photos from the tour:









The real cost of bad communications

30 Jan

The last blog post I wrote focused on the radical change programme that we are working on in Monmouthshire County Council and I promised to feedback on our progress. So here goes.

I’ve been a student in our Intrapreneurship School* for a few weeks now, and today (working with fellow students) it felt like there was a light bulb moment. It wasn’t because our discovery was particularly new or revolutionary, it was because the way we’ve illustrated it gets right to the heart of the matter. And, it’s pretty hard to argue with.

Like many organisations, we sometimes experience inconsistencies internally. Some people know stuff, some don’t. Information is sometimes communicated well and sometimes it isn’t. This leads to inconsistencies. As an employee, if you’re well informed and you know where to find the information you need then the likelihood is that you’ll provide a better service. If you’re uninformed or ‘out of the loop’ the chances are this will impact on the day job. And it’s this ‘day job’ that’s the important bit.

The ‘day job’ is where you meet the customer, where you provide a service, where you do something that matters. In local government, this is what it’s all about so if there’s something that’s stopping you from doing the best job you can do, sort it.

For us, whilst we’re working hard on improving it, we know that in some areas the flow of information isn’t as good as it should be. When we drill down to what that really means we get to customer experiences. If information isn’t being shared internally that means staff aren’t clued-up. If staff aren’t clued-up how can they answer customers questions? And, we all know how frustrating it is when no-one can answer your question.

So, as my colleagues and I discussed this we thought it might be clearer to illustrate our observations:

cost of communication matrix

For those of you who know your PR theory, this model may look familiar. It’s very much like the power/interest matrix and it works in a similar way.

The quicker you can get good information out to your customer, the more satisfied they will be. You have resolved their issue quickly so, in theory, is less resource intensive.

If it takes you a long time to respond to a customer and you get bad/inaccurate information out to them, they will be really dissatisfied. And if they’re dissatisfied, it’s more likely that they will need to come back to you to resolve the issue or complain. That means more resources are needed.

So, if we put it like that it’s hard to argue with. Let’s get information flowing to those who need it, empower them with knowledge and see what that does for an organisation’s reputation. 🙂


*Intrapreneurship School is an internal training scheme that encourages innovation, understanding and shifts our perspective to focus on what really matters. We learn about system redesign and other models to find better ways of delivering/enabling services.

Using internal comms to connect with communities

16 Nov

I was recently given the opportunity to write a guest post for the excellent blog ‘Diary of an internal communicator‘. Rachel Miller, the brains behind the blog kindly agreed for me to reblog my post here. So, here we are. This is how we’re trying to connect with our communities. This is what makes Monmouthshire different.

In Monmouthshire, we are experiencing a lot of the same problems as other organisations. Money is tight, demands for services are increasing and what people think of us can change in an instant. Nothing unusual for a county council. What is unusual is the way we’ve decided to tackle this.

As part of Nesta’s Creative Councils campaign, we devised Your County Your Way. I don’t want to define it as a project because that would suggest that there’s an end date. It’s more than that. It’s about who we are, what we do and why we do it. It’s about proving our worth and relevance to the communities we serve and shaping our services around their needs. We’re transforming our culture so that we start to listen and respond to our communities more effectively. And to do that, we’re working from the inside out.

At the heart of this culture change is the Intrapreneurship School – an internal training scheme open to all staff, that encourages innovation, understanding and shifts our perspective to focus on what really matters, as defined by our communities. The school celebrates individuality, promotes cross-team working and most significantly, puts trust in our colleagues. Trust to make the right decisions without having to feed-up the chain of command. Hierarchy? What’s that?

It’s a pretty radical programme, and some would shy away from it, but we think it’s necessary. We can only be excellent if we foster excellence and that starts with trust. A trusted workforce is a valued workforce; a passionate, dedicated bank of people who are ready to contribute to your organisation’s success. Ready to make a difference.

So, why have we started with internal communications? Well, that’s easy. We can’t tell our story outside if we don’t ‘get it’ inside. And, as I tried to put my thoughts in order, a bit of a chain of events started to emerge. See diagram and explanation below.

Internal comms journey - a diagram

  1. Using internal comms we can promote understanding amongst our colleagues.
  2. Aligning our colleagues expectations with organisational expectations fosters positive behaviour/culture change.
  3. This change has a positive effect on the day job. We do things better.
  4. Providing a better service means that our customers/communities are more satisfied. Brand perception improves.
  5. Both parties start to feel more valued and we begin to listen to each other more effectively.
  6. We are connecting with each other. We are having conversations. Really engaging.
  7. We begin to work together.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Tips for internal comms professionals implementing massive change:

  1. Be honest: Radical change is scary and that’s ok. We need to acknowledge our fears before we can really move on. And, giving people permission to be scared is usually enough to quell the fear.
  2. Be transparent: Don’t try and avoid the awkward stuff. I’m a firm believer in facing it head-on, answering any questions and if I don’t know the answer then I’m happy to say that too. Dodging issues is a sure-fire way of killing any trust your colleagues had in you.
  3. Believe in the change: This is not always easy. Sometimes we are asked to do things that we don’t wholeheartedly believe in but we have to do it anyway. It’s our job. If you find yourself in this position, take a moment to understand the merits of the scheme. Think about why it’s necessary and use that as your focus. You can’t expect others to jump on the train if you won’t.

The demise of council publications – maybe?

29 Sep

There is an incredibly vocal debate in the media about council publications and the role they have to play in the demise of the local press. Yesterday, the Guardian reported government’s plans to “crackdown on council-funded newspapers” yet I can’t help but feel some important arguments have been missed out of the discussions.

I accept that there are some councils who really are head-to-head with the local press and publish weekly newspapers, however, they are the minority. There has been much discussion about why we shouldn’t have council-funded publications, but what about the reasons why we should?

Money is tight

As budgets shrink, councils are under increasing pressure to demonstrate value for money whilst keeping their residents informed. It can cost in excess of £1000 for a full-page advertisement in a local newspaper. Is that how we should be spending public money? Maybe. But, if it’s more cost effective to print a council publication isn’t that what we should be doing?

Coverage can be patchy

In many areas there isn’t one sole newspaper that covers everywhere. For example, there are four prominent local newspapers in Monmouthshire that cover fairly seperate sections of the county. Advertising in just one newspaper would exclude others but advertising in all would be very expensive. If a council publication could reach the whole county and everyone had access to the information, is that what we should be doing?

Duty to inform

There’s only so much information a local newspaper can carry about the council before it begins to look and feel like it’s a council publication anyway. For the hundreds of services that a council provides, how do we raise awareness about them if we can’t get it all in the press. Social media and good old websites maybe? But what about those who don’t have access to a computer or the internet?

The new proposals suggest that council publications will not be able to carry any quotes from local residents that endorse the council or its’ services. The first thing I do when I want to buy/try something new is ask people’s opinion. Have you done it? What did you think? If it’s a genuine comment, good or bad, and the resident is happy to make their feelings known then what’s the problem?

Of the proposed rules, there is one I completely agree with: all content must be totally straight and fair. We should be open and honest. Though honesty is not just a rule for council publications, it should be one for the press too.

Related information: