Igniting Inquiry: the (hidden) power of storytelling

Stories play a big part in how we make sense of our lives, our organisations, our world. They carry and shape our values; can limit or transform organisational cultures; and often shape political agendas.

 Yet many of us tend not to look that closely at the stories we tell, rehearse, ignore, or develop as acts of leadership.

– blurb from workshop brief

Why bother with a workshop on story-telling as part of the ‘Fire Starter’ Festival?


My intention with offering this workshop was to spark a conversation about ‘igniting inquiry’ through storytelling. Inquiry, for me, is shorthand for giving ourselves permission to interrupt the usual flow of ‘business as usual’ – to reflect about whether we are really heading in the direction we want; whether there might be a better way – and if so, what the story of that better way might be.

Through my work I’ve become really curious about the stories I hear people and organisations telling themselves – especially when these stories are moving beyond rehearsed stories into ones that seem to fire up peoples’ creativity and imagination. This has led me to some questions: how might more of us become more skilful in marshalling the power of stories as evidence of how lives and communities are changing for the better? How might the wider system better accept stories as evidence alongside other kinds of evidence? If there were many more spaces for story-telling, would the pace of public service transformation accelerate – and the depth of connection, conviviality and trust deepen?


The blurb for the workshop suggested that being a reflective (or inquiring) story-teller is a crucial leadership skill for anyone in public service interested in imagining a better (or transformed) future for public service in Scotland.

This blog tells a story of the workshop. It is also an invitation to anyone who was there to leave a comment with their own version of what happened – or any further reflections.

In writing this blog I have attempted to capture a flavour of the rich conversations that our diverse group had together – and some next steps that we began to imagine.

Enough of the preamble; here’s what happened inimage006 our workshop.

What happened

A week before the workshop the thirty folk who’d signed up got an email inviting them to begin to notice the kinds of story-telling they were already involved in day-day.

When I arrived at Victoria Quay to set the room up, I had imagined we’d have plenty of space, air and light in the room to help put us at our ease. Instead, I found our room was windowless, cramped and stuffy. Three rows of ten chairs each were set out lecture-style. This was a long way from the friendly circle of chairs I imagined.

A slight – then fast growing – sense of panic gripped me. I ran upstairs and let off steam (sorry, again, Anita) that I couldn’t do the workshop in that room. I then remembered an early planning session for the Fire Starter festival where we thought of using some of the unoccupied office space in Victoria Quay.

Back downstairs, folk were arriving. We re-arranged the chairs into a tight circle in the stuffy room and I suddenly remembered being in the Edinburgh story-telling Centre – and the room in their basement where they hold events. No windows; a tiered circle of chairs. Feels a bit like a cave….  How about … this room could be our ‘cave’; and that we’d occupy the space upstairs for some exercises in late morning/early afternoon. I’d already suggested people bring outside gear so we also agreed to have a self-organised walk – and – talk at lunchtime.

Sharing this story with folk seemed to help us all arrive into agreement around a shared intent for the day: this was to be a participative workshop, learning from everyone present; seeing what emerged; taking care not to share specifics of what was said outside of the workshop (which is why I’ve stuck to general points in this blog).

Theme 1: hosting space for stories

fire picThis conversation helped set the scene for one of the themes of our day: that stories don’t exist by themselves. They are the product of a relationship between a story-teller and a listener. And, in turn, that relationship happens in a place. And the qualities of that place (or space) can make a crucial difference to the qualities of the stories people feel able to share, invent, try out.

Some of the people in our workshop are in roles where they host these kinds of spaces. We reflected on their experience: how to establish a ‘safe space’ where personal stories can be told, without fear that they would be taken and used unscrupulously – without the involvement or permission of the person whose story it was.

We explored the idea that stories are not just told: they are in some sense gifts. Once out in the world they cannot be easily controlled; but we acknowledged that especially professionals interested in working with integrity with stories, there are practical considerations around how to respect stories as gifts that deserve to be treated with care.

A couple of folk from the group then offered something from their practical experience of formats that work for enabling story-telling. A colleague from the recovery movement described how ‘telling my story’ – and having it respectively heard in a ‘safe space’ – is core to the whole recovery approach. The recovery community have developed a format to enable this that is understood and followed at every meeting. It’s all about recognizing that everyone can offer a story (there’s some peer pressure in these spaces to encourage people to voice theirs). We reflected that taking a risk to do this is about sharing our vulnerability – and that this helps to generate peoples’ sense of trust in a supportive and connected community of peers – so recovery becomes a shared and celebrated process. With recovery stories at its heart.


Listening to this, I was struck by the similarities and differences with my experience of a traditional music session (‘ceilidh’) that happens every Wednesday in my local pub. In its way, it’s another ‘form’ with its own rules that, in my experience, also generates a great sense of convivial community. The session is hosted by experienced players who know many tunes – who dedicate often many nights a week to turning up, week in week out, in sessions across Fife and Perthshire – and in so doing ensure they continue to thrive. These experienced players will often start the session off; and be on hand to get things going again if momentum stalls. They also, sometimes almost imperceptibly, steward the ‘vibe’ of the session: there is an unwritten understanding about taking turns; respectfully joining in when someone starts a tune; not hogging the limelight; making space for newcomers but also helping them attune so they don’t overly dominate. It’s not always plain sailing. One time an enthusiastic beginner Bodhrain player thundered slightly out of time under other peoples’ tunes almost all evening. Usually even thick-skinned people pick up on the vibes and adjust their style after a few minutes. But this time the player ploughed on regardless. Eventually one of the regulars had a word.

I think I was this story came to me because it seemed to underline a point that we were reaching for in our conversation: if you grow up in a story-telling culture – perhaps you’re indigenous to a place – there will probably already be a ‘way’ this happens – you get a feel for them and it would seem crass to ‘facilitate’ them. But as cultures mingle; and especially as a professionalized world attempts to discover the power of story-telling; it can be all to easy to not see or ignore how storytelling is already a part of community life. The unintended consequences might be a ‘voicing over’ that ends up alienating the very people the professionals are trying to ‘reach’ (as an aside – a point made brilliantly in ‘the squares and the blobs’ animation about co-production – A parable of the squares and the blobs).

Perhaps in our work around transforming public services, it’s important to become even more aware of these sensitivities and dynamics? And if we are ‘using’ storytelling in service of professional aims, to adopt a position of humility and learn about what works where people are adopting story-telling practices to grow confidence and a voice across different social movements?

And… If we (in public service reform) genuinely believe that a key to creating better services is putting relationship and trust building at the heart of our work – then it surely matters what kinds of stories we tell ourselves about who we are. How do I picture myself – my identity? Do I see myself primarily as an expert? Or a consumer? A citizen? A person attempting to muddle through the mess?

We returned to the theme of how to learn how to host spaces for stories throughout the day – and at the end agreed it would be helpful to develop a list of where these kinds of spaces already exist (if you know of any – please do comment on this blog).

I left reflecting that there is plenty of material in this theme to return to at a later date, too, if folk are interested in pursuing it.

Theme 2: How can I become a better story-teller?

Several people at the workshop had come along because we wanted to pick up skills in becoming better story-tellers.

After our exploration of hosting spaces for stories, we headed upstairs to occupy Area 3G North.


Occuping space in Victoria Quay over lunch
(photo taken during a pair exercise)

The next hour involved a switch of pace – from a conversation about questions we were holding about stories and storytelling – to trying out a playful exercise I got from a friend who is a professional storytelling and set up a ‘Centre for Narrative Leadership’ (the exercise was from Geoff Mead’s book ‘Telling the Story – the Heart and Soul of successful leadership’).


The exercise involves telling three types of stories – factual, exaggerated/fictional, and magical. The point of the exercise is to open up these three storytelling territories as a start into discovering what it is to be a storyteller; including noticing the role that imagination has even in telling supposedly factual stories. In his account of how he runs this exercise, Geoff underlines this point: many professionals – perhaps particularly civil servants – feel much more confortable in the territory of ‘fact’ than other kinds of stories. But how aware are we of the choices we are making even in recounting supposedly factual stories? Of whose perspective we are taking in its telling? Of details left in or out? Voices amplified or diminished or left out entirely?

Geoff poses the further question: Are there times when – as an act of ‘narrative leadership’ – it may be necessary to tell a fictional story?

This exercise seems particularly relevant to me in the context of a time when we are looking for a new – or transformative – story about public service in Scotland. By definition, this story doesn’t yet exist. It may be held in the imaginations of many people – and those imaginations will shape intentions which will in turn help to shape actions which will may get us towards a better system than we have at the moment. But those stories are inevitable fictional.

image014If we’re genuinely interested in transformation, perhaps a great many of us would benefit from exercising our fictional storytelling muscles to help lead us toward as yet undreamed of ways of organising a more sustainable society and economy?

The third stage of this exercise involves becoming even more playful – telling a magical story, again in a pair. You really need to be there to ‘get’ the point of this. But as the group reflected on the exercise as a whole I think we shared both a level of discomfort at being asked to tell different kinds of stories off the cuff; as well I hope as a sense of what a journey into developing ourselves as more skilful storytellers might involve.

At the end of the day, several people offered suggestions of accomplished storytellers who offer workshops that could be a good place to pick up on what we started in this session.

***Please do add comments to this blog with links so folk can follow them up*** 

Theme 3: everything else

We reconvened in our ‘cave’ for a final half hour session where I shared some more content – mostly from Geoff’s book. We acknowledged that this is a very large territory that we had hardly scratched the surface of.

I shared a definition of a story that stresses that it’s all about showing – rather than ‘telling’ – something:


I have attempted in this blog to do some ‘showing’ alongside the ‘telling’. That means I have consciously diverted into some of the detail of what happened, moment by moment (for example, the sense of panic entering the room in the morning and how that resolved). I hope this has produced a more interesting read; perhaps more of a flavour of the feel of the workshop alongside the content.

We agreed it could be helpful to develop and share a list of youtube clips where we could get more of a feel for what ‘showing’ involves – including body language (facial expressions, movement, and more); rich description (focussing in on the texture and senses in moments of action, rather than broad generalised descriptions) in writing and more.

None of this is new of course and there are entire creative fields dedicated to developing skills in ‘showing’ storytelling – from communications professionals to film makers, from radio and TV to social media.


Finally, we rounded off the session reflecting on whether public service is currently attempting to shift away from ‘heroic stories’ (often based around ‘case studies’ that stress achievement and ignore the messiness  – very understandable given the way that funding regimes tend to be set up…). Instead, are we learning how to show and tell other kinds of stories – where individual accomplishment is perhaps of less interest than qualities of collaborative fortitude experienced by teams tackling ‘wicked issues’; and where multiple perspectives and voices become a richer terrain for learning than single voices (such as the one I’m at risk of perpetuating in this blog!).

So, in that spirit, I offer this story of our workshop as a gift into a wider, more public space. And invite many more voices to contradict, or build on, or otherwise tell their own story of this territory we have begun to open up – and where it may lead us.


Narrative Leadership Practices
– from http://www.narrativeleadership.org 


Nick Wilding 3.2.2016





  1. Thanks for this Nick, you’ve shared the heart of the day and spurred my thinking further.
    The squares and blobs video is worth watching and thinking further about how we get beyond. I will post a few other links some silly some powerul at the end.

    Just a few more reflections.
    Who Gets the Quilt
    I wasn’t well on the day and not as positive or patient as I am at my best, but still glad I came for the people I met and perspectives that challenged me. I did a lot of learning as a facilitator. I want to be brave enough to work in an emergent way, but the day brought up for me one of the difficulties. I did have a sense before lunch that it was almost as if there were too many topics in the room and we were fighting over a quilt, pulling it between us with someone’s feet always getting cold. I think we had different ideas about how we have a big group discussion. At lunch we gravitated into smaller groups and stayed on task, to my surprise! saying things people might not have been able to say in the full group, observing, asking taking things deeper. It’s a confirmer that taking time to share food is always a good idea, It’s also left me reflecting what I could have done as part of the group when I heard people voicing frustration.. It’s symptomatic of a deeper tension I struggle with in facilitating groups between letting all voices be heard and providing follow through to pursue things in depth. Since our day I’ve been thinking over some quick crowdsource mapping exercises that get people up and moving and also let you take the pulse of the group that I want to experiment with.

    Stories or Agendas, can we have one with the other?
    At one point I said stories are never told without an agenda, but in reading your post I recall that some of my best storying is when I don’t have a conscious agenda, when I’m with a friend, don’t feel any need to impress and am just trying to make sense, just starting the story and seeing where it leads as I put one step in front of the other. Recognising how much pressure there is to have an agenda, can we make space to unplug like this? Mutual time to do this may help us explore the “we” stories Ian was talking about.

    Here’s the link to the sessions on finding your pulse. Maihri is running just now. This is the best space to be open creative and mutually respectful of stories I have ever encountered.


    On showing rather than telling. My ten year old Ben showed me this last year. He is quite bemused that I am now posting it to the Scottish Government as essential viewing. No Breathing In Class is shorter and has policy implications but, nahhh, go on watch the Chocolate Cake one. I just did :-)

    Chocolate Cake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BxQLITdOOc

    Showing is different in different spaces. This clip coincidentally is on the same theme as chocolate cake. Masankho does a lovely job of relating how you can pace yourself and work up from small ways of developing gestures and creating relationships to more expansive ones.


    Thanks again, hope we keep the conversation going

  2. There’s some great storytelling on podcasts – try searching online for The Moth podcasts (live recordings of storytelling); I also like This American Life (various items and stories) and Reply All (stories to do with the Internet). Following the principle of the Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon (!) I’ve been struck since the workshop by how pervasive storytelling is and how it’s an integral part of my life almost without me realising it – such as via the podcasts mentioned above.
    Also check out the storytelling permeating BBC4s Music Moguls: Masters of Pop – episode 3 – Myth Makers – all about PR in the music industry – still available on iplayer! Apologies for not including links but all of the above should be easily find-able/Google-able! ;)

  3. Thanks Beth and Michelle for those replies… I was reading a speech by Darren Walker of Ford Foundation this evening (https://www.fordfoundation.org/library/speeches/darren-walker-addresses-the-hunter-college-class-of-2016/) and struck by the clarity of this part: why it matters that we explore narratives if we’re serious about a fairer Scotland –

    “…at the Ford Foundation, our work is designed to disrupt inequality in all of its forms—and because we have found that entrenched cultural narratives often lead to persistent prejudice.

    You see, narratives matter. It was a narrative about skin color and inferiority that allowed many Americans to justify centuries of slavery and discrimination. It was a narrative about gender and ability that allowed some men to deny women the right to vote—and, for that matter, equal pay today. It’s cultural narratives of “rags to riches” and “lifting yourself up by your bootstraps” that allow some people to ignore their own advantage—to mistake their running start for a fair start.

    These narratives and others even inform the way we memorialize our history—who is included, and who is left out.”

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