It was late and I had driven a long way, but that was all forgotten when I got my first view of Milton Abbey School as I turned the corner onto the long drive – absolutely breath-taking. The view is not an accident, it was created by some of the most celebrated designers of the 1700’s – Sir William Chambers designed the great gothic ‘house’ and ‘Capability’ Brown reshaped the landscape around it. History is a big part of the Milton Abbey School legacy.
But history is also a hurdle to overcome for the school, which is why I was invited there to run a story coaching session. Two years ago a new headmaster took over, and big changes have happened at the school – there are exciting stories to tell. But oral history is slow to respond to real life, and although people close to the school know the stories have changed, out on the further reaches of the tentacles of communication there are still out-dated stories alive and well, and thriving unchallenged. What Milton Abbey School want to achieve this year is that in homes, staff rooms, restaurants and pubs all over the UK – in fact wherever the school is discussed – their current story will now prevail over any irrelevant stories from the past. It is the challenge of any transformational change programme, not only do you have to change internally; you usually need change deep-seated perceptions externally too. So the brief for this session was enabling staff, support staff and governors to become effective, confident story ambassadors, working with them to build a consensus as to what the current story was and raising awareness that every new story sent out takes a little bit of wind out of the sails of those old, irrelevant stories.
We first broke down the ‘story elements’ of the Milton Abbey Story to work out what it was about the school that the audience would be interested in hearing about. We then worked on the effect we wanted this story to have on the audience. What would we like them to think, feel and do? Choosing one of the words from this exercise as inspiration, the teams went off to tell each other stories they knew about the school. Ten teams of six people! I had never had to move so fast to get around everyone during an exercise. But as I walked into each classroom the sight was so exciting – people telling transformational stories of pupils that they had witnessed; with energy, pride and even with a sense of awe. An army was being armed.
We regrouped to discuss some of the broad storytelling themes we could use when people enquired about the school and from that came a powerful start which could be used for any of these stories. “What is happening now at Milton Abbey School is very exciting.” It doesn’t sound like rocket science but starting with this means no reference or even acknowledgment of the past, the chance to put all the story telling energy into the present day and an emphasis on the significance of the current activities of the school.
There is no doubt that to some degree all the attendees present were already sending out some great stories about the school, but now they are aware of the power of their stories, they are equipped with the right stories for the right audience and they are on the look out for opportunities to tell them – that is the sort of ambassador every business needs.