Demystifying the Art of Storytelling

Demystifying the Art of Storytelling

Everyone loves a good story. Our parents read us stories, and we tell them naturally to friends and family. So why is it that in a professional context, we are so reluctant to tell stories?

I ask this question at the start of my storytelling workshops. Participants come up with a number of answers ranging from it is culturally inappropriate, too personal or a lack of ability.

Often people tell me storytelling is too Anglo-Saxon and not appropriate in Mediterranean or other cultures. In fact, I would argue that Africans are fantastic storytellers due to their oral traditions. But I think this reluctance is because people associate storytelling with the high drama of Hollywood with its rollercoaster of emotions.

In fact, storytelling is much simpler; it is about adding colour to the facts.

Ethos, pathos, logos
The Greeks got it right 2,500 years ago. Aristotle said if you want to persuade someone of something, you need to appeal to ethos (credibility), logos (logic) and pathos (stirring emotion in the audience). In the workplace we often have ethos and logos, but shy away from pathos.

Pathos though comes in many different forms. It can come from a personal story, sharing an anecdote or case study, dramatisation, a quotation or using a rhetorical device such as a metaphor or analogy.

We are all storytellers
We have all experienced significant moments in our lives – a first job, a lasting love affair, a major professional or personal challenge. Each of these moments has the potential to be turned into a story that we can tell in a professional context. The only difference from telling it to a friend, is that there must be a point to it. If you are telling a story in a presentation/speech, in a job interview or while mentoring or evaluating a team member, you need to ensure that it illustrates your idea or message.

The personal story is the most powerful and easiest to relate as we have lived through it, but telling other people’s stories (anecdotes) can also be memorable.

Show the challenges you seek to overcome
Often organisations and companies I work with underplay the challenges they face. I once made a film for a client about reuniting children separated from their families in Democratic Republice of Congo.

Many had been abducted by armed groups and fled to South Sudan. The spokesperson made it sound like a pure logistics operation – organising flights back home for the children. Until, at the last moment a girl, accompanied by the woman she was working for, refused to get into the car to the airport. The spokesperson negotiated a highly fraught situation, and then explained to me that often children don’t want to return to their families due to fear of the armed groups still in the bush or because they had found jobs or friends in the towns they had fled to.

He said often there was no conventional happy ending as sometimes the children would leave their families again and make their way back to the town. For me, it was the complexity of the situation that made the story so much more compelling and the work of this client so much more impressive!!

Yes, you can!
To paraphrase a well-known President Obama election speech slogan, everyone can learn how to structure and tell a memorable story.

In my virtual and face-to-face workshops, we go through the various techniques by telling each other stories that can be used in different professional contexts. By the end, everyone has experienced that rush of hormones that comes when we listen to a good story and has the confidence to add storytelling to their communication’s toolbox.

Have a look at a short extract from a virtual workshop:

Has there been an event reset since COVID?

Has there been an event reset since COVID?

The pandemic is not over, but at least in Europe there is a return to something resembling normality (for the moment at least). At the virtual and hybrid conferences that I moderate, many speakers are talking about the small window of opportunity that exists to reset the world for the better of humanity.

But in my small world of moderating at events nothing much has changed – unfortunately!

I had hoped that some of the best practices from the virtual world – shorter event times, shorter presentations/speeches, greater variety of format and creativity – would become the new normal.

We know that we have to work harder to break through the screen of indifference when an event or meeting is virtual. The hybrid format – focusing on a virtual and in-person audience is challenging technically and editorially. I know some clients who have decided to abandon hybrid in favour of virtual or in-person.

However, editorially I am still seeing the same errors at some, not all, the events that I moderate. Here are some of them:

Events are too top down. They are based on the organisers’ needs and not those of the audience. Many of the panels I moderate don’t address the issues or answer the questions that are top of mind for the audience.
Agendas organised in silos. Breaking the silos – for example, ensuring scientists, diplomats and policymakers talk and listen to each other is a common aspiration among audiences. However, organizers fail to apply this logic to their event programme. Too often, they put people from the same sector, for example civil society, on the same panel so naturally they frequently all say the same thing. There is no genuine debate or discussion – just different perspectives on the same topic, but based on the work or the country where the panelist works.
Panels are segregated. Mainstreaming is another big buzz word at these events yet all the speakers from one region are put together. Recently two great panelists from Nigeria and Cameroon complained to me that they, along with two other speakers from West Africa, had all found themselves on the same panel on inclusive growth. Can we not be mainstreamed into other panels with other sectors, they asked?
Sectors are pigeonholed. Young people at one event that I moderated said, while they were grateful to be part of the opening ceremony, they felt as if this was a token gesture – a box ticking exercise from the organizers to show that they were taking young people seriously. Myself and the other moderator invited them back to the closing ceremony where we introduced them as a doctor and lawyer!
Jargon is rife. I struggled for days at one event to understand some of the panel briefs given to me. I showed one of them to various attendees at the conference beforehand and no one understood it. My speakers all had different interpretations about what the focus of the discussion was – and it was written in the programme. My fellow moderator had the same problem with his briefs but assumed it was because English was not his mother tongue. They were he said a “Wortsalat” or “Scrabble” (the board game) as it translates into German!
Manels are still with us. I had one panel with 9 men – enough to make the UN Gender Champions and EU Gender Watch, who monitor panels to ensure gender diversity, scream in their remote offices.
Too many speakers are invited. One conference I worked at took the prize for most ambitious event; they had three keynote speakers followed by three presentations followed by four different panelists to be completed in 75 minutes. Bottom line on number of speakers is that if you have more than 4, you get a presentation of points rather than an exchange of ideas.
Events are too long. 7 hours! I have a one day mostly virtual event with the moderator and a couple of speakers in the studio. It is supposed to last 7 hours. I wonder who will be left watching virtually by the end of that day?

I am an optimist by nature. I still hope that the window of opportunity is there for an event reset, but I fear that it is closing fast as people fail to learn the lessons of the pandemic and apply some of the good practice learned over the past 18 months.

Claire helps clients design their virtual, hybrid and in-person events and runs workshops on organising and moderating at events.

Setting up and Running Hybrid Meetings

Setting up and Running Hybrid Meetings

Here in Geneva it is “la rentrée” – meaning back to school or back to work after the summer break.

For some it will be the first time they are back in the office after many months, while for others they may still be working from home.

This means that hybrid meetings are “de rigueur” (order of the day) with some people meeting in person and others joining remotely.

Hybrid meetings should combine the best of both worlds, but the challenge is to make them inclusive and seamless.

Below are some tips and techniques for setting up and facilitating a hybrid meeting, based on my experience as conference moderator and conversations with organisers and technical suppliers.

Getting the equipment right

The higher the stakes, the higher the production values. A hybrid team meeting does not require the same level of equipment and resources as a town hall or stakeholder meeting. You may for example want to book a professional studio for a more important meeting, rather than set up a studio in your office. However, whatever the status of the meeting, you need to ensure that the online and in-person audience – the “Zoomies” and the “Roomies” – can see and hear each other.

Audio equipment – The “Zoomies” join on their laptops or mobile devices that have inbuilt microphones, speakers and cameras, allowing the “Roomies” to see and hear them. Where it gets complex is ensuring the “Zoomies” hear the “Roomies”. “Roomies” need either dedicated microphones for each participant or another option is ceiling microphones which can pick up sound over a certain amount of space. I am no specialist on this, but I highly recommend you contact companies that install videoconferencing systems to ensure a proper set up. I know of one organisation that held a hybrid meeting where the echo from the “Roomies” audio made the whole experience a waste of time and resources.

Visual equipment – You need a screen so that the “Roomies” can see the “Zoomies”.

In the room you also need a camera or camera(s), depending on the production values, focused on the entire room as well as the person who is speaking. These cameras are often automated and can zoom in and out on individuals speaking. This image is then relayed back to the online participants through a Zoom link (if that is the software you are using). More complex meetings require more cameras and a technical director who switches between cameras in the room.

Facilitating a hybrid meeting

You need to be a better facilitator as both audiences need to feel included and have a sense of connection with the other participants. Here are seven top tips:

1. Explain the technical set up of the meeting at the beginning so everyone knows where the cameras and microphones are in the meeting room.
2. Prepare for technical glitches so the “Zoomies” know what to do if they lose audio or visual connectivity.
3. Set the rules of engagement so the “Roomies” and the “Zoomies” – know how and when to interact with each other. Whispered conversations in the room, for example, can easily be picked up by the overhead microphone.
4. Build a sense of inclusion so that both audiences have the same level of experience. It is easy for the “Roomies” to forget the “Zoomies” so the facilitator has to make a concerted effort to engage them. You could, for example, give the floor to them or ask them the first question.
5. Engage as one audience. Set the same task for both audiences, for example, raise your hand, or answer the poll. Although they may respond differently, clicking on a digital link online or answering on their phone in the room.
6. Use digital tools for both audiences to ensure coherence of content. Ditch the in the room flip charts and whiteboards as digital tools such as Google Jamboard, Padlet, Easy Retro, Mural and Miro are easier to read and allow participants to upload and share material easily.
7. Have a dedicated facilitator for the “Zoomies” and for the “Roomies” to ensure both groups get equal attention. They can handover to each other so that one leads a section of the meeting and then the other or they can work in tandem so that one supports the other during a section, for example when taking participant questions.

Hybrid meetings require more technical resources, planning and a skilled facilitator. Are they worth the investment? Do let me know your thoughts.

Over the next few weeks, I shall be moderating a number of hybrid events with and without an audience. In my next blog I shall share my tips and techniques based on my lessons learnt.

Advice from a Moderator on how to Select your Panel Speakers

Advice from a Moderator on how to Select your Panel Speakers

Have you seen the play, “Six Characters in search of an Author” by the Italian dramatist, Luigi Pirandello? Actors rehearsing for a play are interrupted by six unfinished characters in search of an author to finalise their story. It was first performed in 1921 and is part of the absurdist genre – breaking down the barriers between fantasy and reality.

Unfortunately, a century later, it is the absurd reality that many moderators can find themselves in when confronted with a cast of speakers selected by the organisers of an event. We struggle to work out why they have been chosen, and what they bring to the subject under discussion. We are then left to build connections between the speakers to create a narrative flow that makes sense to the audience.

Believe me, this can take hours of head scratching and sometimes the connections are just not there, particularly if an organiser has selected someone for non-editorial reasons such as an important donor, someone they want to do business or engage with in the future or because we must have a representative from all five corners of the globe.

Start with the what and not the who

Organisers often tell me they want a BBC-style discussion. If that is the case, they need to follow the principles of BBC news and current affairs programmes. You start with identifying the news of the moment – for event organizers – this translates as what is top of mind and relevant for the audience.

A lot of events today are focusing on building back better after the pandemic, asking if the world can be more sustainable. The BBC would take an opposing view structure bringing someone from the government to explain how they set new environmental targets to achieve net-zero emissions, and then an environmental activist who says the targets are inadequate. The BBC might also put into the mix an academic who can give context.

Unfortunately, organisers rarely want to have opposing views in a discussion – although this is often what is most interesting to an audience. They often prefer to have different perspectives on a subject. This is also possible but it takes more careful thought.

You need to come up with a title for the panel which ideally includes a question. For example, tea producers under threat – how to ensure production is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable? You could then invite a speaker from India and from Kenya to talk about the threats and possible solutions, before bringing in a speaker from a tea consuming nation, such as the UK, and a speaker from the FAO to discuss possible actions at local, regional and international level.

Be selective in choosing your panel speakers

If you want a real exchange of views, you need to select speakers who can not only speak about their area but pick up on points raised by other speakers or the moderator, and don’t have more than four speakers. All too often, panel discussions are in name only as they become interviews with each speaker and there is little exchange between the speakers.

One more point, do not accept the first speaker you contact. At the BBC programme producers hit the phones finding the right people for the subject and dismissing anyone who does not have strong views, new insights or who is not a confident speaker.

And they never accept people who all say the same thing. Imagine if Pirandello’s six characters in search of an author were all the same – that would have been mind numbing for the audience who would no doubt have voted with their feet and the play would not have endured as a hit show over the past century.

Press Briefings in the Virtual World

Press Briefings in the Virtual World

Organising a virtual press briefing is to coin the Thai-English phrase – “same same but different.

The basics are the same. You need to have news, which is impactful, timely and ideally topical.  It may seem obvious, but too often press briefings are organised solely to “educate” the media about an issue. I can’t tell you how many I left as a BBC Foreign Correspondent without a story to broadcast!

But there are many differences; while virtual briefings have many advantages notably cost, convenience, geographic reach and you could argue carbon footprint, as with all digital events they need to better prepared and moderated.

For the past year I have been moderating virtual media briefings for the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations on COVID 19 – last  week was my 6th – and also advising companies and organisations on how to run and speak at them.

Preparing a virtual press briefing

Based on my experience on both sides of the fence as a moderator/media consultant/trainer and former journalist, here are four key questions you should ask yourself: 

Hybrid or virtual? – Hybrid where the moderator and a key speaker(s) are together in a room has the advantage that you don’t lose your speakers due to technical glitches. However, you need audiovisual and logistical support. At the UN Palais in Geneva they also have some journalists in the room but as a moderator you need to make sure you don’t prioritise those in the room over those joining virtually. 

Who do you invite? You can invite everyone on your media list or those outlets that are more strategically important for you. Make sure though that the links you send out are not shared as you don’t want to find yourself answering questions from government, corporate or NGO representatives. A press briefing as the name suggests must just be for the press!

Questions in vision or only in writing? If you only take pre-submitted written questions from journalists, this gives you advanced insight and allows you to filter and collate them for the moderator. This method also ensures a broad range of outlets and topics are covered. The drawback is that while it ensures you retain control; it can be frustrating for the journalist whose question is not selected or who does not get to ask a follow-up question.

If you take questions live, you will be in the dark about which questions will be asked  with the risk you get one that is off topic if the moderator does not intervene.

Heads up if journalists feel that a speaker has not fully answered a question, you will see that they start to work like a pack asking follow-up questions. It is normally the follow-up questions that can be the most challenging for speakers to answer.

How vital is a moderator? The moderator’s role and responsibilities cannot be overstated. He or she is not just a director of traffic, the moderator must clearly assign questions and repeat them for the benefit of the speakers and audience. This is extremely important particularly if the question is poorly worded or the journalist is speaking in a foreign language with a heavy accent.

Virtual and increasingly hybrid press briefings – just like events – are likely to be with us in the foreseeable future. Make sure yours are well prepared and moderated and you have the opportunity to broaden and deepen your media coverage.

Professionally Producing Virtual Events

Professionally Producing Virtual Events

What is the biggest challenge when organising a virtual event? Technical glitches are high up on the list when I ask this question in my workshop on organising engaging virtual events.
A year on since the pandemic first hit, we are still challenged and aggravated by poor video and sound quality, speakers that fail to connect and lack of time management. At one event I moderated, so many outside lines went down I ended up talking at length to the one guest I fortunately had in the studio. If he hadn’t been with me, we would have just had to go on a break and come back once we reconnected with our speakers.

So, how do you organise a technically glitch free event?


I recently moderated the Global Vaccine Immunization and Research Forum (GVIRF) – an event spanning three days over two continents – where all the speakers were pre-recorded. They or proxies were brought back live to answer audience and moderator questions.

If you do pre-record, speakers must keep to time. If you are pre-recording a panel discussion or interview, it must be done “as live” so that it is kept to time. If you go over, you will have to cut something else later in the programme.

Broadcasters give themselves flexibility, editing short and longer versions.

Time management

On some platforms, like VMIX, you can integrate a countdown clock so that speakers and the audience see how long is left. At the GVIRF, all of the panel moderators kept to the time that was set.

MC talk back

One of the main jobs of a Master of Ceremonies (MC) is to seamlessly link from one part of the show to the next. It helps if they get a countdown in their earpiece from a studio producer so they know how long is left in a discussion, presentation, pre-recording, video or jingle before they have to speak. At the GVIRF, I downloaded a fantastic mobile phone application called unity comms. I connected with my headphones and could hear the studio producer and talk back to him.

Studio and virtual producers

If you want a seamless and smooth event you need a producer either with you in the studio or in the moderator’s ear virtually.

At one hybrid event I moderated, the producer was in the UK while the event was in Geneva – so I ended up moderating and being the floor manager – guiding guests in and out of the recording area and giving them instructions on what camera to look into. And of course, we had the added complication of social distancing!

Virtual event companies

If you are going to stage an event of more than an hour, you need to have great in-house audiovisual support or engage a virtual event company.

Many events companies have had no option but to work virtually. However, there is a big difference between a company that knows how to do the technical set up in a hotel or conference center and one that understands how to produce virtual events like a TV programme.

At the GVIRF, I worked with Go Vivace an events company in the UK that employs people from the worlds of theatre and broadcasting. Needless to say, the event was as smooth as a BBC programme or a West End production!

Technical rehearsals

Technical rehearsals with each speaker is required – do not try to cut corners on the budget on this step. It is crucial to check speakers’ background, lighting, and sound before the event.

Also make sure speakers are familiar with the platform – know how to unmute themselves and on some platforms know how to pin themselves to the live broadcast. It is best if they keep their cameras on as if they turn them off the organisers and moderator can easily think they have lost connection.

Even the CEOs of big pharma at the briefings I moderate on COVID 19 vaccines and treatments for IFPMA gave us 15 minutes of their precious time for the technical set up.

Professional moderation

I would say this as a professional panel moderator and conference MC, but you do need someone who can keep calm and carry on whatever technical issues occur.

At a recent event recorded in a client’s office, we lost connection right at the end, between two high-level speakers. Fortunately, the quick-thinking producer switched between one computer and another so we managed to finish the programme smoothly – and on time!

Of course, the real role of an MC is to drive the narrative, connect the dots and energise and interact with the audience – more on that in next months blog!