Billy Bragg, BBC & a barn — my journey to becoming a storyteller

“So you’re the business storyteller!” the singer-songwriter Billy Bragg exclaimed as we stepped out into the Brighton sunshine on the hunt for good coffee. It was May 2013. I was interviewing Billy for the Financial Times. He told me he’d spotted my email footer in the messages I’d exchanged with his office.

Billy’s been part of my personal story for a long time. I first saw him play live 35 years ago. Two years after that I interviewed him for my local radio station. The role was a lucky break. BBC local radio had been looking for young people to get involved with a Saturday night show, and I applied while still at school. So in 1986, and just 18 years old, I lugged a bulky Uher reel-to-reel tape machine from my home in Essex to Kilburn in north London to interview my teenage hero, Mr Billy Bragg.

It was an interview that earned an on-air disclaimer due to my youthful naivety: I’d broken BBC guidelines asking a question that wasn’t politically impartial. Yet faux pas aside, it’s this interview that marks out the start of my journey as a professional storyteller: from teenage radio host via music television and media production to author, journalist and business storyteller. It’s a journey that since took me back to the BBC — running a series of storytelling workshops for journalists around the UK — and saw me embedded in The World Economic Forum’s digital media command centre at Davos. And I’ve taken my Power of Storytelling keynote from Edinburgh to Paris, Bavaria to Luxembourg.

I set out on this path as a kid. For the first ten years of my life we didn’t have a TV set at home. So I spent a lot of time reading, listening to the radio and dreaming up characters and scenarios with my sister. When I was ten my father gave me a little red transistor radio. I adored that little red radio and listened to it avidly under the bed covers. It opened my ears to the power of stories and fuelled my ambition to work in broadcasting.

After my teenage stint with BBC Essex I headed to university. On leaving I got a job in TV production and spent the next nine years in TV, radio and live events. I climbed the career ladder fast — at the end of the 1990s I’d been promoted to managing a radio studio business. On the surface I had made it and had all the hallmarks of success — a good salary, a house of my own and a busy diary entertaining clients in Soho’s finest restaurants and private members’ clubs.

But that version of success didn’t match my own ideals. I felt a sense of disconnection. I’d lost my creative spirit. Business plans, board meetings and financial forecasting had replaced the storytelling. There was no joy in my work. It hit me hard and I couldn’t do it anymore. I walked out on my role as a managing director and started working for myself.

That was in December 1999 and I’ve carved out an entrepreneurial path for myself ever since. “Story” has been a constant theme at the heart of everything I’ve done as an independent: authoring four books on work and business, co-devising a kids’ book, contributing to Monocle 24, writing for British Airways Business Life magazine, an 18-month freelance gig for the Financial Times, as well as being hired by companies to tell their stories.

And yet. It’s only as recent as five years ago that I really came of age as a storyteller, in a barn on a farm on the far west of Wales. Standing on stage at The Do Lectures, I told my real story for the first time. I described the struggles I’d experienced in my early career. As the screen behind me showed a photo of the 8-year-old me, I spoke of what used to be important to me and what made me tick. It was then my emotions nearly got the better of me and I struggled to keep going.

THAT was the moment when I really — truly — learned the power of storytelling. My own true story, told out loud, changed everything.

That day I learned how revealing your vulnerability can build an emotional, strong connection with the audience. Many of the people I work with today tell me they’ve watched my Do Lecture talk online. Last year a woman flew from NYC to London just to attend one of my workshops. She’d made the decision to come based on this talk; she told me my story mattered.

So now when I talk to organisations about the power of storytelling, I often tell mine. And when I do so, I am always humbled by how that triggers others to share their own personal stories.

One November a couple of years ago I ran an awayday at an historic country house for Thomas Cook Money, a sixty-person startup within the long-established travel group. It was the first time they’d all got together in one place, and for many of those present the first time they’d met each other. We ended the day in a Jacobean library by a crackling fire, where I asked everyone to share the stories of ‘how they got to here.’

The stories poured out: moments of change that had led to unplanned trajectories. A moped accident. A tour of duty with the British army in Belfast. Working at a New York global investment bank in the midst of the financial crash.

Something special was happening. As each team member finished and passed the spark to the next, the honesty and vulnerability on display was palpable. Emotional connections were forged and that story-sharing session by the fire fuelled team spirit long after the embers died away.

As I drove away from the venue late that night, I pressed play on my Billy Bragg playlist. Billy’s nickname is The Bard of Barking. His songs speak of the personal, lamentations of love lost; tales of struggles and joy. In his lyrics he talks of the universal by describing the particular. One may not like his music, but the themes and stories are applicable to all. Stories bind us together — any way we tell them, whether via pop songs or through the stories of the people we work with. Sharing our truth is the way we truly communicate and build relationships with each other. You bring an audience with you when you make another human being feel something.

That’s why I’m proud to be known as the business storyteller.

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IanSanders

Sparking change through story. Energising people at work. Author of 365 Ways to Have a Good Day (out Nov 2021). Fuelled by coffee, curiosity, walking.