David Willows Q&A
I’m delighted to bring you this interview with David Willows, who uses storytelling in his job as director of external relations for The International School of Brussels in Brussels, Belgium.
David Willows is Director of External Relations at the International School of Brussels (ISB), Belgium. He has experience of working and writing in education, philosophy, marketing and brand development, pastoral care and counselling. He serves on the Board of the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD) and as a member of the Commission on Marketing and Communications for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). He maintains the blog “Fragments,” which is also the title of his collection of stories and reflections that attempts to make sense of modern family life. You can read more about him here.
Q&A with David Willows:
Q: You write on your blog, Fragments, “I often tell people that my job as director of external relations at the International School of Brussels is about ‘telling the story of my school and helping other people find their place in that story.’” What are some of the ways you tell the school’s story?
A: In my current work as the director of external relations of a large international school, it is true that I often say that my role is all about ‘telling the story of my school and helping others find their place in that story.’ That’s what marketing is all about as far as I am concerned! How we tell that story, though, is critical — and let’s not forget that storytelling is as much about listening as it is speaking to those around us.
So right now, we are busy telling the story of our school by producing brochures without words (allowing people to get closer to the experience, rather than bogged down by the world of fact); we are exploring the huge opportunities of that social media is providing — and it’s perhaps no surprise to find that our YouTube channel is fast becoming our most popular online gateway to the school; we are also intrigued by the ways in which data (that’s right, all the numbers and graphs) can tell stories in a particular way … so we’ve developed a data dashboard for key stakeholders across the school.
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/ storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: Funnily enough, I wasn’t one of those kids who read all the time growing up. So I can’t say that my childhood nurtured this interest in narrative and the power of stories. It all began later, when I was studying theology and philosophy at University. Looking back, I guess that I was somewhat frustrated with the notion that Truth could be reduced to statements of fact. So when I stumbled across a group of thinkers called “narrative theologians,” I became hooked by the idea that stories are key to making sense of the complexity of human existence.
Q: How has your work with story evolved?
A: I have written a lot about the power of storytelling in my career — as a priest in the Church of England, as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital, as a teacher, as a marketing and communications professional. Over the past six years, however, I have also spent time writing stories about my experience of modern family life. After some success as a blogger, I am just about to publish this work as a book [Fragments]. A series of short stories, the book reflects on a whole range of complex issues, from IVF and having twins, to divorce, coping with teenagers and losing someone you love. My experience tells me that these kinds of stories connect with others in all sorts of interesting and unexpected ways.
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now?’ What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: That’s a great question. It has certainly been fascinating to watch the growth of the “story industry” across all fields of professional life. It is ironic, perhaps, that all we are doing is going back to an ancient form of communication. But why now? I think the answer lies somewhere in the words of T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” These days, none of us lack information. But we need a way of connecting and bringing meaning to these otherwise random, disconnected moments in time. That’s what stories enable us to do — literally “make sense” out of our lives.
Q: What is your greatest challenge in the telling the story of International School of Brussels (pictured)?
A: One of the biggest challenges that we face in the context of an international school is this: with 1,500 students from 70 nationalities, whose history do we teach? This is a critical issue facing anyone involved in education right now and, sadly, there are no short answers. I am lucky enough to be in a learning environment where we are at least wrestling with this question every day and providing a curricular framework that begins to address this issue.
One thing I would say, however, is that storytelling insists that we take up a position, stand for something and give lie to the myth of neutrality.
You can’t ever stand outside the story!
After I published the first installment of my Q&A with David Willows, a reader e-mailed me to ask about this passage:
In my current work as the director of external relations of a large international school, it is true that I often say that my role is all about telling the story of my school and helping others find their place in that story.
The reader wanted to know what David meant by “helping others find their place in that story,” so I asked him. Here’s his response:
That’s a great question. To answer it, let’s think first about what happens when we read or listen to stories. Great stories don’t leave us for very long as passive “observers.” Instead, they engage us, challenge us, and invite us to join in; and we find ourselves literally playing a role in the story — imagining ourselves as the would-be hero, the victim in need of rescuing or even the rogue!
Turning to our role as storytellers in the context of an international school, I think that there are a number of parallels. First, it falls to some of us to narrate a story of education that is powerful and engaging. That’s key to effective marketing. Then, whether we are talking about prospective families, possible major donors or sponsors, future teachers or the students themselves — we then need to find ways of helping these would-be actors feel that they are part of the unfolding story; ways to make them literally imagine themselves as featuring in the next chapter; envision precisely how their gift will have a transformative effect; or simply imagine themselves as included, challenged and successful students.
By telling stories, we invite these various stakeholders to move from the stands into the centre of the stage. We give them lines to read and offer them the chance of playing a starring role.