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Cambridge University course leader Simon Hall reveals how to tell a great story

A former BBC journalist who runs a course at the University of Cambridge telling academics how to communicate their research has written a book on the subject.

Simon Hall, who runs the Creative Warehouse agency, has now published his book called Compelling Communication, and he hopes it will inspire people from all walks of lives to tell their stories.

While working with the university, he discovered that many researchers were struggling to communicate their ideas and findings to the wider world. The book reveals tips he has given these academics on everything from public speaking and giving a confident presentation to storytelling, social media and how to interest the press.

Simon Hall, author of Compelling Communication
Simon Hall, author of Compelling Communication

“In simple terms, this book is the pinnacle of my career,” says Simon.

“I have put just about everything I know in there from the foundations of effective communication, which are often completely the reverse of what people expect them to be, through to writing skills - incorporating insights from some of the greatest writers in human history; then I have written a couple of chapters on storytelling, a big favourite of mine, because the power of storytelling is so often underappreciated. People tend to associate it with films and books and box sets, but actually it's one of the narratives of our lives. And if you really want to make a connection with an audience, if you want to make an impact, if you want your message to be remembered, put it in the form of a story. I say in the book, facts fade, but stories stick.”

He also covers “the dreaded land of public speaking and presentations”. When these come up, he says, “people shudder and say ‘Oh, I'll never be a great public speaker’.”

But Simon promises that if you follow his tips, public speaking will become easier.

He also covers how to get your story into the media and discusses strategic communication, which he says is “using your newfound compelling communication skill set to achieve your aims in life”.

The book was inspired by his realisation that many people may have made “the most extraordinary innovation or discover” but without the correct communication skills, that invention may go “nowhere”.

He aims to impress on the students who come to his communication classes at the University of Cambridge that when writing any kind of report or trying to tell your story, short words and clear sentences are OK - in spite of lessons people may have learned at school.

“I've come to realise that so much of what we were taught in school, that we learn in college and that we expect in the world of work is just wrong when it comes to being a good communicator. We have this sense that in order to be impressive, you have to use big words and long sentences with lots of clauses, whereas actually the opposite is true - use small words, short sentences, snappy and easy to understand. And particularly in the modern, busy, often internet-based world, we're taught that in order to make a big impression, you should go on and on and on and make your report really weighty and make your presentation good and lengthy. And actually, I love the saying in communication, ‘less is more’. You can make more impact through less work. And what's not to like about that? So not only helping you become a compelling communicator in the book, but actually saving your precious time as well, which is a win-win,” says Simon.

Previously, Simon was a broadcaster for 20 years, mostly as a BBC television, radio and online news correspondent, specialising in business and economics and home affairs.

Simon is now a course leader at the University of Cambridge, and is a journalist, author, and business coach.

Simon Hall, author of Compelling Communication
Simon Hall, author of Compelling Communication

He teaches communication, media, business, writing, presentation, storytelling, and public relations skills at Cambridge and other universities across England, for government departments, and companies.

And, he says, the way to find the story you want to tell - whether it be about your business, research or your own life - is to consider how someone you know would explain it, says Simon.

“I think we all have stories within us, but in terms of your personal story, sometimes you lose it because you're so used to it yourself. So I always suggest talking to people, talking to your family, talking to your partner, talking to your friends and ask them this question: What stories have I told you, or what have I done or gone through in my life, which you really remember? And it can be remarkable because you can get answers which make you think, ‘Oh, I've forgotten about that. But yes, that really is a good story, isn't it?’ And that way you can think, well, if they're appealing to my family or my partner or my friends or colleagues, they'll be appealing to the outside world.

“So hold up a mirror, or get your friends and family and colleagues to hold up a mirror and say, ‘What do you remember about what I've done, what really struck you? That way, you can use it as a sounding board, and you can discover quite often, you've got a lot more to talk about than you thought.”

But he doesn’t hold with the idea that there is a formulaic way of pinning down what makes a great story, because sometimes the things people will find interesting are surprising.

Most recently, he wrote a blog about how to cope when you are interrupted during a presentation.

He explains: “Some people get really put off when they're doing a talk, and someone puts up a hand after a few minutes and they want to ask a question or clarify something. So I had a couple of tips for people who are like that, who don't like interruptions and like to save the questions to the end. And I didn't really expect there to be much reaction to that, but I got loads and loads of reaction. So I think you can't really define what a good story is, but you know one when you hear it.”

Compelling Communication by Simon Hall is published by Cambridge University Press, priced £22.99.

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