Tell me a story!

Houda Boulahbel
5 min readMay 17, 2024


My grandmother was illiterate, but she had an amazing skill. She could turn any situation into a fable, most often involving animal characters. Hers were always very short stories, but full of meaning. She also used a lot of metaphors. Sometimes, if she was really angry, she would turn them into songs that she would gently hum as she did her work, and then you’d know that you screwed up and you needed to do something about it.

My totally failed Gen Ai attempt to create a picture of my grandmother using her traditional stone grinder.

My grandmother used her skill to communicate her joys and her pains, her excitement and her frustration in a unique and gentle way. When I was younger, I saw that as a quirk, a fun thing about my Nanna. With hindsight, I realise that I missed a trick. I should have sat down and taken note because, that ability to tell stories that convey emotion and shape a response in others is a superpower, and one that I would seek most of my life.

I first realised the power of storytelling when I was a research scientist. I had volunteered to give a talk about my research on an open evening at my institute. The open evening was attended by the wonderful people who donated funds to the institute. All of our research was made possible by their generosity, and so we invited them from time to time to come and hear about our work, see our expensive equipment in action, and get to know us a little bit.

I knew that some of the audience would be school children, so I prepared a short ( and rather ugly) PowerPoint ‘animation’ that told the story of my favourite molecule as a hero.

My talk was going to be the last one of the evening, right after a very senior and prominent scientist. Their presentation showcased the huge amount of work their lab had done, the long list of their achievements, their discoveries and their publications. It was all very detailed and very impressive, and the scientist’s passion for their work was really evident.

I began to feel nervous. The aim of the evening was to show people how well we used the money they gave us, and here I was sitting with a badly drawn cartoon of a superhero! Will people be offended? Will they think that I was wasting their time (and money!)?

To make things worse, the other scientist’s presentation was taking quite a long time. Everybody looked flat and tired. Will anyone have patience for my talk — which by then started to feel a bit silly in comparison to all that scientific achievement?

Too late to back down! It was finally my turn. I went up on stage, I told my story and I showed my cartoons.

This happened almost twenty years ago, but I still have goosebumps when I remember what happened after I finished talking.



Then a massive cheer! Everyone jumped off their feet and ran to me! All of a sudden, I had all these people around me, asking questions, sharing their own stories, with so much energy and excitement!

The feedback came the next morning: We want more stories like that!

That, my friends, was a proud moment.

Since then, I always looked for good stories to read and good stories to tell.

I relied on story heavily in my work as a communications consultant in healthcare. On reflection, I realise that, I had only used story as a one-way conversation: to inform, raise awareness, educate and persuade.

When I started to collect case studies on the application of systems thinking, I noticed the many other ways that story was used to support systemic approaches to change:

  • To create meaning out of complexity
  • To bring people together
  • To shape conversations
  • To build connections and relationships
  • To create empathy with other perspectives
  • To shift mindsets
  • To see new opportunities
  • To change inherited narratives
  • To imagine new futures

Isn’t that wonderful? That something even my illiterate grandmother could do has the potential to build connections, create meaning and support change?

What would you add to my list?

I am particularly interested in how we use story to create connection and bridge multiple perspectives. Lately, I have been experimenting with a workshop format that is based on the use of stories to identify patterns, and improve ways of working in multidisciplinary teams. While doing research for the workshop, I came across the concept of the Story Circle (Thanks to Jonnie Moore for introducing me to it!). It did not take much for me to try it, love it and incorporate it in my processes.

The idea is very simple: a small group of individuals sharing stories — from their own experience or imagination — around a common theme.

There is one rule: you are only allowed to share stories, no analysis, no comments, no criticism, no interpretation of what the story means.

Just stories.

At the end, the group take a few minutes to reflect together on what was revealed by all of the stories.

Every time I ran Story Circle, people arrived a little apprehensive and a little nervous about sharing stories with others. But this quicky changes. Every time, this simple activity surprised and delighted.

So I have decided to open Story Circle events to anyone who wants to join. I will start running them on a monthly basis, starting Wednesday 29 May.

Do you fancy joining?

The theme for my next Story Circle will be Artificial Intelligence. I think we have reached a time now when each of us has a story about artificial intelligence.

You are invited to my Story Circle:

I am looking for stories, from experience or imagination (or both). I am NOT looking for analysis, pontification, evaluation, etc.

Just stories.

It will be a small, informal gathering. You can find details through the link below.

Feel free to send me a line on if you have any questions, thoughts, ideas.

See you soon, may be?



Houda Boulahbel

Systems thinking consultant and educator. Ex-cancer research scientist. Curious about the world. Check out my website: