The Power of Storytelling

Mrs Pauline Harvey-Short, Dean of School

Angela Hirst - Valedictory guest speaker 2014
Angela Hirst (BGGS 1993) – Valedictory guest speaker 2014

The choice of a guest speaker at Speech Day or the Valedictory Dinner is an interesting challenge. It is not a simple choice. The right and inspiring speaker can provide the departing Year 12 students with a sense of purpose, hope, and aspiration while, hopefully, affirming their perception of the values of Brisbane Girls Grammar School. For the rest of the School on Speech Day, many of these women are the epitome of a Grammar girl and their dynamic lives can be beacons both in achievements and principles. They speak directly to the students with passion and commitment but their speeches are more than emotive language.

Journalist, Mary Beth Marklein of USA Today stated that there were eight keys to a significant speech. Included in her advice: ‘inspire us … but lose the clichés; talk about yourself … but make it meaningful to us; make us laugh … but leave the stand-up routines to the pros; practise … but don’t sound practised; make us think … but don’t make us seethe; and do your homework … because details matter’ (Marklein, 2009). TEDx’s fundamental advice is ‘look for ideas, not speakers as the audience will remember the idea and not the speaker’. So, how has this advice been translated into the choice of speakers for Girls Grammar students? Historically, valedictory speakers, and occasionally, Speech Day speakers, are past students of the School. Is this a sound practice? Why select these women in particular? How do they convey their message? Is the message consistent with the School’s Intent?

Many old girls have ‘an integral and inseparable connection to the institution’ (Singer and Hughey, 2002) from which they graduated. It is beneficial to the individual and the institution to nurture and celebrate this connection. Speech Day speaker, Ann Harrap (BGGS 1984), agreed to present the address in 2013 because she believed ‘my education at BGGS had given me a great foundation for my future career. So I saw that small commitment of time as an ideal way to give something back to the School’ (A. Harrap, personal communication, February 8, 2016). Her continued involvement in the School as a Trustee and within the student leadership program is testament to her connectedness to, and belief in, the School and its intent.

Powerful connections to the School are evident in many ways where Grammar women interact with current students in the classroom, assist in the School’s archives, convene special interest groups, act as mentors and return as guest speakers. Kate Watson (BGGS 1986), 2015 Valedictory speaker, believes having past students as speakers accentuates in the Year 12 students’ minds that ‘once a Grammar girl, always a Grammar girl — that you’ll always be part of the Grammar girl family’. She believes that this choice reinforces the sense of community — ‘something that I believe as women in the workforce we need to do better — mentoring; networking and supporting each other’ (K. Watson, personal communication, February 8, 2016). These beliefs have a profound impact on the current students when delivered by women who have gone before them.

The selection process for these speakers is couched in presenting the graduating cohort with women who have, to different degrees, challenged themselves, perhaps taken paths less travelled, faced failure and emerged stronger, maintained a love of adventure and learning, and have a fundamental belief in service and community. It is an attempt to inspire, challenge, and excite current and graduating students.

How are these objectives achieved? By storytelling. ‘Storytelling has always been a powerful form of teaching and continues to be a compelling way to build and communicate theory’ (Fawcett and Fawcett, 2011). Past students bring a unique credibility to School values when they describe their experiences because, like the students seated before them, they, too, have worn the uniform, sat through hot, summer assemblies, walked the hallways of the Main Building and watched the clock on a Friday afternoon in W1.1.

In her powerful and riveting valedictory speech of 2013, Melinda Taylor (BGGS 1992) espoused: know yourself; be true to yourself; and be responsible for your own actions. To illustrate this advice, she told the story of her arrest in Libya while defending Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi. The narrative described her eating portions of sensitive documents which exacerbated her predicament and extended her confinement. ‘I learned to appreciate fully the importance of having a support network of friends and family, colleagues and compatriots …’. Taylor concluded by encouraging the Year 12s to take time to help others along the way; to create a network, and she believed that ‘You are, however, equipped with friendship, curiosity, courage, and the knowledge that anything is possible’ (Taylor, 2013).

Angela Hirst (BGGS 1993) told the passionate story of her circuitous route from architect to a doctorate in food ethics and the birth of an inventive and generous concept of Wandering Cooks, ‘an incubator for food entrepreneurs’ (Hirst, 2014). To the girls, she stated: ‘You’ve been given the incredibly fortunate opportunity to be able to care about people and the world …. Follow your heart and bump into the world all over the place … look for lessons everywhere, especially in people that are different from you. Encounter it all with your heart open wide, and one by one, build your passions into a life you can be proud of’(Hirst, 2014).

Girls Grammar life lessons for Kate Watson (BGGS 1986) included ‘having a go — throw yourself into everything; following your passion requires resilience and hard work; keep learning; Girls Grammar gives you a voice — use it; and be thankful’. Each lesson was colourfully and engagingly illustrated with personal stories of failure and disappointment, hard work and success, relationships with international athletes, travel, teaching and learning. With her stories, Watson wanted to communicate the highs and lows of her experiences, to show the toil and the gratitude.

The School’s Intent speaks of developing young women to contribute confidently to their world with wisdom, imagination and integrity. The common thread throughout the valedictory and Speech Day speakers resonates with hard work, passion, compassion, resilience, caring and curiosity. I believe these speakers have inspired, told wonderful stories, provided humour, got the detail right, and communicated the clear values and virtues of Grammar girls. Do these women capture the intent of our mission statement? A resounding ‘yes’! Have the past students enhanced and enriched the Grammar community? Yes!

In Harrap’s words, ‘It has been a very charmed and adventurous life so far. But many of the pathways I have taken and many of my achievements are attributable to what I learned at Girls Grammar in an environment that supported ambition and nurtured talent and drive’ (Harrap, 2013). ‘… But if things don’t go the way you imagined them now as you sit here, know that with the adaptability and resilience that you have — those characteristics that are so much a part of being a Grammar girl — you are still destined to prevail’ (Harrap, 2013). An organisation’s value and spirit can be conveyed effectively by storytelling. When the story is told by Grammar women, it is even more powerful, meaningful and inspirational.


Fawcett, S.E., & Fawcett, A.M. (2011). The ‘living’ case: Structuring storytelling to increase student interest, interaction, and learning. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 9(2), 287–292.

Harrap, A. (2013). The Occasional Address, Speech Day 14 November 2013. Brisbane Girls Grammar School Annual Report, 34–36.

Hirst, A. (2014). Valedictory 18 November 2014. Brisbane Girls Grammar School Annual Report, 37–39.

Marklein, M. (2009). 8 Keys to a graduation speech with pomp and significance. Retrieved from

Select your speakers +performers / Speakers + program / TEDx Organiser Guide Organise a local TEDx event. Retrieved from

Singer, T., & Hughey, A. (2002). The role of the alumni association in student life. New Directions for Student Services, 100, 51–67.

Taylor, M. (2013). Valedictory 12 November 2013. Brisbane Girls Grammar School Annual Report, 37–39.

Watson, K. (2015). Unpublished speech, 19 November.

Yuan, M., & Chen, P. (2008). The influence of storytelling toward organisational memory. Journal of Educational Media and Library Sciences, 45(4), 479–482.