Over five years ago, I travelled with a Wellington trade delegation to the Shanghai World Expo. I was sitting at a table with some representatives of the Shanghai districts and we swapped business cards, mine having been translated into Chinese.
It sparked a conversation between the locals who then wanted to know more about my business. I asked our translator why this had happened and he said it was because my trade name, All Told, had been translated as “achieving your full potential”.
As a result, an emotional connection had been made, rapport was built across the table – and cultures – and in the end I was able to help those I was dining with make a business connection with New Zealand.
I set up All Told over six years ago now. That process involved studying the principles of good storytelling – not to be confused with creating fiction – and how those principles could be applied to help New Zealand exporters. I shared the main principles here .
What I found over the last six years is that ‘storytelling’ became a buzzword applied to all types of subjects as diverse as leadership and annual report writing. Most recently, I have even heard a bishop of the Anglican church talk about the need for better storytelling to engage communities (not too revolutionary though, when you think about it). Work came in from a variety of businesses and government agencies.
Some of the people who use the word ‘storytelling’ do it without much understanding of the principles but it’s always good to hear the word being used because it demonstrates an appreciation of there being better possibilities to how they are presenting themselves at the moment.
Recently, however, I have been reflecting more about a deeper experience of storytelling – when you take part in someone else’s story and achieve your full potential in ways that go beyond earning a living for yourself to helping other people.
There are a couple of personal examples that spring to mind. One was cycling 800 kilometres in eight days in Thailand in January 2013 for Hands Across the Water. This is a charity that initially began helping orphans after the terrible 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and now helps hundreds of children at risk in Thailand.
To qualify for this ride you first have to raise A$10,000 for the charity. This requires you learning and telling the story of Hands and the children as part of your fundraising. You have to appeal to people’s hearts and minds. This storytelling effort for no financial gain – you also have to pay for your own travel expenses – is something you do for vulnerable children, who you meet at the end of your ride.
It was an experience that took me way out of my comfort zone and at the end I became part of the Hands story itself as I made my own ride. Motivated to make a second ride after meeting the children, I recorded a second story in 2014 in a blog that others read, and were then motivated to help the children too. I’m one of dozens of Hands riders who have done the same.
After those two rides, I became ‘wired’ to noticing other experiences of the same order. For several years I have been a member of the Kaimanawa Heritage Horses Association and last year sponsored a Kaimanawa foal for six months while she was prepared for rehoming. During that year a documentary of three sisters’ work to tame several Kaimanawas was screened in prime time TV. The Kaimanawas and the three Wilson sisters – who were already successful in showjumping circles – became household names.
In November last year, Kelly Wilson autographed her book For the Love of Horses for me as I journeyed with three busloads of horse lovers on a tour of the Volcanic Plateau to see the horses in the wild. For me it was a powerful reminder of how other people had gone out of their comfort zone to tell a story about those marginalised in this world – in this case wild horses with no perceived value except as dog food. In so doing, the Wilson sisters had begun living a much greater journey and inspiring others.
I think there is nothing like the satisfaction of engaging hearts and minds as we make a living, but nothing like the warmth of doing the same for a story that is much greater than us individually, and for which we receive no financial recompense – just the lasting pleasure of having taken part.
Last month, the Porirua City Council published the third economic development discussion document I had largely drafted for them. The three documents are strategies for global business, and the digital and services industries.
I was delighted to work with the council on this project, as I have lived in the wider city for 25 years in the seaside ‘villages’ of Plimmerton, Pukerua Bay, Whitby and now Titahi Bay – 20 minutes north of Wellington City.
I first met the council’s economic development manager, Chris Lipscombe, on my trip to Shanghai in 2010 with the Wellington mayoral delegation. It was great to sit around the table with him again, and his colleague Sakirin Sapeas, sip some Chinese tea and share their thinking and enthusiasm.
Each of the discussion documents needed to summarise international, New Zealand and Wellington regional trends in plain English for the city’s residents. They also had to be structured in an inviting way and propose half a dozen recommendations for the council to act on for the city.
The council didn’t have a lot of money to plough into these recommendations, although it is uniquely positioned to act as a catalyst for them. The work drew on my 20 years of experience in economic development and trade.
As well as assisting my local city, the project was an opportunity to discover some fascinating trends in the digital and services industries, and also in trade.
Did you know for example that ultra fast broadband applications could reduce missed school days in New Zealand by 25 million?
That the services industry accounted for 71 percent of New Zealand GDP in 2011?
And that there are 20 exporters in Porirua City with a turnover of over $10 million?
After a consultation phase, the documents will set out planned activities from next year and long-term goals.
'Communicating the value proposition' has been highlighted as one of the key priorities for New Zealand exporters by Victoria University's report Service Success in Asia.
The report was unveiled in Wellington on April 4 as part of a nationwide presentation supported by the new Ministry of Science and Innovation, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, Export New Zealand and local chambers of commerce.
The report is based on interviews with 160 managers in 70 firms exporting to India and China, as well as interviews with 25 customers in each of these two countries.
In a video clip of one of the interviews, the manager says India is a hugely competitive country and New Zealand exporters need to be able to stand out from the crowd. We at All told believe it’s all about good storytelling. For that, New Zealand exporters need the help of experienced professionals.
I went to the Wellington presentation which was held at the Wellesley Hotel. There was a strong turnout from ‘NZ Inc’ in the room.
I was sitting with a representative of the Changning district of Shanghai for a lunch hosted by Wellington City Council at the New Zealand Pavilion on June 10 at the World Expo.
She was enjoying the fresh tastes of the New Zealand menu and we were reading the wine list. She paused when she read the Chinese translation of Sauvignon Blanc. “This does not mean Sauvignon Blanc,” she said pointing to the Chinese characters. “It means ‘missing someone you love’.”
I asked whether that was common in China – to market food and beverages by feelings and associations. “Yes,” she said.
That little exchange gave me an insight into how positioning products and services in China may well be a step beyond what many New Zealand exporters are prepared for.
While I was in Shanghai for Wellington's trade mission, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise introduced me to a small public relations company that also has an office in Beijing.
I established a cooperative understanding with its deputy general manager so that in the future, as All Told’s clients prepare to tell their story in China, we will be able to draw on Chinese advice as to how those stories should be best told for Chinese people.
To read a copy of the presentation All Told gave to members of the Wellington trade mission before it left, click here through to the New Zealand China Trade Association website.
The New Zealand China Trade Association has published an address I made to the Wellington City Council’s Shanghai Expo Workshop on telling stronger export stories. You can read it here.
The workshop was held for exporters considering going on a trade mission to China in June led by the Mayor of Wellington, Kerry Prendergast. The delegation will visit Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and also Xiamen from June 5-14. I'll be accompanying the delegation in Shanghai and will write some freelance articles on its experiences for trade websites.
The Shanghai Expo Workshop, held on February 26, was attended by about 60 people. It included a half-hour slot for All Told to give practical advice on how Kiwi exporters are perceived in China, the need to tell good stories and what good storytelling can lead to.
This included an interview by Diana Burns with an exporter experienced in trading in China, Steve Kulevski of Pertronic Industries.
Steve emphasised the importance of making an emotional connection with Chinese customers and telling a wider story about Wellington, your family and how you got into business. As well as finding a way to relate on a personal level, it was important to be patient and professional he said.
Other speakers at the two-hour workshop included Wellington Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Charles Finny, New Zealand commissioner general for the Shanghai World Expo Phillip Gibson, Wellington City Council’s international relations manager Tom Yuan, and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s international market manager for North Asia Joanna Hickey.