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.