Global Observer

In Melbourne, storytelling becomes big business

In Melbourne, storytelling becomes big business

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MELBOURNE -- Once upon a time, storytelling was confined to the land of make-believe. Today, it's a highly prized business leadership skill.

MELBOURNE – There’s a new breed of consultants cropping up in Melbourne’s corporate landscape. They believe that what they teach can achieve powerful, tangible results, like creating loyalty and engaging with customers, affecting profit margins and radically improving employee performance. Some call it a “secret sauce”, others simply call it “storytelling.”

In the city's central business district a handful of early adopters are advocating storytelling's universal application, claiming it has the potential to become part of MBA programs and a key competency for entrepreneurs. One such proponent is Yamini Naidu, co-director at One Thousand and One, a global thought leader in business communication.

The Melburnian declares storytelling as the number one business skill for the 21st century. Across the world, people want to feel connected to the leaders they work for and organization they work in, and storytelling is a powerful way of doing this.image
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A study conducted by Melcrum, a global business and training company, revealed that fewer than 50 percent of managers can effectively motivate and engage their employee base. Naidu explains employee ownership and acceptance of new strategy, change and values is still a major issue, particularly for today's generation, who look for purpose in their work.

Leadership is moving from an "inform and expect" model to an "inspire and respect" one, with storytelling giving leaders a way of shifting perspective, Naidu says. "Most people don't need any more information thrown at them. We are all drowning in a tsunami of information. What people need is leaders who can help them make sense of the information, and storytelling is a simple, yet powerful way to do that," she says.

Naidu, a postgraduate of the London School of Economics, says that the current market is hungry to apply storytelling across leadership, strategy, communication, branding, marketing and sales, and to find and share stories that help businesses differentiate themselves and connect with their target audience.

Naidu's business partner Gabrielle Dolan says that the idea for their business came to them on a summer afternoon in 2005, sitting on a bench in one of Melbourne's main city gardens. They realized that all inspiring leaders tell stories that break down emotional barriers, and tap into what we think and feel -- their stories hook us in.

This epiphany saw the two friends leave the security, comfort and fortnightly salary of their respective jobs in banking and pharmaceuticals to start One Thousand and One, to teach and mentor CEOs, executives and leaders to tell stories with purpose.

Today the duo are experiencing strong demand for their services which are delivered in large-scale workshops and masterclasses and more tailored one-on-one and coaching sessions. In the past 18 months, they have seen a 300 percent growth in their business.

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In some ways, the uptake of storytelling as business competency training can be attributed to the Melbourne business community's "give it a go" attitude. But Naidu and Dolan would also like to believe they had something to do with its growing acceptance. The duo have invested heavily in educating the market, delivering free public presentations and writing white papers.

Last year, they released a book on the subject titled "Hooked: How Leaders Connect, Engage and Inspire with Storytelling." Their schedule remains full with a series of upcoming public events, including keynote presentations at the "One day, new ways" conference in October and the highly anticipated Creative Innovation 2013 Asia Pacific event in November.

The storytelling market has changed significantly since Shawn Callahan, director of Anecdote, Australia's oldest story consultancy, established his business in 2004. "Business people were suspicious of it," Callahan says. "It was hard to convey its value. Then organizations became more complex and experts were talking about the importance of culture and leadership and business people realized that an important element was the story."

Next month a new contender will join the small but increasingly competitive storytelling market. Founded by journalist Andrew McUtchen, Story Matters Most (SMM) is an agency of storytellers with backgrounds in creative and professional writing.

"We believe that writers, not marketers, have the best developed instincts for moving people with story, which is our key point of difference," McUtchen, who is also an associate editor for men's lifestyle magazine GQ, says.

SMM already has secured projects from a diverse range of sectors, from banking and real estate to custom publishing and the performing arts. McUtchen's business comes at a time when storytelling is gaining traction in the business vernacular. His particular model illustrates the broad uses and application of the term in the work environment.

Whether storytelling gains widespread acceptance in Melbourne's business circles depends on the organizational culture, role modeling and support of senior leaders. But as Dolan explains, as more people learn about its tangible benefits, the more others will be willing to apply the concept to their own practice.

Photos: Jules Tahan (main) and One Thousand and One (insert).

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Lieu Thi Pham

Correspondent (Melbourne)

Lieu Thi Pham is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She has contributed to The Age, Associated Newspapers, Melbourne University Magazine, the Big Issue, Dazed and Confused, Indesign Group, Time Out, SOMA and Niche Media. She holds degrees from the University of Melbourne and RMIT University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure