Let me tell you a story - Supply Management
Capture the audience and share the procurement message ©123RF
Capture the audience and share the procurement message ©123RF

Storytelling: An essential procurement skill

13 July 2018

The techniques of storytelling can help procurement to sell its message and engage stakeholders

Imagine an elderly gentleman – your grandfather, perhaps – who lives alone, is a bit isolated, and relies on his television for company, for entertainment, and to be engaged in the wider world. Now imagine that one day he switches on his TV – and nothing happens. The screen is blank, and he doesn’t understand why. He checks the plug, he checks the electrics, he bashes the top of the TV. Still nothing…

This is how Jim Hemmington, director of procurement at the BBC, engaged suppliers in finding a strategy to prepare TVs ahead of the 2012 analogue switch-off. “Storytelling sparks innovation,” he says.

In Hemmington’s example, the concern was older people getting left behind, so that’s what he focused on with suppliers. “The story was how to avoid that disaster.” And it worked, with suppliers coming up with ideas such as ice cream van-style visits to the community to explain what to do, and placing people in supermarkets to talk to shoppers. “The winning company found a way using the electoral roll to target people, and brought engineers into their homes. As far as I know, nobody was left behind.”

Working in broadcasting, Hemmington is surrounded by people whose job it is to tell stories, but he believes it is a skill that is pertinent to procurement practitioners, with many stakeholders to persuade and sometimes limited influence. “We’ve been going at procurement since the mid-1980s, and the challenges have always been the same. Lots of stakeholders don’t see the value,” he says.

Storytelling as a marketing or communications tool is not new, but it is increasingly being recognised for its ability to engage a business audience. “It creates an emotional connection, and helps build a bridge. That’s why it’s so powerful,” says Sarah Archer, a former HR professional turned stand-up comedian, who teaches public speaking. “In business, so often we make the mistake of selling the plane, when we should be selling the holiday.”

CIPS group director Cath Hill concurs on the need to embrace this skill. “Procurement needs to start selling itself not only to that internal audience but externally too,” she says. “What is the point of having excellent procurement skills if no one knows what you do?”

“When you start to engage with stakeholders around procurement, which focuses on process and negotiation and relationship management, you can see they quickly switch off, and don’t understand the value,” says Hemmington. If you can capture their imagination, explain how you could do something exciting and exceed expectations, the dialogue changes, he says, and you become an enthusiastic partner.

Be involved from the start

Storytelling is a good way to explain why it is important to involve procurement at the start, says Willem Mutsaerts, head of global procurement and sustainability at flavours and fragrances company Givaudan International. He demonstrates, appropriately, with a story: “I got a call from the Corporate Communication team, who said: ‘We have decided to do a global management conference. We want to go to somewhere in Europe where it is warm, so we will go to Portugal. We have called the hotel and it is great because they have availability for that week and they have 200 rooms, and they know that we want to have them. Can you call to negotiate the rooms?’ And I hang up the phone. So they call back and say: ‘Why did you hang up?’ And I said: ‘If you had called me and asked for three propositions, I could help, but it is too late. There is nothing I can do.’ That is why you need storytelling in procurement.”

Mutsaerts’ sales background introduced him to storytelling – and the lack of understanding between teams. “It became my story,” he says. When he started at Givaudan, procurement was “the guys nobody wanted to talk to”. He set about talking up the function, and helping his team to do the same. “I said you aren’t only buyers. We manage risk for the company, we make sure products get into the factories. We look at innovation and ethics.”

He sends all his new recruits out into the business to learn the language of the stakeholders. “Because sales people, marketing people and technical people all have different languages. If we just say we buy it FOB, 30 days at the end of the month, nobody cares, and nobody understands.”

Procurement often talks like lawyers, agrees Hemmington. “We can blow people away with complex language. You need to avoid coming over as arrogant – without talking down – and involve them in the solution. ‘Imagine this, we could do this, what if we did it this way.’ That is when you spark innovation. You are addressing the business problem, exploring options, and using imagination to come up with ideas. It’s surprising how much of that lands into practical things you never thought of before.”

Stories can be used in a presentation to the board, a conversation with a supplier, even an email to an internal department. In every case, when you are planning your story, step back and look strategically at the intention of the communication and the problem you are aiming to solve, advises Archer. “Define in a sentence your purpose and call to action, build it from there. Break the sentence into three key points – the human brain only has the capacity to remember three to five things.” And keep the language simple.

Good stories involve a beginning, middle and end. Think along the lines of a conflict, a hero, a desire – and make it relatable, advises Archer. Use examples, and structure the presentation on how you helped a client, and involve the audience in their problem. “Then you move from being the hero to the mentor. You become the Yoda and your customer is the hero,” she explains.

Storytelling is like stand-up

Humour is an option, and can be very successful – look at the Dollar Shave Club, which uses it in advertising and YouTube videos to sell the brand. But tread cautiously – you need to use emotional intelligence if you use humour, warns Archer. “It is a delicate balance. Go back to the intention of the message and think about whether humour is appropriate. The safest form of humour is self-deprecation, but don’t undermine yourself.” She points to research that has shown a correlation between humour and progression, and that people who told jokes at an interview were more likely to be seen as confident and competent. She runs business training courses in stand-up – if you can get through a stand-up routine, you can face any presentation, is the thought.

Not all procurement professionals are natural orators, or shout about their achievements, says Hemmington, but they should “all have a basic grounding in storytelling”. It is relevant for everyone in procurement, agrees Mutsaerts, who puts all his team through presentation skills training, where they present to each other and discuss how the message was received. They can look at their own video and come back for follow-up, where needed. “Everybody has to develop this in their own way,” he says.

Perhaps obviously, storytelling needs real stories. “If you are just reviewing KPIs, everyone will fall asleep, no one will listen, and they will forget in 10 minutes,” says Mutsaerts. He has created a platform in team meetings to share examples. “So I say, tell me what you achieved so I can pass it on to the organisation.” He takes these to the executive committee meetings, and tells the story of an innovation with a supplier, for example, how they reduced the number of screws bought because they realised half were not needed. “And that is how we saved £10m. And they will remember because they have context,” he says.

Hemmington concludes: “At the end of the day, the big thing procurement people need is strong interpersonal skills, and storytelling is a good foundation to help support that. But don’t just do it in isolation. Use it in your armoury of how you engage in your stakeholders’ and business partners’ ethos.”

How to tell a story

·Know your message. Break it down into a sentence, then into three to five points, with a story for each one.

·Keep it simple, and include a character your audience can relate to.

·Don’t start with procurement tools – use a real life example where procurement has succeeded, and link that to the situation you are trying to resolve.

·Be very clear of the value of the benefits. Include the things you have avoided by taking the approach in the past.

·Avoid coming over as arrogant – involve the audience in the solution.

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