Stewart Marshall Q&A

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I have to admit that when I first heard of Stewart Marshall’s personal brand as a “financial storyteller,” I thought the phrase to be a contradiction in terms. How could something as quantitative as finance serve as a basis for storytelling? Stewart has been gradually convincing me, as he does in this speech he did for Toastmasters. See how well he convinces you in this Q&A.

Bio: Stewart Marshall is a financial storyteller. He helps organisations tell their story through numbers. Stewart brings out the financial stories and narrative of a business for senior executives and management to help them understand what they have, what their business needs and how it can thrive. As a Designated Management Accountant in Canada and the UK he has worked in organisations of all sizes, from CFO of a start-up to a Senior Finance Manager at Eastman Kodak. Currently he is working on building his own consultancy focused on Financial Storytelling.

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Stewart is also a judge on various business case competitions as well as a judge and team mentor on the New Ventures BC Competition with prize-winning success. He is also the Chairman of the Vancouver Chapter of the Society of Certified Management Accountants. His own website is Stewart Marshall, Financial Storyteller, and you can follow him as @finstoryteller on twitter. [Photo credit: Kris Krug]




Q&A with Stewart Marshall:

Q: You wrote in an entry in your blog, “Personally I think in business we should be far more honest about what we are doing.” Can you cite an example — perhaps a company severely impacted by the current economic crisis — that should have been more honest and told a better story?

A: In business, both internally and externally we want our audience to believe our story. Yet storytelling is frequently looked at as “not serious.” Do we really need countless PowerPoint presentations, with countless numbers and diagrams with all manner of confusing arrows and boxes, just so we can do our email under the desk and ignore who is speaking?
Let’s look at Canadian Banks. Throughout the economic turmoil Canadian Banks seemed to have fared better than in most other countries. More prudent, they took less risks and consequently shielded the Canadian economy from the worst of the crisis. As a customer though, I feel their prudence and limited risk taking has translated into less lending and poorer customer service. The Banks’ assets may be protected but is this what the typical customer on the street cares about? These assets were once the customers assets and I’ve yet to see very much evidence that the Banks understand their role in encouraging economic stimulus.
Both businesses and their customers have a responsibility to each other. It needs to be transparent and honest. Making big assumptions about what customers want or what businesses can provide, especially without ever asking them, is dishonest on both sides!
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: My background is as a Designated Management Accountant working in industry. Over the years I’ve sat through countless business presentations from all levels of management. The vast majority of these have been terrible! Typically, there are too many slides with too many words which the presenter reads to his/her audience, half of which are busy reading their email on their Blackberrys whilst pretending to listen. If the presentations include numbers they are usually far less engaging!
I looked at my own presentations, what I was reading and what I was starting to learn at Toastmasters. I realised how powerful a good story could be and how much I enjoyed using it. What’s more when I looked at my career I realised that a lot of what I’d been doing all these years was storytelling. I also realised some of my heroes were great storytellers. From Winston Churchill “We’ll fight them on the beaches …” to Sir Alistair Cooke (Letter from America) and more recently Stuart McLean (Vinyl Cafe). The more I read, be it Joseph Campbell, Annette Simmons, Robert McKee or Steve Denning the more storytelling resonated with me.
What I love about using storytelling is the emotional connection I can create with my audience. I love the fact that if I am successful they are sitting there making up their own personalised versions of my story in their heads. When numbers are involved I love being able to demystify the data and enable more people to understand and benefit from the stories within.
Some influential references:
Marshallimage.jpg Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: My two favourite references are Steve Denning and Robert McKee. Steve has written extensively about springboard stories, storytelling in leadership and many other applications. I use springboard stories a lot in my work, they become key components of any presentation or pitch. Steve’s writing has also targeted business specifically, something I find to be a rich source of ideas and inspiration. Robert McKee’s book Story had a huge impact on me. springboardMcKee.jpgWhether it’s a formal presentation or a prepared speech I simply love the metaphor of screenwriting. One example of this is about preparation. The amount of work required to research your subject fully and understand as much as you can about the context really helps you deliver an authentic story. In a movie, it might be learning how people spoke to each other in for instance, 1920s Paris. In my work it might be about understanding the daily routine of a salesperson. The movies are all about connecting with the audience on an emotional level. The discipline and insight offered by McKee is to my mind directly applicable to financial storytelling.
Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?
A: I do participate in what is currently called social media, i.e. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and blogs. Of these I think some are more effective as storytelling media than others, but most of them have a role to play. Twitter for instance, is very interesting. It can give you insight into the stories of those you follow. It reminds me of a series of photographs. Each individual picture can speak a thousand words, but it is the stream of photographs that exposes the true story. It also works the other way around. What does the collection of people you follow say about your own story?
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Blogs are another example, whose story has changed itself. Now I am seeing a lot longer entries than in previous years. Writers seem to be articulating in more details the thoughts and ideas they have. In many cases they really are exploring the story. Web-based tools like FriendFeed are also story aggregators, pulling large parts of the internet from multiple sources into one easily digestible place. Collectively the tweets, blog entries, shared items, photos, status updates, etc., provide you with an ongoing and live story where you can choose your level of involvement. If you do get involved (by commenting for instance) the story becomes interactive which is really exciting!

Q: To what extent do you feel the current economic crisis increases the need for financial storytelling? How might business be improved, assuming lessons learned from the current situation, by better storytelling?

A: The current economic crisis came about because the relevant stories were at best ignored and at worst deliberately covered up. The complexities of the financial instruments which started this cycle, such as sub-prime mortgages, derivatives, etc., are beyond the knowledge of most people. Yet in many cases it is these same people, who have had to take a pay cut, or lost their jobs and in too many cases their homes. Do they not deserve an explanation? Not highbrow, not technical jargon but a clear honest story? In this context, financial storytelling has never been more critical.

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More positively, I believe the way out of the financial crisis will come though entrepreneurs — people who through changing circumstances have been forced to innovate. Not only will they produce innovative products but the way they do business will also be innovative. This can be truly inspirational and we should attempt to share this story as much as we can. Financial Storytelling can help communicate this message and also build trust. Inspiration will lead to confidence, which ultimately is what we all need for the future.

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