Matthew Syed, UFC, Telling Stories – and Basware Connect

Matthew Syed is undoubtedly the best journalist, sports and business writer operating today who used to be a professional table-tennis player.

He is even better than that, actually, and well done to The Times, who spotted his talent and gave him a column some years ago – his articles now are one of the real highlights in that or any other newspaper.

His column last week (here, behind the paywall unfortunately) was about the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and woman’s football – but had far wider significance. He described how UFC (cage-fighting to my eyes) was a failing “sport” until the investors in it set up a sort of reality show situation with fighters living together as well as competing. “Viewers learnt about their journeys, hardships, coaches, rivalries, grudges. UFC was now not merely a punctuated series of bouts, but bouts enmeshed within a broader narrative”.

Suddenly people cared about the “sport” element so much more within that broader context, and it took off. A business which had been sold for £2 million in 2001 was sold for £4.2 billion in 2016 – an amazing example of value creation.

Syed’s argument was that women’s football needs to create stories of its own. At the moment, it doesn’t have the history that Manchester United, Real Madrid or Liverpool have, or the personalities who create their own narratives (Maradona, Beckham, Ronaldo).  As Syed says, “Most importantly, we need to know more about the players: their hopes and rivalries, dreams and anxieties and, yes, grudges and feuds, for these, too, are part of the human condition. It may not always be easy to get all this into the media, but it surely holds the key to the game’s development”.

His wider message is that “Companies and institutions, not to mention advertisers, are beginning to grasp these truths”.  The World Bank realised that telling stories about the people whose lives had been saved by the organisation’s interventions was so much more powerful than data and spreadsheets.  McKinsey has stated that “storytelling is the most underrated corporate asset”.

So, two take-aways for today. Firstly, Syed spoke at last year’s Basware UK conference – I missed it, but my colleagues said he was excellent. On Wednesday this week, we have this year’s Basware Connect event in London, and again, there are some speakers who are outside the usual procurement circuit, who may well prove to be equally fascinating (I’m also on the agenda!) There is still time to book here.

And coming back to the stories; how can we make more use of this approach in procurement? for instance, at the SAP Ariba event last week there was a good discussion about social enterprises and “procurement with purpose” – a hot topic, as you probably know. But perhaps Ariba missed a trick – perhaps they should have had an individual on stage who has directly benefited from “procurement with purpose”, to tell us their story.

I remember the Social Enterprise UK event a couple of years ago, when a young woman spoke. She went through very difficult times as a child and teenager, but got a job with a social enterprise, and by the time she spoke to us, was a fully qualified mechanic, her life turned around thoroughly. Damp eyes all round, and I guarantee we all remember that story better than any of the speeches from the business people or politicians that day.

There are other examples or situations when I’m sure we could use story-telling more widely and effectively – perhaps that is a theme we can explore more widely in the coming days.

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