Interview mit STORYWERK-Gründer Michael Obert

Interview with STORYWERK founder Michael Obert

STORYWERK founder Michael Obert has reported from crisis and war zones for more than two decades as a journalist, book author and director. His work has been awarded numerous prizes. His directorial debut, the cinema documentary Song from the Forest made it to the shortlist for the Oscars in 2016. Then Michael Obert reinvented himself as an executive coach – and soon after he had the idea for STORYWERK.

Interview: Franziska Melzer

Michael, you don’t look at all like someone who has spent decades in war zones. You mean, not like some adrenaline junkie with a smoky voice, stubbly beard and scuffed boots? I’m reassured by that.

Seriously, how does someone who has spent half his life as a journalist reporting from countries like Congo, Somalia, Libya, Gaza and Afghanistan become the founder of a strategic communications and storytelling agency? You have to admit, that sounds like quite a turnaround, doesn’t it? When I left journalism in 2017 to reinvent myself again, I thought: you can’t just put all your experiences in these countries in a drawer. So I founded the Reporter Academie Berlin to pass on my knowledge to young journalistic talents.

At the academy, you developed a programme in which non-profit organisations awarded scholarships so that young journalists could attend your workshops free of charge… and it wasn’t long before the first scholarship donors – including Amnesty Germany, Caritas International, the Subotic Foundation – approached me to ask if we could have a look at their work, because they needed support with their storytelling.

From the world of war zones to strategic communication.

And that was the birth of STORYWERK? Not quite yet. We discovered that these organisations did not know a whole range of things that are elementary for strong storytelling: they did not know exactly who they were talking to out there, they did not know the needs of their community and therefore could not address them specifically in their stories.

Gefährliche Mission: Michael Obert auf Reportage im kriegszerstörten Somalia (Foto: Privatarchiv)
Dangerous mission: Michael Obert on reportage in war-torn Somalia (Photo: private archive)

Sounds like they were communicating into the mist and hoping to reach the right people somehow? Nice image – yes, that sums it up very well. The fact that their storytelling wasn’t really progressing was only the symptom. In order to tackle the deeper roots of the problem, I recruited additional staff together with STORYWERK co-founder Tobias Oellig. We developed structured formats with which our clients could define their brand step by step, develop their mission statement, sharpen their target groups and create corresponding core messages. In order to then target their storytelling on this strategic foundation. This has really hit a nerve with the non-profits. That’s when STORYWERK was born.

Set up communication strategically and holistically instead of sending messages into the mist.

And then there is a second strand that also has to do with your personal development and led to the founding of STORYWERK, right? Since I retired from foreign journalism in 2017, I have been working as an executive coach to support entrepreneurs, top executives and personalities from politics, top-level sport and society to develop a strong personal vision at crossroads in life and then to implement it successfully.

Where is the link to STORYWERK?
When my clients have successfully developed their vision in coaching, they often ask me if I could also visit their company, where a strong mission statement is also needed. This is how I, as a coach, came to my second mainstay, the corporate vision, in addition to the focus on personal vision.

Once the vision has been solidly developed, the question naturally arises: What does this now mean for an organisation’s communication?
And this is where STORYWERK comes full circle. Many purpose brands and non-profits come to us this way. A path that we have been following together for a long time, on which we have already mastered many a challenge and in doing so have proven a great deal of competence and built up trust.

Michael Obert during the filming of his feature film "Song from the Forest" with the Bayaka people, hunter-gatherers in the rainforests of the Congo Basin (Photo: Matthias Ziegler)

To help your clients realign or professionalise their communication, you have developed the STORYWERK Canvas. Can you say something about it? The great thing about the Canvas is that purpose brands and non-profits, who often can’t see the wood for the trees at the beginning, can name in a few minutes what they really need and where they want to start in order to take a giant step forward in their communication. This is because the canvas maps the six steps in which we accompany our clients and partners over the entire arc of their internal and external communication and through the associated change processes.

Can you briefly guide us through this? Stage 1 is an assessment of the different media and, if desired, of the existing processes and structures. In stage 2 we sharpen the brand and the mission statement, in stage 3 we define the target groups together with our clients’ teams and in stage 4 we develop the core messages.

Holistic communication: integrated cross-departmental processes and structures.

And when the strategic foundation of communication is in place … in stage 5 of our Canvas, we empower the teams to successfully implement it. Be it with our highly sought-after master storytelling workshops, which we tailor to specific channels. Or at the level of well thought-out processes and structures. Last but not least, we also help with evaluation.

When you talk about STORYWERK, the term “holistic communication” comes up again and again, what exactly do you mean by that? Especially larger organisations and companies that grow quickly are often trapped in silos in their communication teams. Silo thinking means that each department does its own thing. This stresses and paralyses communication: a lot of work is done twice and three times, meetings get out of hand, human resources are always stretched to the limit, culture and working atmosphere suffer, there are tensions and conflicts – and the different messages that the teams send internally and externally unsettle the community, dilute the brand and manoeuvre the organisation into difficult waters.

Sounds complex. And describes one of the biggest challenges a modern organisation has to overcome if it wants to survive out there in the long term.

What is your recommendation? t’s as simple as it is effective: get out of the silos. And into holistic working. With agile processes and structures in which all communication teams of an organisation can pull together across departments.

Ein Leben nah an den Menschen: Michael Obert auf Reportage im Hinterland von Tansania, wo Menschen mit Albinismus gejagt und verstümmelt werden, weil ihre Körperteile als magisch gelten und zu astronomischen Preisen verkauft werden (Foto: Matthias Ziegler)
A life close to the people: Michael Obert on reportage in the hinterland of Tanzania, where people with albinism are hunted down and mutilated because their body parts are considered magical and are sold at astronomical prices (Photo: Matthias Ziegler)

The best of three worlds: Storytelling, organisational development, team coaching.

STORYWERK is thus treading a new continent at the edges of communication. Absolutely. ecause what good is the best mission statement, the best strategy, the best storytelling tools if an organisation can’t ultimately bring it all to the street? hat’s why our top-class team brings together the best of three worlds for our clients: Storytelling, Organisational Development, Team Coaching. So that our clients and partners can really successfully master their challenges and bring the world forward with top-class storytelling.

At STORYWERK you work exclusively with and for non-profit organisations and so-called purpose brands. What exactly do you mean by that?
For us, purpose brands are companies with clear values and an overriding purpose. Purpose brands stand for something bigger than just their products and services and the mere generation of profits. They ask themselves: who else benefits but us? Purpose brands want to take the world a step forward and offer real added value – be it social, environmental or societal.

Your STORYWERK hashtag is #storiesforabetterworld – why this narrow focus?
As a journalist, I have reported from war zones in order to make the world a little more humane, more just, more liveable with my stories. I follow this mission together with my colleagues at STORYWERK. The central narrative is meaning. With Purpose Brands and Non Profits we share a kindred spirit, we belong to the same family. Together we are stronger.

Tips from STORYWERK vision expert Michael Obert: Develop a strong mission statement.

Without a mission statement, communication is shaky – and if communication is shaky, the brand and the teams crumble – and if the brand and the teams crumble, the future of even the most successful organization is at risk.

My recommendation: participative mission statement development that involves all levels of the organization step by step.

A multi-stage process could look like this:

  • Development of a strong vision (a matter for the boss)
  • Development of a strong mission statement (participatory)
  • Define core values, inner compass of the organization (participative)
  • Develop management principles (management level)
  • Concrete roadmap on how the mission statement can be lived and communicated

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