Why storytelling is influence-in-disguise (Part 1)



“These days you can’t own your own market; but you CAN own your story.”(Michael Margolis, Author of ‘Believe Me’).


You can think about story (in a business context) in a number of ways, for example:

  • Your basic elevator pitch (the response to “Hi, what do you do?”).
  • Anecdotes with a message or moral.
  • The wider meaning of your brand, vision or cause.

In this piece I’m going to explore the power of story and storytelling in these and other senses. My aim is to demonstrate how, far from being a fluffy topic with no place in the boardroom, stories lie at the heart of our ability to influence others.

First Impressions – making an impact

I once went to 3 networking events in a single day – and that’s too many! Two friends of mine who were similarly ‘over-networked’ joined me at the third event and agreed to play a game – we would pretend to be something we were not! We adopted false business identities: one was a dolphin trainer, the other ran a funeral parlour and I was a paranormal investigator. We kept up the pretence for about half an hour before retiring to the bar, but I do recall my first encounter with someone (using my new identity). He asked what I did, I explained I was a paranormal investigator and he replied, “Oh right, where are you based?”

Now to my mind, that kind of response indicated that he really wasn’t listening! And it reminded me how de-sensitized people get in the networking arena because they listen day-in day-out to bland, vanilla-style elevator pitches. But you can hardly blame them for not listening properly to, “Hi, I’m Geoff and I’m the owner of XYZ web design company and we’ve been in business for”…zzzzzzzzz

So I encourage clients to develop more of a Marmite pitch, something that will trigger a reaction (“no thanks, not for me”….or “Wow, that’s amazing!”). It’s refreshing to find someone who knows their own story and puts it across compellingly, someone on a mission, someone who sees their business as a cause. So as a simple exercise, ask yourself TWO questions:

  1. What’s the wrong you’ve set out to right?
  2. WHY do you do what you do?

Get these 2 points across when you deliver a 60 second summary and you’re less likely to the get the vanilla response!

The power of the anecdote
We’re always told we need a Unique Selling Point, but what people normally communicate is a CSP – Common Selling Point! “We’re No.1 for Customer Service…We’re a client-focused organisation…We believe our People are our best asset.” Oh yeah? Join the queue!

But explain how you delivered a kitchen to a client who lived in an inaccessible location (hemmed in by trees and water) on a BARGE, by lowering the units one by one from a bridge and sailing it there…now THAT’s what I call customer service! (true John Lewis story).

The benefits of a great customer service anecdote like this are:

The listener can make their own mind up about your attitudes towards service (the story PROVES it – you’re not asking people to take your word for it – it’s ‘values-in-a-packet’).

It’s memorable and will get passed on.

It’s more enjoyable to listen to, so you’re a more engaging networking partner!

It’s truly UNIQUE (U-sp) because YOU’RE in the story!

The art of persuasion – getting emotional buy-in

When you’re conversing with co-workers, customers or investors, the richness and meaning of your story is what people really buy. Everybody thinks it’s the return on investment that you’re selling…but it’s really the story about ROI that an investor takes away.

(Tom Durel – Former CEO, Oceania: from ‘Believe Me’ by M.Margolis)

If you’re seeking to influence others with your message, you have 2 options:

Present a logical argument, using detailed PowerPoint slides and conventional business-language. “Here’s the problem, this is what we need to do to fix it…buy now!”

But as Robert McKee points out (Harvard Business Review, June 2003), there are two PROBLEMS with rhetoric. “First, the people you’re talking to have their own set of authorities, statistics, and experiences. While you’re trying to persuade them, they are arguing with you in their heads. Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you’ve done so only on an intellectual basis. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.”

“The other way to persuade people—and ultimately a much more powerful way—is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story.”

Stories engage people on an emotional level. According to Peter Gruber, CEO of the Mandalay Entertainment Group, ALL of us who seek to influence others (and we’re doing that all the time) are in the emotional transportation business. In other words, we’ve got to transfer the passion and belief WE have in our message to our audience.

Stories are the way we make sense of the world. A well told story that we can identify with stirs emotions and, when married with the statistical/logical argument, leads to the kinds of BEHAVIOURS we’re looking to stimulate.

Selling Possibility – the Big Picture Story

Stories are also a terrific way to motivate people because they convey a sense of possibility, that, “there might be a bigger and better story for me.” We like watching Paul Potts sing Nessun Dorma on Britain’s Got Talent because it reminds us that, “maybe, just maybe I could do something extraordinary.”

The same applies to a CEO who sells a terrific vision for the company. It’s a classic piece of storytelling/leadership – this is the direction we’re going in…are you ready to help us get there? Australian speaker Daniel Priestley describes this is your ‘big picture’ story. For Bill Gates it was to put a personal computer in every office and bedroom in the world. For Martin Luther King it was his “I have a dream” speech.

But on a more down to earth level, smaller companies can have a big picture story too. There’s no reason you can’t dominate your own niche and set out to change the way people think about it (although the narrower the niche the better). I love Simon Sinek’s concept of the Golden Circle – the way great leaders and companies communicate their WHY first (then their how and what). It’s their mission, their purpose or cause that gets centre stage. It attracts the right people to you – people who “believe what you believe.”



Is your story vanilla or Marmite?

You have a product or service and you want more sales. Marketing budgets are tight, so you can’t afford to ‘buy’ in business with advertising, direct mail, etc.  You’re also concerned that you keep hold of your existing clients (they’re questioning every cost line in their business).

You decide to get out and network (you may even have a team of people tasked with this).  “Get out there and let everyone know about *** Ltd!”

You adopt the same strategy with social media – open up accounts, start tweeting, get on LinkedIn, etc.

But here’s the problem.  You meet plenty of people, you spread your message, you accumulate business cards and contacts and…not much happens!

Are you worth paying attention to?
The likelihood is you’re not telling a compelling story.  It’s a bit ‘vanilla’.

You’re spreading an unremarkable message and expecting people to ACT.
Your message is factual and based on logic, “We’re here, this is what we do, buy from us!”

It’s not getting people excited, it’s a bit like all the other pitches out there.  But so many people do this (the majority I think), and it’s a crime!  Isn’t it a good idea to make sure you’re having an impact when you get in front of a decision-maker?

So here’s an alternative strategy – put your STORY at the heart of everything you do.  Here’s a 5-Stage Plan.

Stage 1 – the basic pitch
Instead of vanilla, develop a Marmite pitch.  As the name suggests, it’s either going to turn people on or turn them off.  But at least you know what you’re getting and it’s memorable.  The temptation is to deliver a message that’s got broad appeal, something unlikely to upset anyone.  After all, we like to be liked and maybe we think our product or service is great for everyone!

But vanilla is a bit like everyone else and it’s dull and forgettable.  If the person’s response to your initial pitch is, “Oh right, so where are you based?” start worrying!  Give people an idea of the problem you solve (in your own specific way; give them the sense you’re on a mission; maybe pluck out one thing you do that’s interesting and gets the listener intrigued.

I once used my 60 seconds at BNI to read out the football results. “Manchester United 4, Arsenal…?” Likes James Alexander Gordon on the BBC, your voice goes UP for the 4 and DOWN for the lower number (Arsenal lost!).  You know the second score will be lower because the voice is pitched lower.  So for about 30 seconds or so we dealt with vocal tone and of course I linked that with what I do as a communication skills coach.

Stage 2 – develop depth
You’ve delivered your initial pitch, but now you’ve got to expand.  They might say, “Wow, so how do you do that?”.  Your response might start with, “Well, for example…”.  Here’s where you need your library of stories, a vault of material you can draw upon at a moment’s notice.  You need:

  • Case studies (stories of how you’ve transformed someone’s situation).
  • Anecdotes (maybe a personal experience that taught you a lesson and relates to what you do now).
  • Research/Statistics (something to add credibility and support your argument).
  • News stories (things in the media which relate to your field).

Having depth to your story gives you oodles of credibility, makes you interesting to speak to and stories get passed on (see below).

The beauty of a good case study/anecdote is it allows the listener to make their own mind up about you.  They don’t have to take your word for it that you’re No.1 for customer service.  Tell them a good story where you played a key role, and they’ll draw the right conclusions themselves.

Stage 3 – get good at telling it
Storytelling isn’t easy.  We’ve all heard would-be comedians murder a perfectly good joke, so it’s essential you get really good at delivering your message when face to face with your audience.  A well-told story helps you to engage people on a deeper, emotional level.

All stories have 3 basic components: a protagonist (the lead character), a plot and a point (moral). You might be the main character (accountant) and the plot might be how you solved a major problem for a client and got his life back on track for him.  The moral might be…manage your cash flow or else!

If your anecdote is easy to remember and has a point to it, other people forward it on for you.  You’re getting free marketing!

Remember, you’re presenting all the time – in conversations, the round-the-table elevator pitch, team briefings, 10 minute PowerPoint talks or keynotes.  Learn to weave elements of your ‘library’ into these situations and you’ll be seen as knowledgeable, impressive, spontaneous, likeable and memorable.

Stage 4 – develop a story culture within your organisation
Get your team together on a regular basis and throw stories on to the table.  One person explains how she calmed down an irate customer at reception and they became an advocate for the business; another used a sales technique to good effect; someone else spotted a news item that showed an amazing marketing idea that might work for your company.

These stories are often not captured but by sharing these things you develop improved practices, stimulate creative thinking, improve employee engagement and motivation AND create more material for your collective library.

Stage 5 – spread your story
Things really gain momentum when you get other people talking about you.  Web publishing platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube enable you to share and spread material in a way that was unthinkable a few years ago, but the problem is that very accessibility leads to a lot of (value-less) noise.

You don’t want to be lost amongst the spam, and the easiest way to do that is to build a following of loyal supporters who like what you do and the way you do things.  These people WILL open your emails and read your blogs and pass them on to others because….they’re worth talking about!

Use these story-based communications to change the relationships you have with people in your circle.  You’ve moved from being a contact (we know of you, that you exist), to a connection (someone worth knowing), to someone who’s indispensable (a linchpin, a part of ‘them’).

The bigger picture – developing PULL
When you develop relationships like this, they’ll spread your story for you and attract others (like them) to you.  This is when you develop real PULL.

It’s so much more than just delivering a decent elevator pitch but it kind of starts from that.  In fact it starts before that – with YOU reflecting on your OWN story first and knowing not only what you do and how you create value for people…but also WHY you do what you do (your cause, your purpose, the wrong you’ve set out to right).

In summary, know your own story, get really good at telling it and use it as your KEY TOOL for establishing your own distinctive brand or signature.


How blogging works

An interesting start to the week – my friend Alan Lewis had a celebrity guru comment on his blog.  I don’t know whether I’m thrilled or jealous but one of my great heroes, Seth Godin, spotted a piece Alan put together about an innovative idea called Shopjacket.

It’s a method of reversing the perceived decline of town centres by dressing un-let retail units in thought-provoking ways.  They create a 3-D illusion of what the unit might contain, and work with local councils, landlords and tenants to develop a ‘discreet viewing portal’.

But my reason for mentioning this is to show how blogging works as a means of attracting attention.  The fact that Seth noticed it seems extraordinary and highly unlikely (he’s an internationally renowned author and thought-leader based in the USA), but actually that’s the power of the web and social media.

Alan spotted something worth talking about, and stimulated a discussion, and in that sense he’s using social media in a great way – to lead.  It’s something Seth talks a lot about; it’s one of the means of production that WE now own, instead of those wealthy factory owners!

It also shows the power of curiosity.  We may have a world of information at our fingertips but sometimes we’ve just got to stop and notice stuff and stay a while.

Well done Alan – I salute you!

(and well done for taking your mum to tea)