THE ART AND SCIENCE OF STORY TELLING: A KEY TO CUSTOMER ACQUISITION AND INTERVIEWING

This article is the text of a presentation I will be making for the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Series on October 28. If you would like to attend, a limited number of seats are still available. To register visit: http://www.manhattancc.org/events/eventdetail.aspx?EventID=1291. As the presentation is designed for business owners, employees and job seekers, if you are only interested in learning about storytelling for job seekers, an abridged version can be found on LinkedIn Pulse: http://linkd.in/1sxIZLs.

 

There are three components to a presentation: the presenter, the message and the audience. Assuming that the audience is not attending under duress, they want to be there and they are interested in the message. The presenter has agreed to make the presentation and therefore it is his or her responsibility to make certain that the audience leaves feeling that their time has been well spent and believing the massage.

In this case, it’s all on me. I’m the presenter. If I fail in getting my message across, I can’t blame the message and I certainly can’t blame the audience. And neither can you when you are making a presentation. And that is why making a presentation personal is so important. Personalizing a presentation results in differentiation. Differentiation is what closes deals.

Whether you are a business owner, an employee, or job seeker, you have competition. And while your widget may do something different than your competitor’s, your competitor’s widget probably does something different than yours. So, at the end of the day, it all balances out.

Therefore, what differentiates your company, your product or your candidacy, is you. And this morning we are going to focus on what makes you, you.

But let me begin by telling you what we are not going to do. Our topic is storytelling but we are not going to be discussing the written word. We are only going to consider face-to-face presentations either to acquire new clients or to secure job offers.   I combine the two because there is really no difference between them. Business owners and employees are trying to sell their products or services; job seekers are trying to sell themselves. It’s the same thing.

In addition to ignoring the written word, we are also going to ignore customer retention. And that’s for two reasons: First, if all is going well, then everything I say about customer acquisition will hold true for customer retention. The customer is happy and all you are going to do is reinforce that happiness with an impactful story.

If, however, the customer is upset, storytelling won’t work. The mistake many business owners make is to view an upset customer or client, as a debating partner. We are not discussing debating.

When you debate, or at least when I debate, I like to use the Socratic Method and, if the logical conclusion does not win the day, then I end with a story. But with an angry client, you don’t have time for a barrage of questions or, for that matter, a story. All you have time for is to ask what is wrong and how you can make it right. They’ll tell you and you’ll either agree or not.

You cannot win an argument with an aggravated client. If you prove them wrong, you lose their business. If you admit that they are right, you are liked to lose their business. All you can do is to assure them that you want to retain them as a customer, ask them what is wrong and try to come to an amicable outcome.

So now that we know what we are not going to discuss, let me tell you a story:

Years ago I was staying at a hotel outside of Toronto. I checked-in and, after getting settled, I went to Reception and asked the receptionist if she could recommend a nearby restaurant. She did and when I arrived I found a small restaurant with maybe a dozen tables, all but two occupied.

The man behind the counter, taking take-out orders, pointed to one of the empty tables. I sat down facing the entrance and, before the waitress could get to me, a young couple came in with their five-year old daughter. She looked around, saw that I was sitting alone, straightened her posture, got a devilish smile on her face and a twinkle in her eyes and walked right over to me and announced,

“This is very sad. You are the only one here without a date. I’ll be your date.”

Her mother was mortified. But, I immediately stood up, raised my hand in front of the mother to let her know that I was not interested in her protests, pulled out the chair for my date, thanked her and, before I knew it, the waitress appeared with a booster seat. Mother placed daughter securely in the chair. I introduced myself. We shook hands. The waitress asked what we would like to drink. I ordered two glasses of “Canada Dry champagne.”

The waitress smiled, returned with the ginger ale and, totally innocently, the little girl took a sip, giggled and said, “The bubbles tickle my nose.” Everyone who heard chuckled and then the date began.

Before I could ask her anything she asked me, “Bruce, what do you do for a living?” Coming from a five-year old it was a rather mature question. I told her I was a fundraiser and she asked me more questions. Every time I tried to steer the conversation to her, she steered it back to me.

At one point during the meal, the little girl indicated to her mother that she needed to use the restroom. As I said, it was a small restaurant so everyone heard the door leading to the restrooms open and close. Once the door closed every man in the place started complaining to their date, “Why don’t you ask me about my job? She’s asking him. All you do is complain!” And the ladies just sat there and took it.

In the meantime, I was thanking the father and he was thanking me. I asked him what his daughter would like for dessert, even if her mother may not approve. He smiled and told me. When they returned I asked my date if she would like dessert and suggested whatever it was that her father had told me. She got excited, looked to him for permission, and was delighted when he nodded that it was alright. Mother was not happy.

In any case, dessert was delivered and when we finished it, both her father and I motioned to the waitress that we wanted our checks. She gave him his, and me mine. He took mine making it quite clear that he pays for his daughter and her dates. I took mine back making it equally clear that I pay for my dates and myself. We went back and forth one additional time and the owner, the man behind the counter who was taking the take-out orders, walked over, said it was his restaurant, and “whoever has the best date eats free.” He tore up my check. The little girl beamed!

We thanked the owner. I left a tip for the waitress. I’m certain the father was equally generous. And we parted company.

When I got back to the hotel the receptionist asked me about the restaurant. I told her the story. She laughed and I went to bed. Next morning when I went to check out, there was a new receptionist and I heard her telling two guests about my dinner and date. The story had changed a bit, like any game of telephone, but the basic facts were there: five year old had date and owner let her eat for free because she was “the best date,” making her feel special.

I was incidental. The child’s parents weren’t mentioned. Neither was the food nor the service. And I really don’t remember what we ate!

So why do I tell you this story? Think about what happened. The owner was a very kind man. He did something very nice for a little girl – calling her “the best date.” I told one person. She told one person. That person told two people. So at least four people heard the story from me. There were 22 other adults in that restaurant. If we all told the story and we all got the same results, that’s 88 people who heard about my date within 12 hours. How many of them do you think decided to go to that restaurant?

What did the owner do? And I will state categorically that I believe his only intent was to be nice. What he did was to provide ever patron of his restaurant with a positive story to tell about his establishment. Not about the food. Not about the service. But about his morals, values and principles. And that is precisely what you want to provide your customers, clients and staff with every day.

So how do you do it? How do you provide an effective story, one that will encourage people to do business with you?

First, you have to know what story to tell. They have to be receptive to the story otherwise you are wasting your time. Actually, this part is relatively easy. Ask. If the person talks about needs and not wants, you talk about attributes and not benefits. Then, after hearing their response, you share with them a story that will resonate with them. Usually it would be about a customer of their gender, age or profession, as the case may be. Now comes the science part of this presentation.

Second, you have to know how to tell the story.

In 1967, UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian wrote a paper titled, “Decoding of Inconsistent Communication.” According to his research, 55% of all communication is visual, 38% is vocal, and 7% is verbiage. In other words, how we say what we say, is more important than what we actually say. We listen with our eyes more than our ears. Our body language and tone of voice have to complement our words otherwise our audience will believe what they see and not what they hear. (For references see my book, Success! As Employee or Entrepreneur, p. 9.)

This happened to me when I was interviewing an executive recruiting candidate over Skype. The primary qualification of the job for which he applied was being detail oriented. After the usual preliminaries, I asked him to give me an example of a project on which he had worked where his “detail orientation” was a primary factor in the project’s success.

The funny thing was that, up to that point, I had not realized where he was. His computer was in his bedroom facing his bed. As he started telling me how detail oriented he was, I noticed that his bed was unmade and that every photo on the wall was crooked. Despite whatever he was telling me, my eyes were telling me that this guy was not detail oriented. I listened to my eyes, not my ears, and did not submit him.

But there is a science to the 55% of visual communication. Turns out that the 55% isn’t exactly 55%.

We humans actually only see 40% of what we are looking at. Our brains literally turn off, ignore, the remaining 60%, counting on our past experiences to fill in the blanks. That is why, if a typical person, for example, draws a chair, it’s not going to look like the chair she’s drawing. But if an artist draws a chair, it will look like the chair she is drawing because, instead of focusing on what is there, the artist focuses on what’s missing. So while most people would start with the legs, for example, an artist will start by drawing the space between the legs which most people pay little or no attention to. And that is why the artist’s chair actually looks like the chair.

The point is, when you are telling a story you are painting a picture. The picture does not have to be perfect. It’s the message that has to be perfect. People will see what they want to see. (I guarantee that no two people reading these words imagine, in their minds’ eye, the same restaurant with the same little girl. Clearly, it does not matter!)

That people see what they want to see was proven, totally by accident, by the founders of Pixar. Working at the time for Lucasfilm, they were charged with inventing the computer generated animation industry. They created the software and built the hardware. And they wanted to show off what they could do. So for an upcoming convention of computer animators, they planned to screen a two-minute computer generated animated motion picture.

The story was simple: A robot falls asleep in the forest. A bumble bee wakes him up. Startled, the robot runs away with the bumble bee in hot pursuit. The forest would be lush green with beautiful trees and vegetation. The robot’s face would clearly exhibit fear, and the bumble bee’s face would be the picture of glee. Real forest. Real characters. Real emotions. No Nobel Prize for literature, but that was not the point. It was all about the technology. And these computer geniuses failed…sort of.

The project was so immense that they could not finish on time. So, all of a sudden, in the middle of the film, the full-color 3-D animation disappeared and everything went black and white. Now, all the audience could see was the outline of what they had previously seen. And it did not matter. They were so caught up in the emotion of actually witnessing the future that they either had not noticed or had not cared that the technology had literally vanished. The creators of the movie had gotten the story right, and that’s all that mattered. The technology was so real that it became secondary to the story. They continued to see what they wanted to see.

Think of a Broadway play. If the story is great, you really don’t pay attention to the costumes and scenery. They are just part of the picture. If the costumes and scenery are what people leave the theater talking about, then the story was a flop.

This leads to the saying, perhaps the foundation, of Pixar’s success: “Story is King.” It’s the story that matters. Get the story right and the technology will take care of itself.

On a related topic, for many years I have been fascinated with why people believe nonsense. Just as the Pixar audience was no longer seeing 3-D and color, many people don’t see the truth. I am not talking about unfortunate souls who have nothing in their lives and are frantically searching for something to grasp on to. I’m talking about intelligent, well-educated people who believe foolishness. In frustration, I once said to a friend, who simply would not check his facts, that it was as though he had a developmental disability. Something was wrong with the wiring of his brain. Even though he was an academic, he lacked curiosity. He never asked questions. If someone he respected said something, he believed it. If someone said something he believed, even if he did not know the person, he accepted it. If someone he knew, and even liked, said something he disagreed with, he would not accept it. And, again, he would not take the time to check the facts to see who was right. When he would write a paper, he would begin with his conclusions and then find sources who supported them. In other words, his was the exact opposite of a proper scientific or academic process. Turns out, my assumption about his mental status was not that far off.

In physics there is a principle called Occam’s Razor. Named for the fourteenth-century English logician William of Ockham (Why the different spelling? I do not know.), “it says that if there are competing explanations for why something occurs the way it does, you should pick the one that relies on the fewest assumptions and is thus the simplest.” In other words, the easiest thing to do is just to accept what you want to believe. (This sounds like “the path of least resistance” and Sherlock Holmes’s mantra that when all the logical explanations have been exhausted, whatever is left, no matter how unlikely, is the answer.)

While this was close to what I wanted, it wasn’t really there. Something was missing. Then I discovered “confirmation bias.” This is “the tendency of people to favor information, true or not, that confirms their preexisting beliefs.” In the 1960s, British psychologist Peter Wason conducted a series of experiments “that explored how people give less weight to data that contradicts what they think is true.” This means that, “A few words uttered by someone close to us can carry enormous weight…whereas the same words uttered by a stranger won’t resonate at all.” Exactly what I found in my friend!

(These quotations and Pixar stories are taken from Ed Catmull’s, Creativity, Inc., about the founding of Pixar and its operations.)

This is why good, decent, well-educated people believe, as I said, nonsense. For them it is not science, it is theology or philosophy. Ever try to have a logical and rational debate over religion…? Let me give you some famous examples:

In 1968, Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich wrote the book The Population Bomb. Here’s a review on Amazon by Glenn Gallagher:

”I read the Population Bomb when it first came out, and believed it. Paul Ehrlich envisioned a horrific future with mass starvation of millions, if not billions of people by 1995. As we now know, Ehrlich was a Malthusian of the worst order, and almost single-handedly gave environmentalists a bad name. He is the epitome of an alarmist who has significantly harmed the ability of reasonable environmentalists to be taken seriously (The Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome). I’m sure Dr. Ehrlich meant well, but boy, was he wrong. This book should rest in peace, never to be read again. Or, perhaps it could be read as a lesson learned in how to avoid making extremist statements that make you and your colleagues look stupid.”

Two years after his book came out he was at Earth Day, preaching his gospel. That was the first Earth Day. April 22, 1970. What were the claims that were made and by whom were they made?   There were a lot. (The following quotes are taken from, Richard Larsen, “Bizarre Predictions from the First ‘Earth Day,’” The Daily Journalist, May 3, 2014.) I’m just going to choose one quote from UC Davis Professor Kenneth Watt, an ecologist, who said,

“The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

And, for the record, this was support by Newsweek which reported, “One theory assumes that the earth’s cloud cover will continue to thicken as more dust, fumes, and water vapor are belched into the atmosphere by industrial smokestacks and jet planes. Screened from the sun’s heat, the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born.”

Ironically, Earth Day, was a success despite the fanatics. It had bi-partisan political support. The key result was President Nixon establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.

Again, these fanatics are supposedly intelligent people not con artists. But, here’s the funny thing. Eventually, they lost all credibility. Facts take over for fantasy and reason for emotion. They had temporary short-term success. But some of their environmental counterparts have had permanent success because they followed proper scientific procedures and simply told the facts.

And facts can, of course, be used to convince. When the hole in the ozone layer was discovered, real scientists, using proper scientific methods, not only showed the world the hole but explained the cause and the solution. No one objected to getting rid of aerosol cans. When scientists, using proper scientific methods, showed that standard light bulbs used too much energy and polluted, everyone was happy to welcome CFL bulbs into their lives. And when it became clear that building construction was a serious environmental problem, LEED construction was embraced as a sensible economic and environmental solution.

Here’s another example:  Remember when cars were deemed as the number one cause of global warming?  Well, electric vehicles were not the solution.  There is no infrastructure so, if you’ll pardon the analogy, it was like putting the cart before the horse.  If you can’t conveniently charge your car, it’s just not going to work.  But with all the talk of vehicular pollution, it became known that a worse producer of green house gases is livestock.  In fact, 18% of all greenhouse emission, which is more than all transportation combined – according to the UN, comes from livestock.  One enterprising entrepreneur has therefore started what appears to be a successful business.  Beyond Meat produces chicken and beef and looks, feels and tastes like chicken and beef even though they are 100% vegetarian.  Problem identified; solution found.  (See Jonathan Ringen, “Carnivores May Never Know the Difference,” Fast Company, October 2014, p. 108.)

Persons suffering from confirmation bias don’t need or want facts, the rest of us do. So for the former you need emotion and a story. For the latter, you need facts but wrapped in a compelling narrative.

As noted, research is key to a successful presentation. You should know enough about your audience, to know what they value. What is important to them? Why are they interested in what they are doing? Why do they want to meet with you?

So now we get to the art of storytelling. How do we actually tell a story?

First, we ask our audience what they want or need and then we listen. Next, we relate facts that prove our knowledge of the subject matter. In other words, we establish our credentials. But then we tell the prospect what they want to here. And what they always want to hear is that we can solve their problem. What they don’t want to hear is bragging. Saying you can solve their problem isn’t credible. You have to prove it. And the best way is by telling them about a current or previous client who had a similar situation to theirs and how you dealt with it.

As a general rule of thumb, in the for-profit sector, it’s logic and reason that will win the day. But in the non-profit sector, it’s emotion. In either case, you have to create a bond with the prospective donor so that they know that you understand them. But there is a wrinkle. Even more than in the case of for-profit prospects, prospective non-profit donors have to be comfortable. You can’t get this wrong!

When I worked at a nursing home and tried to raise money for our Alzheimer’s program, I failed miserably. No one wanted to hear about Alzheimer’s. It was too close. It was too personal. It was too scary. Then, totally by accident, instead of talking about the patient or nursing home resident, I started talking about the caregiver. The money started to flow. It was easier to hear about an adult child having to adult-proof their home so that their mother would not run away than hearing about mothers, waking up at 2:00 AM thinking it was 7:00 AM and thirty years earlier, running away because they thought they had to get to work.

So to recap, you have to know what your audience is interested in. Then you have to establish your credentials and determine the proper story to tell. Then, in telling it, you have to make certain that your audience is comfortable and that your body language and tone of voice do not contradict your words. Finally, you have to determine the right proportion of facts vs. emotions that is required to meet your goal which is always the same: To convince your audience that you have what they want or need.

But beware of humor. Telling jokes can be dangerous. You never know what someone will view as offensive. Telling a funny story, especially self-deprecating, is a different matter.

For example, in response to the question, What are your weaknesses? I always say that I have no sense of direction; I can literally get lost going around a circle. Someone usually claims to be worse at navigation that I. When that happens, I put up my hand, tell them not to waste their time and quickly tell them the story of when I was taken to my destination by a blind man and his dog. I win the argument! But I always like to end with a lesson learned.

Before moving on, I ask the question, If you had seen the three of us walking, what would you have thought? You would have thought that I was such a nice guy helping a blind person and his dog get safely to where they were going. But the truth of the matter was, they were being nice. Just because you see something does not mean you understand it!

One word of warning: don’t preach. No one likes to be lectured to. Just be sincere. If you have the courage of your convictions, if you honestly believe what you are saying, you’ll be a successful story teller. Simply stated, it will come across in your tone of voice.

The question career counseling clients ask me the most is how they should respond when they are asked, Tell me about yourself. Nine times out of ten candidates summarize their resumes. Funny thing is, nine times out of ten when a business owner or employee is asked the same question about their company or non-profit, they summarize their website or brochure.

That’s a big mistake. The “Tell me about yourself” question is your opportunity to shine. Now is your chance to show your values, morals and principles. (Remember the restaurant owner?) And it is your chance to close the deal quickly because it’s one of the first things you will be asked.

If you have done your research, you should know what will resonate with the interviewer or prospect. When I’m asked the question, I always change it and respond, “I’m going to tell you about my best day.” My goal is to let them know what is not on my resume or, now, on my website. I want them to know about me. So I tell them this story and, so far, it has never failed me because it’s true and it resonates, especially with non-profits.   Plus it’s unexpected because it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my accomplishments, which is what they expect to hear about. And, it has a surprise ending:

This was my best day:

Years ago, I was the assistant director of a Jewish Federation in New Jersey. We had a YM-YWHA. The program directors had an idea. They want to have a community fair for Hanukah. It would not be a fundraiser (my responsibility) but simply a “thank-you” type of event. A fun day where we would sell tickets for games, sell some food, and if we broke even we would be happy.

At the meeting we had to discuss their idea, the directors, all young women, looked at me and said that they needed a volunteer to dress up as a cartoon character. I realized I had no choice in the matter, saw no point in arguing, and, frankly, I wanted to do it. So I agreed.

I did, however, have one condition. I told them, “It has to be a manly character.” They chose Barney!

If you need to lose eight pounds in four hours, I know how to do it! The costume was huge. There was so much foam rubber I could barely fit through my office door – sideways.

We thought it was a great idea. At the time Barney was very popular. All the kids had little Barneys at home. So when I walked in to the gymnasium where the Fair was being held, we all expected the children to go nuts. And they did…but not the way we expected.

The smaller children were scared stiff and went running to their mothers. (The older kids pulled my tail!) The little ones, who we were doing this for, wanted nothing to do with me. I was a seven-foot tall monster, not the Barney they knew and loved.

It was a failure. But it was only a failure in choice, not concept. The following year we did it again only this time I was Big Bird.

Big Bird, by definition, is supposed to be big. It’s in his name! This time, when I entered the gym the kids went nuts the right way. They were beside themselves with excitement. Especially one little girl who ran up to me, grabbed my leg and hugged with all her might. After a few minutes I had to pry her off because she was cutting off the flow of blood! So we held hands. For four hours we held hands. When I had to take a break her father would take her from me. When I returned, she would be waiting by the door and we would go walking around hand-in-hand or with her hugging my leg.

At the end of the Fair I whispered to her father that I wanted to give her a hug. I explained that I could not bend over to pick her up because the costume head would fall off. So he picked her up and she gave me a hug.

There are three hugs children give: There’s the nice-to-see-you/welcome-home-now-I’m–going-back-to-play-my-video-game hug. There’s the thank-you-for-the-birthday-present-now-I’m-going-to-play-with-it hug. And then there’s the nightmare hug. That’s the hug where they are scared and hold on for dear life because they know you will protect them. That’s the hug I got!

Don’t get me wrong; she was not scared. I was not protecting her from anyone. She simply loved Big Bird and game me the passionate hug. And, again, I had to signal to her father to pull her off of me.

When he put her on the floor, she took a couple of steps back. This was the first time that I actually saw her. All the other times she was on my side and, because of the costume head, I had no peripheral vision. She was about six- or seven-years old. I waved at her; she waved at me and said, “Bye-bye Big Bird.” I waved to everyone and went to my office.

I got out of the costume and looked like something a cat dragged in. My clothes were all wrinkled and I was covered in perspiration. With a bottle of water in my hand, I went into the lobby and noticed the little girl’s mother. I went over to her and said, “I have to tell you, no one has ever hugged me the way your daughter did.”

She looked at me like I was the biggest pervert on the planet. I had assumed she knew who I was. I immediately introduced myself,

“I’m Bruce Hurwitz. I’m the Federation’s assistant director. I was Big Bird.”

Her expression immediately changed. She got all misty-eyed, looked at me and said,

“Bruce, my daughter has autistic tendencies. When she said ‘Bye-bye Big Bird’ to you it was the first time she ever spoke to anyone outside of the immediate family or her teacher.” And then she thanked me.

And that was my best day!

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