From the August 2003 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Story Time

The proper use of an ancient art--story-telling--can help you build your modern practice

How many times have you eagerly attended a presentation on an innovative subject--possibly delivered by someone you find very interesting one-on-one--only to find yourself twisting uncomfortably in your seat, mentally running through all the items on your to-do list? And when that presentation is over, how often have you walked away without being able to recall much, if any, of what the speaker had to say, even when it was information you actually wanted?

That speaker failed to make any connection between the topic and a real life experience, so you, and likely the rest of the audience, couldn't relate the information to your own needs. The speaker likely delivered the information without telling a story.

Most business people fail to recognize the extraordinary marketing power of a simple story told well. Stories are the primary way to satisfy a human need that we all share: to connect with others. Stories provide the practical application of a notion or concept that influences the decision-making part of your readers' and listeners' brain. And that's what is missing from most advisors' presentations.

Over the years I've observed two typical and persistent kinds of failed presentations. The first is the "personal success" bad content presentation. It usually goes like this: An advisor giving a speech to a group of prospective clients begins by explaining how he got into the business, how his firm is number one in the country, and how all the funds he's ever touched have four-star rankings. The advisor then launches into an account of his firm's growth using colorful charts and service statistics. His presentation is convincing, yet not one of the prospects is compelled to sign up with this very successful advisor. Instead, they say they'll "think about it".

The second type of failed presentation is the "academically proven" presentation. This advisor jumps into investment theory, eloquently explaining diversification, asset allocation, and the efficient market. He uses the familiar catchphrases, but at the end of the presentation, again no one signs up.

We've all been on the receiving side of one of those dry informational lectures, and we know they seldom have any persuasive effect. All the facts and figures get in the way of any emotional connection that will have a lasting impact, especially when their delivery is hidden behind an overwhelming barrage of bullet points and subheadings. Caution! PowerPoint slide shows should be used to support your talks, not make them for you. Of course it's important to the prospect that the advisor demonstrate a successful track record and be knowledgeable in all those financial areas that the prospect has heard are necessary for success. But just as important is an emotional connection that doesn't emanate from a dry recitation of facts and figures.

Seven Steps to Good Story-Telling

Once in a great while, we have the opportunity to be captivated by a speaker, whether by their style or their material. The skilled story-teller can turn even the most mundane topic into an interesting tale. So how do we structure a presentation or story that accomplishes both--touching the audience's emotions while conveying to them the necessary information?

Following is a quick seven-part structure that will help you set up your next talk, article, or even book chapter.

1: Determine the main point or problem you want to relate.

2: Identify a concern your clients share related to the point.

3: Locate a personal experience illustrating the point.

4: Identify the complications that result from the problem.

5: Provide the solution to the problem.

6: Support your solution using charts or other visual aids.

7: Deliver a summary restating your point with emotion.

I've found the structure of problem-solution to be most successful in reaching an audience. When somebody is trying to sell you something, the mind puts up a defense; but when you are offering a solution to a clearly defined problem, the defenses dissolve.

The personal experience should be a richly detailed scene or slice of life, told in the first person, that will engage your reader or listener. The details transport them into an emotional trance that produces a predictable response. There are examples of this everywhere. Take, for instance, the writer and TV personality Suze Orman, who does a great job using a personal experience to make a point in her book, The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom (Running Press, 2001), a book that has sold over 2 million copies:

"When I was 13 I watched my father drive his car into the flames of his burning takeout-chicken shack in order to rescue his cash register. In that moment, I learned that money was more important than life itself."

She brings the reader right into the scene to experience the shock and then makes her point. Most advisors will agree that Orman's success has not been due to her investment expertise; rather, she's able to make a direct emotional connection with a huge consumer audience.

Start With the End and Work Backwards

A story is not an accumulation of information strung into a narrative, but a design of events that's carried to a meaningful climax. Once you discover your story's main impact or meaning, cut it out and tape it to your computer.

Take the time to design an ending that suggests a course of action. You can actually start at your resolution, the most powerful point that you want to get across to your listeners, and work backward to support that reality, supplying the hows and whys through the story. When the "bones" are in place, color in the picture using some of the following:

Use emotion-provoking details. Emotion lives in the details. The ingredient that makes the difference, whether you're speaking to a group or one-on-one, is using sensory or emotion-provoking detail in a story to bring your audience into your world. Using that approach, they experience what you've experienced, and then it becomes their experience, and therefore, memorable.

Have you ever been on a roller coaster? Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that you're at an amusement park, standing on the ground and watching yourself in the roller coaster car going up the track. And now you're watching yourself go over the crest and, whoa!, all the way down the other side.

When you open your eyes, what do you feel? Probably nothing. This is the normal way most stories are related in the business world. They're told from a distance, as an observation.

Let's try this exercise again. Close your eyes, but this time, take the perspective of sitting in the front roller coaster car. You can see the track rise right there in front of you. You can hear the chink-a-chink-a-chink all the way to the top, with only blue sky ahead. Now you're at the top and for that split second, you can see the park grounds way below, just as everything gives way, and you go roaring down the other side. Your breath is caught in your throat as your car drops a hundred feet, then loops upside down in a corkscrew, and goes screaming through a curve.

Okay, what is your physical feeling now compared to the first visualization? Are you even breathing? The sense of physically experiencing the scenario is where the lasting impact resides.

Avoid using nominalizations. Another way of taking people into an emotional trance--but in a bad way--is to use nominalization, i.e., concepts so big and abstract that people just zone out. A practical way of thinking about this concept is that a nominalization is any noun that you can't put into a wheelbarrow. If you have a big enough wheelbarrow, you can put a house in it, but you can't put the phrase "value added" into a wheelbarrow. You can't put "honor," "truth," or "duty" into a wheelbarrow. Abstract concepts exist only in the listener's interpretation.

Why does nominalization cause you to go into a trance? Because every time you hear or read that type of conceptual terminology, you have to go inside your head and look around for what that means for you. For instance, what the term beauty means to me is probably very different from what it means to you. The more you use nominalizations, the more hypnotized your audience becomes, until, when you make your impassioned conclusion, they may stand up and applaud in agreement. And if you asked them later what the speech was about, they'd say, "It was great. He really nailed it," whatever it was!

Embrace dialogue. Dialogue is like eavesdropping on somebody in a coffee shop--real conversation puts people into your scene and, when done well, fills out the story. Dialogue, however, does require the prudent use of compression and economy: You don't need to go on and on. And don't use dialogue as a means to deliver facts and figures.

One of the best ways to strengthen your story is to eliminate the words was and were. It is better to say "I invested" than "I was investing." Prune them out; then substitute action verbs and see how much stronger your story sounds.

Use similes and metaphors. Methods of comparison can substitute or augment where real-life experience or application is lacking. By using similes and metaphors, you can associate your point with something your audience can relate to. A simile uses verbs like and as; for example, "A SEP account is like a giant IRA." Simile introduces an additional image that gives more depth to what is being said.

Metaphors are more subtle and powerful, since they link together two dissimilar things to form a new insight, or feeling. Dale Rogers, a pension consultant located in Dallas, is a master of metaphors in his storytelling: "Average annual returns can be very deceiving; what you should be looking for is the compound rate of return," Dale begins. "For example, say you give your broker $1,000 and a year later, it's only worth $500. But the following year, it's back to $1,000 again. How much money have you made? Nothing; but the proud broker can legally claim that his average annual return is 25%. How can that be? Year one, minus 50%; year two, plus 100%; add them together, then divide by the two years, and you get an annual average return of 25%." Then Dale delights his audience by adding, "Suppose I put my head in an oven and my rear end in a freezer. On average, my body would be comfortable."

Dale's story brings up one of the most important aspects of good story telling: have fun with it. Humor is a good glue.

Remember that the key to good story-telling is to follow a simple process that will enhance your presentation skills, get you the results you're looking for, and forever change the way you deliver information. When you start thinking this way, the process will build on itself. And don't forget to be on the lookout for good story elements to keep your material fresh.

Reprints Discuss this story
This is where the comments go.