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Enliven your career by telling stories

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“Mr. Client: After listening to your financial situation, Im reminded of someone I worked with a couple of years ago who faced the same issues you have. After we drafted a plan that saved this client several million dollars in taxes, he looked at me and said, You know, I can go home and sleep well tonight.”

And so begins our story, a tale about the value of storytelling. The moral of our narrative (for those seeking an abridged version) is this: You may be highly competent in insurance and retirement planning concepts, but your success rate with prospects will much improve if you can spin a compelling anecdote and tell it well.

“If we want to teach concepts that to clients are foreign and complicated, the most effective way to do so is to use stories,” says Scott Farnsworth, president of SunBridge, Orlando, Fla. “They help clients connect to us.”

Adds Stan Hustad, president of Minneapolis, Minn.-based PTG Group: “Nobody takes significant action because theyve been educated. They will only do so if theyve been energized. And stories create emotional energy.”

How so? Advisors say that prospects listen to stories differently than they do, say, PowerPoint presentations about products and features. In the latter case, they use the left hemisphere (or analytical side) of their brain to absorb and process information. The former is a right-brain function, where artistic and creative activity resides, and where we make decisions intuitively.

And, experts emphasize, prospects arrive at conclusions more easily when theyre thinking intuitively than when they are analytically. Advisors should therefore use storytelling to build rapport and credibility with the prospect. Only then can they safely launch into a technical discussion to help the individual buy into the proposed solution.

Mitch Anthony, president of Advisor Insights, Rochester, Minn., observes that storytelling is most effective when customized to the clients situation and way of thinking. To illustrate asset allocation, for example, one might point up the benefits of playing with a full set of clubs when speaking to an avid golfer, or discuss the value of diversifying the planting of perennials, annuals and bulbs with a gardener.

“Im a big fan of the analogy or metaphor using the words, its kind of like,” says Anthony. “I define metaphor in this business as using the language of the known to explain the language of the unknown.”

By placing the financial planning discussion within a familiar context, storytelling helps the client to relax. The technique has a similar effect on advisors, all the more so when the narrative is personalized. (Photo: Thinkstock)

By placing the financial planning discussion within a familiar context, storytelling helps the client to relax, he adds. The technique, say observers, has a similar effect on advisors, all the more so when the narrative is personalized.

Farnsworth engages the client in storytelling as part of a seven-step process dubbed SPIRALS (Stories, Problems, Issues, Ramifications, Ask & Assure, Last Benefits, and Solutions Stories). In step one, for example, he asks the client to “share stories” to identify areas of financial concern. Step four calls on the client to imagine what might happen if issues are not addressed, using storytelling to envision a worst-case scenario (e.g., a family having to pay a $2 million estate tax after the clients death).

“We ask these story-leading questions and let their imagination go to a place where it becomes real to them,” says Farnsworth. “We then imagine with clients solutions to help them avoid the problem. Clients will agree with the solution without even knowing the particulars.”

In this last step, Farnsworth leverages “solutions stories”: examples of clients who faced comparable financial challenges and adopted similar planning strategies. Then hell detail the resulting benefits.

Such examples, say experts, enhance advisors credibility by pointing up their experience. The telling of ones own story, which Anthony describes as “self-disclosure,” is the most important thing an advisor can offer a client.

Solutions stories, adds Hustad, also help lead the client through a process of self-discovery, thereby addressing potential objections. “A truth told is good, but seldom heard,” he says. “A truth revealed has greater yield. A truth discovered is best of all.”

For all its benefits, however, storytelling (or “storyselling,” to use Anthonys term) does not always come easily to advisors. Many producers find the transition daunting because theyve grown accustomed to speaking in financial jargon and focusing on product.

Others dont have enough real-life stories to tell. Doug Stevenson, president of Story Theater International, Colorado Springs, Colo., recommends that new recruits adopt their mentors stories as part of their initial repertoire. Later, as they gain experience, they can incorporate personal anecdotes into client presentations.

Must the advisors tale always be grounded in true-life experiences? Stevenson thinks so, observing that in relating fictitious anecdotes, advisors risk losing credibility with clients. Hustad is less emphatic on this point, noting that while all his stories are “true” (the event happened), not all are “real” (the persons or things described dont conform to the facts).

Real or otherwise, stories need to be well-rehearsed if theyre to have the desired impact.

“You dont want to wing it when you tell a story,” says Stevenson. “There is language that works and language that doesnt work. The highest level of professionals replicate the story, almost word for word, every time.”

Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, January 27, 2005. Copyright 2005 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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