Genuine communication will always spell success for any consulting business. However, real connection with potential clients can only be achieved using the best storytelling tactics. Michael Zipursky sits down with The Story Leader Mike Adams to discuss his well-guarded secrets that fuel Anecdote, the world’s largest business storytelling company. He explains the right ingredients that make up a well-rounded story, ultimately building trust and closing deals. Mike also breaks down the most important pointers in sharing a success story, making it less about you and more of an inspiration for your target audience.
I’m with Mike Adams. Mike, welcome.
Thanks very much, Michael.
Mike, you’re the Head of Story-Powered Sales at Anecdote, a consulting and coaching training business that helps organizations leverage the power of storytelling. Your client list includes well-known brands like IBM, Shell, KPMG and many others. Previously, you led sales teams for companies all around the world like Nokia, Spotless, Motorola and others. You’re also the author of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell. We are going to get into a lot about story here because this is such a powerful area that I personally feel and also have observed over the years that most consultants don’t do much with don’t know much about it. We were guilty of this for many years where we either hesitated intentionally to not tell our story or we didn’t know how, so we didn’t. Only over the last few years have we started to become more intentional and embrace the power of storytelling. I’m excited to have you on here. Let’s begin with how people tell their story. What should someone know when they are thinking about storytelling?
Thanks so much for that introduction, Michael. The first thing to know about story is don’t just think of storytelling. There’s much more to story than storytelling. I work for a company called Anecdote. We’ve been doing this since 2004. The company was founded by Shawn Callahan and he had been working for IBM before he set out on his own. He had been doing story seeking, collecting stories as part of a culture change project for IBM. He was flying around all the locations and collecting stories about how things are done rather than how the CEO or the C-level might think things should be done. That’s a powerful way to understand the culture and to start thinking about how you might change the way people behave in your company.
After a couple of years, some of his clients said, “Shawn, you seem very good at story. Would you teach our people how to tell stories?” He said, “We’re not doing that because that’s too open to manipulation.” He thought about it a bit more and he thought, “If we teach companies how to find specific true stories from their organization and tell those as anecdotes then that would be quite okay,” which is why our company is called Anecdote. Nothing Hollywood about it, just little 1, 2-minute anecdotes. In 2006, we released a Storytelling for Leaders, which has been delivered to thousands of companies and tens of thousands of people all over the world. Now we have storytelling for sales teams, which is called Story-Powered Sales and for strategy communication, Story-Powered Strategy.
Story work rather than storytelling, but we say in Anecdote that you need to tell a story to get a story. It starts by telling a story so that the other person will tell you a story back. Your readers have probably all experienced those wonderful prospect meetings where you seem to be drawn in and the client is sharing with you everything that’s going on. What’s generally happening when you have those wonderful first meetings are they’re sharing stories with you about how things are happening that decided to trust you and they’re sharing with you what’s happening in the form of stories. They’re telling you examples of what’s happened. That’s probably a little introduction to story work. When Shawn and Mark started, my colleagues in Anecdote, they said that you couldn’t say the word story because people thought it was making stuff up, fairytales or children’s stuff. It wasn’t business-like.
There’s been a real switch. People are now talking a lot about story, but we noticed they often don’t know what a story is when they say the word story. We have the opposite problem now in the sense that the word story seems to be accepted but good examples of people telling stories are rare. One of my clients sent me a paper from a well-known global consulting company that shall remain nameless. The topic was the importance of storytelling in technical sales. It was eleven pages, beautifully written, nice graphs but not a single story in the whole document. That illustrates the problem. People talk story but they don’t tell story. I’ve told you a story about the foundation of Anecdote, which we could call a company story. I’ve also told you a story to make a point that we often say story and don’t know what a story is.
I want to get into something that will be tangible and the people can apply. Before we do that, why do you think people don’t more proactively seek stories or tell their stories? Every single one of us has stories inside of us. Every single person in our community that I have interacted with or the vast majority even that I have not directly interacted with, they’re good at what they do. They’re experts in their areas. They can achieve results and deliver value for their clients. They don’t come to us looking for help with their skillset. It’s more about the business side of how to build a successful consulting business, yet those same people who are clearly very good at what they do and have a track record of success often don’t tell their story. They’re not even thinking about that. Why do you think that is?
There are a few reasons. Probably the main reason is there’s a fashion in how we should speak in business. We should talk in abstract terms. That seems to be the way to talk in business. We should say things like, “Customer service is our number one priority.” It sounds good. Who’s going to argue? What does it mean? If I say to you, “I agree with you that customer service should be your number one priority. Could you give me an example of excellent customer service?” That’s a story–seeking question that would take you to some understanding. When we speak abstractly, we say those kinds of opinion statements. We float along the surface with a veneer of understanding.
We think we understand each other but we don’t. When we get down to the level of sharing specific examples which is all a story is. True stories are something that happened in a time and place with people that were meaningful and then for which we can get meaning. That’s all they are. When we consciously decide to share stories, we find ourselves much better understood. When we consciously decide to seek out stories, we’ll find that we understand our clients a lot better. We teach storytelling with some interesting examples of how salespeople and consultants can understand what’s going on by seeking out the client’s story, which is about asking a different kind of question. Behind me is a bunch of sales books. The vast majority of sales training or consulting training and how to consult are about asking questions. They ask about this or that topic questions.
The underlying assumption is that by playing the doctor role, diagnosing and trying to figure out what goes on through questions, we will be able to understand the client’s problems so that we can fix them. My view is that that’s not a useful approach to understanding what’s going on. If you ask the classic question types in sales training books, you will often miss what’s going on. That’s because we tend to focus on the why, what and how questions, but story–seeking questions are when and where, “When did you see that working well? Where were you when you noticed that that was a problem? Tell me what happened.” We’re trying to get down to the level of specific examples of what happened. Those questions are not taught in sales training books mostly, but they get you a true understanding of what’s going on.
Let’s move forward with the assumption that the readers are going, “That makes sense. I can buy into that, that I need to tell stories and maybe I want to go and actively seek stories.” What’s your suggestion? For somebody who wants to tell more stories, where should they start? Should they look internal to find their own stories? Should they go out and seek stories from their client’s past or present perspective? What is the best place for somebody to begin this journey?
Most of your readers read books. It’s my experience that consultants do read. There are some excellent books. I wrote one. Mike Bosworth wrote an excellent book on storytelling for consulting and sales. It’s called What Great Salespeople Do, written in 2012. My book is called Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell. It’s equally applicable for consulting. My book takes you through a bias seller process from the first meeting. Why should they trust you? Why should they even talk to you? Why should you change? Consulting is about positioning a change in general.
I want to make this tangible for everyone. Let’s talk about that. You mentioned the importance of being able to establish trust in that relationship and even get a seat at the table. How are you using storytelling at your company to connect with prospective buyers and to increase the level of trust? Could you offer a quick story or an example of what that might look like?
We teach what we call a sales connection story, which is a story about something that’s happened to you that demonstrates your credibility. It explains to your buyer why you do what you do. I tell that in various ways depending on who I’m meeting. Let’s say I was meeting a CEO or head of a sales team. Depending on how much time I have, I would say something like, “I’m an engineer by training.” Storytelling didn’t come naturally to me, but I had this job of doing a one-hour software demonstration many years ago while I was running a marketing team for a big software company. I thought one hour is way too long to demonstrate software. I have to be more interesting than that. I had this idea of writing a play. I wrote a play for my marketing team that they didn’t like the idea very much.
They got up and acted out this play of how our software could be used. There was a remarkable response from the audience. They kept asking questions to my guys who stayed in the role for an hour or so afterwards. I realized then that the story of how you use the software was much more interesting than the features and benefits of the software. It wasn’t until a few years later when I told a short story when I was working in Russia and heard some of my clients telling my story back to me that I realized the story was traveling. It was doing work. I had a career running big sales teams in various multinational companies. When I decided to stop doing that for various emotional reasons in 2015, I thought about solving the problem of how to help salespeople connect properly and say the right thing in all those meetings where I was trying to kick them under the table.
I started teaching salespeople how to do that. When I went back to figure out what they remembered, I noticed that they only remembered the storytelling part of what I was teaching. They didn’t remember any of the other stuff. I switched to teaching and using storytelling as the primary instruction method, but also teaching them how to tell stories. That’s how I got into it. That’s an example of a connection story. You probably infer some things about me that I didn’t say about myself. I didn’t say that I’ve worked in different countries. I mentioned it in the story. I worked for multinational companies and I have run sales teams but you infer things about me from the way I told that story.
Have you seen it effectively used even before you’re speaking one to one with the buyers? Let’s say you’re on a Zoom call or you’re meeting in person, depending on what the situation is with the world at that time. If you’re still wanting to build your pipeline, you want to even get the meeting, can story be used before you have a conversation one to one? If so, can you maybe offer a quick example or two of how you guys are doing that or others have done that with effectiveness?
Sometimes you have to correct curiosity in a short space of time, maybe within the subject line of an email, which is too short for a story. The way I look at that is I’ll think about the story that would resonate with that prospect. I’m thinking about success stories in the case of other clients like them that have succeeded with storytelling that we teach. I will tell either the beginning or the end of a specific story. For example, we work with the big Italian insurance company, Generali. The head of distribution there, Rebecca told me when she took the job and listened to her salespeople talking, they sounded like talking brochures. She knew she had to change that. I would use that in a subject line to see if I can hook, “Do you have the problem of your salespeople sounding like talking brochures?”
In the body, I would say, “We work with Generali.” I still wouldn’t complete the story because unfinished stories are curious, “How did that go? How did you do that?” Those are the questions. If someone else has that problem, the half story that you would like to hear the end of becomes the hook. You can also put the half story at the end, which would be, “This was the result that we got with Generali. Would you like to hear how it started?” That’s also curious. I think about the story that would resonate and work out what to partially tell.
If we reverse engineer that a little bit, you’re identifying the problem or the goal, the desire that a client has that you’ve been part of the experience. It’s a past situation. You’re using that then to create a story around it. If you identify, “Here was the result,” or “Here’s the problem that they had,” then you’re thinking what the situation was, the environment and the story around that. That’s what you’re then extracting and using to put out into the world, whether it’s in an email, in a presentation website copy or also when you sit down with a buyer one-to-one. Is that correct? Am I missing anything?
That is correct. I’m trying not to make it too abstract. I would use the quotation marks, “My salespeople sound like talking brochures,” and put in that partial story. It’s a specific example rather than be abstract. Prospecting for new clients is never a certain thing because you’re reaching out to people who may or may not have that problem. You’re trying to be intelligent about who else is probably experiencing the same issue and target them in that way. The story is more engaging than an abstract laying out of the problem, which would be more a typical business approach.
If somebody wants to improve and get better at telling these stories, in your own experience, when you look back over the years of developing your expertise in this area, is there one or a couple of things that you’ve done that you think have played the biggest role in increasing your understanding and the success that you’ve been able to achieve? Is it focusing on how you write or on trying to identify anytime you hear a story or see a story and noting it down? Is there anything that you’ve done that’s helped you to increase your performance in this area?
There are specific things that are meta–skills when we teach this. The first one is knowing exactly what a story is and what it isn’t. For that, you need to be able to recognize certain specific elements of story. The first being time and place. They happen at a time and a place. There is a sequence of related events. You can think of them in terms of conjunctions that go like, “At this time and place, something and, but.” The but is the thing you don’t expect, “What’s happening?” They are a promise of something that’s unanticipated or a surprise. They then finish so, “And, and but, so.” Whenever you’re delivering your information about what happened in that sequence and you’re telling a story, people will listen. People will find that interesting. There’s an engaging aspect to that.
There’s a simple reason why stories are engaging. We know we can’t predict. We know that stories have an unpredictable element to them. We want to try and predict what’s going to happen next. We have this big part of our brain which is doing nothing but predicting all of its inputs. The neocortex is predicting its inputs. It’s trying to predict what you’re going to see next, what you’re going to hear next and what you’re going to feel. You and your cortex would have been predicting I was going to say the word next. Even though you hear or read stories, if they have a character in them, the listener can put themselves into the story and imagine themselves as that person, try to predict what’s going to happen next to that person and how that person will feel.
That’s the way we pass emotional content in stories. Your readers may or may not know, but humans make all their decisions, every single one, by reference to our emotional memory, which is in the neocortex. Our decision by definition is a decision to feel comfortable on some timescale. It’s a feeling, “I will do that if I feel that I’ll be more comfortable in the near mid and long-term.” We predict how we’ll feel before we move or act. Stories are a wonderful mechanism because when we tell stories about other people who are in the process of acting, we can infer how that person feels and why they’re acting. We’re passing emotional reasoning as well as rational reasoning in a story, which is a crucial thing to understand about decision-making.
One thing that we’ve observed are ourselves and have found to be helpful in sales, enrollment and speaking with clients, we also teach and coach our clients, especially in our Clarity Coaching Program, is this idea of trying to capture different use cases or situations that the buyer is in. As an example, if you can say to someone, “I understand what you shared. That’s interesting. Thanks for sharing that. We were working with a client in this industry.” They also thought the same thing. They had plans to go down that path, but what they ended up doing was this different thing because of these reasons and they saw this result. It sounds like that kind of approach is similar to the format that you have all these years. It is much better documented than ours or the approach that we’ve probably assembled for many different people. Is there anything else to that? Can you add maybe a little bit more detail? What are some guidelines for people?
We’re talking about connection stories like what could I tell you about myself that would infer credibility and trust that you would trust me. The main character in that story is yourself. You’re talking about something that happened to you or people will say a case study or a case of a client that we helped. The classic case study in three parts is problematic for storytelling because it starts off like, “Here is our other client in the shit. We came in and fixed it and now everything’s great.” I put that deliberately like that because there’s a problem there. The problem is the hero of the story is us. A lot of consultants make themselves the hero in their consulting success stories or their case studies. The problem with that is that your listener does not identify with you as the consultant. They identify with that other poor, helpless, hopeless person that you made look bad. There is a formula to telling a success story that will resonate with your prospect.
Give us the formula there. Let’s get into it.
The formula is coming on. We can’t do it in three parts. We need a few more parts. The formula starts with, “Tell us about that other client. What kind of business are they? Where are they?” You don’t have to name them. You can say something, we’ll call him Fred, but start with them. Don’t say, “I had a client” or “We had a client.” If you start with the pronoun I or we, you’re already likely to tell it from your own perspective. Here’s Fred in this situation getting a problem. Fred is lucky, he meets a guide. He meets you. How did he meet you? It’s always an interesting part of the story. How did you come into this story? Was there a competitive tender? Did they find you on the website? Did someone refer you?
Often, people don’t know. You have to go and find out. You have to go and ask, “What made you even think to contact me in the first place?” You then talk about a mutual plan. We sat down and we worked out a plan together so your other client has agency. We talk about all the things that they didn’t want to happen. What were the concerns with that plan? What were the objections? What were the things that would make that not a good idea? Lay that out in terms of failure and possibility, and then talk about success. The success not of your company but the actual success that your client received both the person and business. When you do it that way, you also realize often that you don’t know exactly what that success was. You have to go back and ask them.
To tell a good success story means going back and interviewing that client who succeeded and being able to answer that in those phrases. What was their situation before they contacted you? How was the problem impacting them? How do they feel about them? What was the consequence? How did they meet you exactly and why? What was the mutual plan? Usually, you know what that was. What were they concerned about? What is their success now? What’s it meant for them? When you have that conversation, you come up with a nice success story usually. You always learn something interesting when you have that conversation with past clients.
I want to thank you, Mike, for coming on here. This is such a deep topic that we could spend hours, if not days, going through. Where would be the best place for people to go to learn more about you, your work, your book? Tell us that the best place for people to go.
I would just make one more point which is important. It’s story work, not storytelling. When you tell a sales connection story something about yourself, end it with, “Enough about me, what about you?” You’ll get back a story from the other person rather than the abstract. They’ll tell you how they got into their job as well. It’s a remarkable trick. When you tell a story about one of your other clients that succeeded, end that with, “Enough about them. How are things going on here?” They will tell you the story about how things are going on. I mentioned that we tell stories to get stories. This changes the tone of your conversations. You become less of the high-powered authority that can come in and fix things.
You’re more of a problem solver and someone that can engage and solve problems on a level. You’ll hear what’s happening with your clients. They will appreciate that. You can get my book by typing Mike Adams Seven Stories into your favorite search engine. There are audiobooks and all sorts of books on various online repositories. You could also have a look at Anecdote.com. There is a huge number of stories there. There’s a story bank. You can search for all kinds of different stories there. There’s a YouTube channel. If you put Story-Powered Sales into YouTube, we have a YouTube channel with a bunch of stories that people can see all the different types of stories in action.
I want to encourage everyone to dive deeper into those resources. I feel stories are incredibly powerful. I’m encouraging many clients to dive deeper into this topic because we neglected it. We didn’t think too much about it. Coming back to my early days, for quite some time, I didn’t want to tell my story because I thought I need to always be professional. I always need to have that image and not talk about myself, my experiences, my vulnerabilities or those sorts of things. Once we start to open up and tell more of our story, what we found is not only was that enjoyable, but we started to also attract people who resonate with those stories. This is a topic that we could go on for hours and hours. With our experience, we’ve been able to bring more of the right kind of people from our community into the world where we can work together, collaborate and create some magical results.
Thank you, Mike, so much for coming on. I hope that everyone takes some time to think about what your stories are and how you can tell your stories. I love the point that you made about telling stories to get stories because everyone enjoys a good story or at least it gets their attention and interest. Consulting is about asking great questions. What a powerful way to elicit and extract great valuable information from buyers or the market that you want to serve, then by leading with a story to open things up. That’s a wonderful tip. Mike, thank you so much for coming on.
It was a pleasure. Thanks very much, Michael.
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