Why you need to be able to tell stories

While eating lunch at a recent industry event, I had the privilege of listening to one of Australia’s eminent political journalists. Normally, discourses on politics and economics render me senseless with boredom, so I sat there pretending to concentrate and trying my best not to spill something on my shirt.

I groaned silently as a voice from the other side of the room promised a lamentation about the short-termism of Australian politics and the absence of policy from our political dialogue. I couldn’t fathom how anyone would find this interesting, and I scanned the faces of the other attendees to see if they felt the same. To my surprise, all sat transfixed, their attention never wavering from the words that crept out of the crackling speakers surrounding us.

Was I missing something? Probably. Intrigued, I thought it best to put down my fork and try to gain some scintilla of understanding about what it was that my fellow diners found so interesting.

It took only five minutes before I got it. As the speaker explored the machinations that typify our current political climate, I realised that it wasn’t the subject matter people found so engaging — it was how she delivered it. Speaking with wit and conviction, she told us a story about how she became a political correspondent, how the undulating fortunes of Australia’s powerbrokers have impacted her ‘wary world view’, and how, in politics, history habitually repeats itself.

She then led us on a journey of economic discovery, fastidiously peeling back layer upon layer of technical jargon while expertly weaving her personal story throughout. She succeeded in taking a dull, highly specialised subject and creating a compelling narrative that held the room’s unwavering attention, despite the introduction of a delicious helping of chocolate mousse.

This is what I took from the experience: how the art of telling a story can win anybody over.

Stories help us connect to people

Storytelling is an inherently human creation. It endures despite cultural and technological evolution, remaining a constant in our lives. As acclaimed author Margaret Atwood tells us, ‘You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan’. We are engineered to both tell and respond to stories.

Eager to explore this idea, Uri Hasson and a team of neuroscientists from Princeton University sought to study the impact that storytelling has on the human brain. The researchers recorded a woman telling a story in both Russian and English while undergoing MRI scans to detect brain activity. These recordings were then played to volunteers who were also concurrently scanned.

The study found that the better the volunteers understood the story, the more their brain activity dovetailed with the storyteller’s. Hasson calls this ‘speaker–listener brain coupling’.

‘When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story’, he explains.

Conversely, when the woman spoke Russian, the coupling disappeared. Despite using the same inflection, intonation and emotion, listeners were unable to understand what the woman was saying. According to Hasson, this lack of understanding severed whatever connection the original telling of the story created.

‘The listeners could not understand what she was saying. Her voice had inflection and emotion, but without comprehensible words to clue them into the action, the listeners could not make sense of her story’, he says.

Psychologist Joshua Gowin agrees that through stories, people have the capacity to form incredibly powerful connections.

‘When you tell a story to someone, you can transfer experiences directly to their brain. They feel what you feel. They empathise’, he observes.

Gowin believes good storytellers have the ability to cut through biases and mental roadblocks, effectively synchronising an audience’s brain activity with the storyteller’s own.

‘As you relate someone's desires through a story, they become the desires of the audience. When trouble develops, they gasp in unison, and when desires are fulfilled they smile together. For as long as you've got your audience's attention, they are in your mind. When you hear a good story, you develop empathy with the teller because you experience the events for yourself.’

Using stories in insurance

In an industry that relies on human connection, knowing how to spin a good yarn and capture the imagination of your audience is an art form — and it can be a lucrative one.

As Vishal Kapoor puts it, stories are at their most powerful when they help you relate to your client. Kapoor, a director at McLardy McShane, says that most people believe one policy is the same as another, and the challenge for brokers is to highlight the differences.

‘Ninety-nine per cent of clients don’t read their policy documents. All they’ll see is the type of insurance you’re selling. Public liability is public liability is public liability’, explains Kapoor. ‘You need to be able to relate to them, talk in their terms and put things in perspective.’

Kapoor offers with a story about a recent negotiation he had with a client. When he observed the client struggling to come to grips with the differences between policies, he resorted to one of his favourite analogies.

‘I like to describe an insurance policy as a car,’ he says, smiling. ‘”That policy there is a Mercedes-Benz. This one over here is a [Honda] Jazz. They’re both cars, they both have four wheels, they both get you where you want to go — but if you’re in an accident, which car would you rather be in?”

‘This example makes it easy for me to delineate between a really good policy and a satisfactory policy. I can use it on pretty much any package’, he explains.

‘Everyone has a budget. Even though you might walk into a Ferrari dealership convinced you need one, you simply can’t afford it with a $30,000 budget. You need to find a car that fits your needs at a price you can afford. Insurance is no different.

‘I can sell you a $1,000 policy or a $10,000 policy. Both are appropriate and will meet your needs, but one’s a Ferrari and the other is the Jazz. One comes with leather seats, the other doesn’t.’

Kapoor says that analogies like this help him relate to clients on a mutual level, even when the topic is one that the client doesn’t really understand. It makes sense — stories based on what we have in common can connect us as people, building rapport and enabling the introduction of more complicated subjects.

Getting to the heart of the story

The best stories in the world tug at our heartstrings. We respond to the emotional turmoil the characters are put through, which is why the best tales leave a lasting impression on us.

In the business of providing protection, emotion is one the strongest drivers behind purchases, and a good story goes a long way towards propelling that. Matt Crewe, manager of sales and marketing at Austbrokers Countrywide, is a convert to the gospel of storytelling and believes that the only way you can really connect with a customer is to take them on an emotional journey.

‘I’m a big believer in “telling isn’t selling”’, says Crewe. ‘Telling people what you can do or how good a product is doesn’t work. They don’t relate to the product – they’re effectively not listening to you. You need to get people to attach an emotion to something you’re talking about. Only then will you be able to connect to them and only then will they remember it.’

According to Crewe, recounting a claims story with the client as protagonist is a sure-fire way to leave an impression. Evoking a trope familiar to insurance professionals, Crewe says the maelstrom of emotion that inevitably comes from a disaster scenario and the subsequent salvation provided by insurance is a powerful force.

‘Putting someone at the heart of a story makes them feel what it’s like to go through something that only happens to others. By experiencing the joy, despair, anxiety — whatever the emotion may be, if they see themselves in the story and how it can affect them, then they remember both the story and, more importantly, you. This is critical, as people buy from people. When it comes to insurance, which is a trust sell, they’ll be more willing to buy from someone they know and trust.’

Crewe suggests that clients will develop trust when they remember you and the way you engaged with them. Why? Because trust is based on emotional connection, and you triggered an emotional response. This, in his view, is the true power of storytelling from a sales perspective.

Kapoor agrees, saying that people don’t respond to words on a page. Instead, emotion is the key to success — particularly for products that cover intangibles, like cyber insurance. Selling cyber insurance is tricky because people often don’t see the need, and Kapoor believes that finding an emotional trigger is the only way to get the message across.

‘Selling cyber insurance will usually come in the form of a couple of conversations. You’ll start off with your inevitable “I’ve got security” conversation’, he says. ‘”Okay, you have security. Hobart airport got hacked, Sony got hacked, NASA got hacked — I don’t think your security is as good as those three.” This generally starts conversation number two: “Why would anyone hack me?” This is where a claims story works best.’

‘A client was a financial advisor with links to Westpac, Telstra, ANZ, etc., and a hacker used their site to hack into the Westpac site, which had to be shut down for around five seconds. Doesn’t sound like much, but Westpac sent my client a bill for over $300,000 for loss of profits, downtime and fixing their infrastructure,’ explains Kapoor. ‘I told him, “You’re lucky it was five seconds. Imagine if it was five minutes, or if Telstra was shut down.”’

It’s these real-world scenarios that Kapoor believes have the greatest impact in spurring the conversion from prospect to client. For both Kapoor and Crewe, the best way to create trust and rapport with clients is to tell them a compelling story.

Developing your inner storyteller

So now that the storytelling seed has been planted, how can you cultivate it into a skill that you can actually use?

Kapoor says you need to leverage your network in order to gather a library of stories that will capture the emotions of your prospect — and once you have them, practice.

‘In time’, he explains, ‘you’ll have your own material, but canvassing your colleagues is a great way of amassing some stories you can use when talking to clients. Once you have four or five examples, practice them on your workmates and family until you know them back to front.’

Crewe agrees, and he further reminds us that authenticity is integral to success.

‘Get some stories – claims stories always work the best – and put your own spin on them. Make them real and relatable, and rehearse them as much as you can’, he says. ‘A good story is one of your most powerful tools.’

Originally published at https://anziif.com/members-centre/articles/2016/03/why-you-need-to-be-able-to-tell-stories?