15 December 2016
Written by Ella Tassi, Head of Marketing at Bennelong.
As a financial planner, you probably think storytelling has provenance in parents tucking their kids into bed. Or perhaps you assume it’s a polite way of describing unethical spin-doctoring. Either way, there is no room for storytelling in your professional practice. Is there? I propose storytelling is, in fact, a valuable business tool just waiting for you to unleash its potential.
We are hard-wired to respond to stories
Once upon a time, long before iPhones or even the wireless, people loved sharing stories… and of course we still do. While the way we share information has radically changed, the desire to do so and the way we process the information hasn’t changed in eons.
Scientist Edward O Wilson said biology holds us “on a leash”, only letting us stray so far from who we are. While we continue to broaden the digital platforms we use to communicate, they’ll only be effective if they reflect our humanity.
Empathy – an evolutionary imperative
Our brains were wired long ago.
Since our ancestors started making stone tools 2.5 million years ago, our brain size has tripled in size. According to Psychology Today, this expansion wasn’t due to learning how to make tools or improve hunting techniques; much of the additional brainpower was needed “for interpersonal capacities such as empathy, language, social cognition”. In other words, to a large extent it was the complexities of relationships that drove human evolution.
Empathy developed because it helped our ancestors to flourish. Being sensitive to their offsprings' needs increased their babies’ chance of survival; and the ability to work together within a group – dependent on being able to see things from another’s perspective – increased their chance of success as a species. As our social groups grew larger and more complex, empathy became ever more critical.
We may refine and expand empathy over our lifetime, but it is a hard-wired, primal response, observed in babies and our primate cousins.
Stories vs stats
Our natural predisposition toward empathy is why stories resonate in a way that standalone statistics and figures simply can’t.
Without looking it up, I couldn’t tell you how many were confirmed dead after the 2011 floods in Queensland (there were 35), nor how many people were affected (200,000), or the estimated damage ($2.38 billion). But what I’ll never forget is reading about Jordan Rice, the 13 year old boy swept away to his death moments after he told rescuers to save his brother first.
When the Nepal earthquake hit in April 2015 killing more than 9,000 people, injuring more than 23,000, and resulting in hundreds of thousands of people becoming homeless, we were horrified by the enormity of the tragedy. But it was the intimate stories and images that hit us the hardest: tales about families reunited, or loved ones lost. Here’s an example of one story as reported by CNN: “As Rasmila Awal walked home from the store on Saturday, the earth began to shake. A few moments later, she saw the building she lived in collapse. And inside, under all the debris, Awal knew, were her children - Soniya, aged 10, and Sonies, only 5 months old.” (Miraculously both children survived. The baby was found after spending 22 hours under the rubble.) A large-scale disaster is shocking, but it’s the individuals’ stories that puncture through our defenses. Or as a famous quote once claimed: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”.
Storytelling is powerful. Journalists know it. The film industry (generating $88.3bn in revenue worldwide) knows it. Even world leaders know it.
During his State of the Union address in January 2016, Barack Obama talked about the economy, but he hooked his audience in with a story: “It begins with our economy. Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds. She waited tables. He worked construction. Their first child, Jack, was on the way... ‘If only we had known,’ Rebekah wrote to me last spring, ‘what was about to happen to the housing and construction market’ ”.
People in marketing and advertising have long known the power of stories. What is the ubiquitous ‘before and after’ ploy if not a story of redemption?
Storytelling has long been used as a mechanism to be heard, remembered… and tell us how we ought to behave - principles reminiscent of any religion’s scriptures. Further afield, some of today’s cautionary fairy tales date back hundreds of years such as: Red Riding Hood (dates back to 1695, the lesson: don’t talk to strangers) or Pinocchio (1883, listen to your conscious).
A good story is powerful because it’s designed to be remembered and retold (and retold again). Therein lies its potency – you want to share it. Not surprisingly, scholars have proven the more intense the evoked emotion, the more likely a story will be shared. The desire has always been there, that ‘share’ button just makes it easier to do it.
Storytelling and work
Does story telling have a place at work? Absolutely.
Even the driest of documents can tell a story: a budget proposal, a business pitch, an annual report or even a quarterly Board paper, are all telling a story about what might happen, or what did happen and why. And while statistics and figures alone won’t do it, when used as evidence to back-up your story, they increase your impact by 80%. (OK, I just made that statistic up, but you see my point.)
Story telling and financial planners
In financial services, statistics, facts and figures are our bread and butter. But you can’t assume your prospects will be won over by numbers alone.
Attracting new clients often requires not only convincing them of your expertise, but the broader benefits of seeking financial planning advice to begin with. Financial literacy in Australia is improving but, in many quarters, still has some way to go. Subsequently, planners must also take on the role of educator.
The seven styles of learning are: visual (pictures and images), aural (sound and music), verbal (the written word and verbal speech), and kinaesthetic (a preference physicality, learning through doing), with most people preferring a mix of styles. While you can insert your figures into an impressive graph and tick off the visual criteria, if you can bring to life the story behind the stats, you’ll help your audience visualise, listen, and feel – resulting in a far greater impact.
For example: “Ford closes its Geelong factory; 600 manufacturing staff lose their job.” This isn’t the story; it’s just the facts. The human interest lies in how these 600 people’s lives will be impacted today, and in the years to come. And from your perspective, how seeking financial planning advice could create a ‘sliding doors’ moment.
Here’s another: “In the survey conducted by the ABS in 2014-15, 71 per cent intended to retire at the age of 65 or over, up from 66 per cent in the last survey result of 2012-13, and 48 per cent in 2004-05.” Interesting facts if you’re a numbers person who works in the industry, but for most people, we lost them at “ABS”.
Where’s the story, the drama, the emotion? The hook into people’s minds and hearts is the people behind the stats and, more importantly, their stories.
Ad agencies are consummate storytellers. Take for example, MLC’s “Let’s save retirement” campaign, where the grandad visits a museum and has to explain what retirement is to his grandson. Or Colonial First State’s “Be ready for next”, where the newly retired guy dances out the office door to AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. Both are addressing the stats above, but there is no mention of the ABS – it’s all about an individual’s narrative.
As a financial planner, you get to hear people’s stories every day. Draw on this treasure-trove and use the content as inspiration– whether as client testimonials or case studies.
Breaking up a story into parts
Let’s look at the retirement stats broken into the classic story components. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ve combined some to create a shorter list.)
Stasis (setting the scene, the status quo)
Frank was looking forward to retiring in five years’ time; after all, he’d been working since he was a knobbly-kneed 15 year old. Many of his friends had already retired, still young enough to seek adventure.
Trigger (sparks off the story) and quest (protagonist tries to return to the status quo)
But in 2008, the GFC hit in full force. Frank and his wife Doris’ retirement savings were decimated. The ‘Grey Nomad’ dream was on hold, indefinitely. “We’ll just have to delay retirement by a few years,” said Frank.
Surprise (obstacles, complications, conflict) and critical choice (protagonist makes a decision)
But as the wider economy floundered, so too did their business. Each day presented new and unexpected challenges. Increasing their working hours seemed the only choice: Doris was now unable to help out with the grandkids and the stress was beginning to impact Frank’s health.
Climax (the peak of dramatic tension)
The stresses accumulated until one day, there seemed to be no choice but to sell the business, salvaging what they could from what they’d spent a lifetime building.
Faced with mounting debt and sinking hopes, they sought the advice of a financial planner. (This is the best part – where you, the financial planner, get to be the knight in shining armour. Fortuitous casting, right?)
Last weekend, Frank and Doris set off on their first caravanning adventure. Their only wish was that they’d sought financial planning advice decades earlier.
There is no need to become the next Booker prize-winning author. But there is plenty to gain by introducing elements of storytelling into your client and prospect communications – both written and verbal.
It takes a story to spur us into action – use it to change your prospect’s mindset from: “One day I really should see that financial planner…” to “Today, I will”. You can, for example, include case studies in your client newsletters and website, weave stories into your seminar presentations, include a story in your informative flyers, and even use stories in your client meetings to help drive a message home.
Think of it this way: any document worth writing, ought to be worth reading; any presentation worth crafting, ought to be worth listening to. Do it badly, and your story won’t be heard, your pitch will be forgotten, the potential of your services ignored. Do it well and… who knows? You might just live happily ever after.
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