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Tell Me Your Story, and I’ll Tell You Mine

Story telling may be the most powerful form of influence you can use.  I wrote this in 2008 . . . over 10,000 words on the power of story telling.  In some ways this might be my masterwork to that point.

I spent the first 20 years of my professional career thinking about selling things. Some of that was due to the fact that I sold things, but mostly it was due to the fact that I made my living in the sales improvement business, both consulting and training. Over the years I have worked for lots of big named companies. I’ve written something like 30 different training programs covering everything from front line sales skills to strategic account strategy. I stopped counting how many people have been trained by me or in frameworks and skill models I developed.

At different times I ventured into other businesses. In 2000 I was briefly part of an internet incubator project in Chicago and later that year, I and a colleague wrote a business plan that later became the touchstone for a venture funded company that started, came together, and got sold, all in the teeth of the melt down.

And then something happened . . .

On September 10, 2001 I got on a plane and flew to New York City with the intention of going to a meeting in the World Trade Center at nine o’clock the next morning.  As it happened, I decided pretty much at the last minute that I didn’t want to go to the meeting.  I had another meeting later in the day in midtown and I thought my time would be better spent preparing, especially since four of my colleagues were going to the World Trade Center and I was literally a fifth wheel.

So I passed.

The next day, I was sitting on an exercise cycle in my hotel in midtown Manhattan watching the television as first one plane and then another flew into the building that we were supposed to be meeting in.  Not that day, and not the next day, but several months afterwards I began to reflect on why I made the decision not to go to a meeting at the World Trade Center on 9/11.  To this day I have no idea what it was that prompted me to do what I did.

It took the rest of that day to determine the fate of my four colleagues. They all made it; none of them actually entered the building before the planes hit.

It took the rest of the week to get home to my family on the west coast.

It took three more months for me to finally start processing what did and didn’t happen that day, and what it meant. I quit the company I was working for, bought two plane tickets for Australia, one for me and one for my wife, and I sat on a beach on the Gold Coast and wrote in my journal. I felt like something important had happened to me, but I had no idea what.

One of the directions that emerged out of that time was to get serious about understanding decision making.

While my decision to stay in the hotel on 9/11 was less than rational, the general arc of decision making as a discipline suddenly felt very important. One of the decisions I made was to found a consulting firm with some colleagues dedicated to the idea of helping people make, and help others to make, high quality decisions.

Over the ensuing years, we’ve done some great work for clients and trained a fair number of people in our frameworks. Along the way, I became interested in what I think is the next level of understanding decisions, which is simply this . . .

Decisions come from the stories we tell ourselves

In some cases, the stories are really just faint whispers, like what happened to me in New York that day. In other cases, the stories are logical on a grand scale, bolstered by facts and figures, charts and graphs. Mostly they’re a concatenation of intuition and logic, right and left-brains.

But in all cases, decisions have stories.

What is a story?

Before we go any further, perhaps it would be useful to talk about what I mean by the word “story.”

This isn’t a college class so we don’t need to be particular here.  One obvious meaning of the word is simply a sequence of events.  This leads to this, leads to this, and then that happens.  It is a common form of communication between two people, particularly in a business setting.  Another word for this type of communication is “narrative.”

More formally, we might reference Aristotle. Although humans have been telling stories for as long as we’ve had language, the Greeks brought story telling to a high art. Their epic heroic tales and classic tragic plays adhered to what we would now regard as classical form.

Obviously a story should have a beginning, middle, and an end.  A good story should include characters with some complexity.  It should have a plot that incorporates a change of fortune and then the subsequent lessons learned.  And finally a story should engage the imagination so that the listener might visualize what the characters see, feel, experience, and hear.

For the purposes of business people, we are not looking to win a prize in literature.  What we are interested in is how our clients and colleagues talk about what’s important to them and their companies.  We are interested in how the people who work in our client companies talk about what’s wrong and what’s right.  And equally as important, our clients are interested in how what we have to say matches up with what they think is important.

It is these kinds of stories, or what I like to think of as “narratives around the edges,” that give us the real insight into what we need to know about the people we’re trying to influence.

The key, as we will see, is in the details. It is in the details, in the little things, that we find the texture and meaning that turns a bunch of words into a story. And it is the stories that people tell themselves and others that explain and deliver their decisions.

Having thought about and told a lot of stories over the years, I would add a couple of comments to the framework laid down by Aristotle.

The first is simply this: Stories win. They are the great leveler. Humans have been telling each other stories for so long that the elements of telling and hearing are deeply engrained in each of us. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t love a good story. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t tell stories, however poorly or expertly woven. When someone introduces a story into the proceedings, something in the dialog changes.

Over the arc of time, every tribe, village, culture, team, and organization has used stories to communicate what it means to be . . . to be a man, a woman, a hunter, a warrior, an adult, a wife, a team mate, a competitor . . . The list is endless. The Bible, just to pick one piece of the canon of wisdom literature, is filled with stories instructing us as to the why and how of living an obedient life, a just life, a life of grace.  At some fundamental level, we immediately recognize these stories as both tales of our people, and tales of the inner journeys we have taken and have yet to take. Reaching back to my previous point, this is why stories win.

In this way, I think stories can also be thought of as containers, containers that hold important information about context, frames (what’s in and out), values, and choices. I’ll touch on each of these topics in the following paragraphs.

Stories are “space-makers”: They make room for people to enter into a state of boundarylessness with each other. Inside the comfortable confines of a story, you stop being you and I stop being me and we become caught up in the arc and the detail of the story. In those moments, we find a new ground on which we can relate to each other.

Finally, and I think most powerfully, when I am able to hear me in your story, when you are able to hear yourself in my story, the space extends and the boundaries that separate us become less formidable, less permanent. We’re not so different after all. We’re not so strange. Perhaps we can travel together after all.

This is why I believe that stories win.

People do things for their own reasons, not yours

The stories we should care most about are the ones the people we’re trying to influence tell.  This point should be obvious.

You would think that the best way to learn about your client’s reasons is to just ask them.  But it doesn’t always work that way. Some people lie. Some simply dissemble. Some don’t even know what it is they want. Maybe some do. But only a fool believes that you’re going to get the whole truth and nothing by the truth by storming the castle from the front.

You know where this is going. The other obvious path to the treasure room is to listen to the stories your clients tell.  And all clients tell stories.

I call these stories “narratives around the edges.” Listen to enough of them and they paint you a veritable map of the enterprise. For example, I can think of organizations I’ve been involved with where every story has a victim; every story is told with the purpose of assigning blame. In other cases, the stories are all about heroes and heroic efforts. In both cases, these “narratives around the edges” are plenty telling.

So what in particular are we listening for?  Well, we want to listen for three kinds of information.

Frames: How do people see the problem?

One of the things I have been periodically interested in is how sales people spend their time.  One of the most startling findings is how comparatively little time salespeople actually spend in front of clients.  Generally the number is somewhere in the 25 to 35% range. In other words, people in sales spend about ¼ of their time directly attempting to influence their clients and prospects.  The rest of the time is spent doing everything other than that. This bit of insight leads me to another story.

Some years ago I did a piece of consulting for a very large technology company.  This company didn’t love salespeople, relying instead on its powerful marketing machine and dominant position to drive business.  The question I was asked to help answer was how many strategic accounts could one salesperson handle. Thus the time use study. You see, I thought, lamely as it turned out, that what sales people did with their time would be useful in answering this question.

For people with lots of strategic account experience, the core premise of the question might seem a little odd.  The implication here is that a strategic account sales person or Strategic Account Manager could handle more than one account.  But that was exactly the question that was on the table, and we did a long and careful analysis to come to our conclusions. We poured our thinking into a multi-paged presentation and then took our opus to the senior executive in charge to make our case for why we thought the right ratio was somewhere in the very low single digits.

You’ve all been in these kinds of meetings.  There I was along with my colleagues sitting around a table with this very senior executive carefully going through page after page of our well-reasoned arguments as to why we thought things were the way they were. We had charts.  We had graphs.  We had spreadsheets.  We had it all.

After about 20 minutes of this, the executive had had about enough of this nonsense and told us that he thought our thinking was completely off base.  I think he actually used a stronger word than “off-base.”

In response to our shock, he told us a story.

“I called the CIO of company X the other day. I knew we were going to have this conversation so I asked him how many times a year he wanted to talk to a salesperson from our company.  He said he thought once or twice a year was more than enough.  So I just don’t see why our salespeople can’t handle at least 25 or 30 strategic accounts.”

I don’t remember much past that point. The term the Brits use for this is “gobsmacked.”  Bam. Just like that we were done. “Meeting over, thanks for playing, don’t forget your bartenders and bus boys.”

I do recall later having a conversation with one of my direct clients, someone who worked for the guy who worked for the guy, during which he bestowed upon me one of those “when you can snatch the pebble from my hands grasshopper” lessons.

“Kevin, you need to understand that while the rest of us need to have well reasoned arguments, the senior executives of this company are entitled to form global unified theories of the world, or pretty much anything else that they like, on single data points.”


Obviously the big man at the big company didn’t appreciate my thinking about how a strategic account manager should be spending his or her time.  And why was that?  The story that my data and analysis told simply wasn’t as convincing as the story he told himself based on his single conversation with one CIO of one decent sized company.

As you might imagine I was pretty pissed off that all the good work I had done had just been laid to waste.  Yes, I got paid, but it sure didn’t feel good to be trumped by a dumb story told by a dumb guy who had never sold anything in his life.  The fact that he worked for the largest and most successful software company of all time didn’t seem to impress me at the time.  But lo and behold I had inadvertently learned a powerful lesson in influencing: Find out how your clients see the problem before you go recommending a solution.

Another story, this one told to me by someone (Bill Taylor who wrote the wonderful book, Mavericks at Work) who heard it from someone else . . . (thus proving one of the first laws of stories: Stories have legs.) He tells it like this . . .

Gamal Aziz took over the MGM Grand in 2002. It was the Ford Taurus of hotels. It wasn’t remotely like what he thought it could be.  He used something called “working backwards.” His approach was, “Let’s look at every element of the hotel and ask ourselves what each space should generate in an ideal world? Forget what’s there. Then compare what’s there to our ideal.”

They had a Brown Derby restaurant. It was doing $5 million and $1 million in profit.  So then they asked themselves what if they went and got some all-star chef and did twice that and 4 x the profit? So now you’re not making one million, you’re losing three million. Relative to what they could be doing, they’re losing. It’s now the first billion-dollar hotel. The process has been pretty trauma free.

They go offering by offering and ask, what is the highest and best use of that space. We’ll change something new every 90 days.  Don’t start with the present and work to the future. Start with what you could be doing and work backward.

That would be a pretty good story to know if you wanted to do business with that company. It’s another example of a tale that helps you understand how executives at the MGM Grand define problems.

Values: What’s important?

Another kind of information we want to listen for relates to “values”:  What the company, or more accurately the leaders of the company, think is important.  For example, you might be aware that your client company is keen on cutting costs.  That’s good to know.  But a story gives that kind of information a kind of vividness that you wouldn’t get otherwise.

For example, I remember years ago being told story about a senior executive named Carl. Carl wasn’t a big man, but was built like a wrestler. He was notoriously intimidating and didn’t suffer fools gladly.

One day Carl decided to go for a look around the big building he worked in. Normally he went straight to the top floor where his office was, but on this day, he decided to get off on a different floor to have a look around.  It was after lunch, perhaps around two in the afternoon. There on the floor in the hallway was a stack of Wall Street Journal’s that had yet to be picked up. Each was addressed to a different person on that floor. This either meant that twenty people called in sick that day, or that Carl had paid for twenty Wall Street Journal subscriptions that were not being read.

There was a long list of things Carl didn’t like, and wasting shareholder money was at the very top.  So he went back to his office and drafted a memo to the effect that all Wall Street Journal subscriptions were to be canceled immediately. And they were.

Another story.

A man I know named Tom was hired away from one bank to run the retail operations at another bank. Tom was a tall, regal looking man with pure sliver hair. He could be funny as hell and was a great guy to have a drink with, but he could also be a scary S.O.B.

About a month into the job he decided to go on a branch tour to see what he did or didn’t have to work with.  Walking up to the very first branch of the day he noticed trash lying around the ATM machine.  Like Carl, Tom had a list of things he didn’t like, and a messy branch was very high on that list.

So he went inside the branch and politely as you please, he asked the branch manager for a trashcan.  He took the can, walked outside, picked up all the trash near the ATM machine, put it in the trash can, walked back into the branch, and handed the trashcan to the manager without saying anything. And then he left.

Well you can imagine that story got told and retold in the hours and days and weeks to follow, and I can assure you there wasn’t any more trash within a block of an ATM machine anywhere in that bank system for a very long time.

A memo telling people to keep the ATMs picked up is at best interesting. A story about the bosses, bosses, bosses, boss showing up and picking up trash is another thing entirely.

Choices: What’s in and What’s Out

The third kind of information we’re interested in finding relates to the choices people perceive they have.  Sometimes these stories show up very late in the game.  Other times you hear them in the form of justification for why people are doing what they’re doing.

For example, I can remember talking with a senior executive about the subject of sales training.  This guy had come up the ranks through business development and had been a very successful sales person.  At this later point in his career he didn’t recall getting any sales training and was generally of the opinion that sales training was for sissies.  I don’t remember the details of his story but the gist of it was “I didn’t have any of that kind of training or support when I was coming up through the ranks and I was pretty successful. I don’t see why these people need it either?”

For the record, my response, which was probably ill considered, was, “And there is only one you. That’s why you have this job and they all have those jobs.” Jaws dropped and everyone in the room looked busily at whatever was in front of them. After what seemed like about ten years my client laughed and said something under his breath . . . and we made the sale. But I digress.

Another way this type of story shows up is in the form of someone telling you that they can’t do something because they tried it once before and it didn’t work.  Or the opposite, that they’re doing it because they did it once before and it worked then.

These kinds of stories are a kind of “anti-choice” story: We call them “resistance stories.”  When we find our colleagues or clients resisting, or pushing back on something, it’s for a reason.  That reason has a story associated with it.  If you hope to deal with that resistance, the first thing you need to do is to hear the story behind it.

Listen and Learn

Giving your colleague or client space to tell his or her story goes beyond common courtesy.  It creates the opportunity to bring that resistance into the light.  It creates the opportunity for that person to let some of the air out of the resistance balloon.  It creates the opportunity for that resistance story to become less compelling: less interesting.

By asking your colleague or client why he or she doesn’t like something, you create a new opportunity for a new story to be told.

Notice that the examples I’m using aren’t epic tales.  They’re more like snippets.  But here is generally a beginning middle and an end.  There is some detail here and there to create texture.  There is a character in the drama.

Reflect on what you were thinking or feeling as I related each of those little snippets to you.  In all cases, it’s not difficult to feel yourself being transported out of that particular narrative into some memory of your own that’s activated by the story I was telling.

So when I described Tom walking up to the ATM machine, you easily visualized the trash sitting on the ground, the look on Tom’s face, and the look on the face of the branch manager when Tom came and went with the trashcan.

This is the kind of “narratives around the edges” I’m talking about.  These are the kind of client stories I want to know about: That you want to know about.  They provide the details and texture we need to anchor our ideas and communicate them powerfully from one person to another.

So my first recommendation to you is to pay attention to the stories that your clients tell.  You probably already know what the stories are, but it might be a good idea for you to make some notes about them and about the information those stories communicate about the four things I just mentioned: values, problem definitions, choices, and resistance.

My second recommendation is to literally ask your clients to tell you their stories.  You might even use those words.  If for some reason the word “story” makes you nervous, you can say things like, “Can you give me an example of that?”  Or, “Is there something in particular you’re thinking about?”  The next thing you will hear will be a story.

My third recommendation is that you think seriously about retelling those stories inside your company so that your colleagues can absorb some of the texture and context they just don’t get from reading reports, ignoring your emails, or surfing randomly through your CRM system.

Tell your stories

Now that you’ve listened to some stories, it’s time to talk about how you can use stories to influence your clients. There are lots of different kinds of stories you might tell. I want to talk about these five:

  • Who I am

  • Who we are

  • What’s the problem

  • What’s the solution

  • I know what you’re thinking

I’ve already made this point but let me make it again.  When I say the word “stories,” I don’t mean literally starting out with words “Let me tell you a story…” I am talking about going beyond mere facts to engage the imagination of the person you’re attempting to influence using words, sounds, and images.

You can use these stories in any of the following places:

  • Initial sales calls

  • Recruiting new team members

  • Managing upwards

  • Follow-up meetings

  • Informal gatherings

  • Catch-up phone calls

  • Informal presentations

  • Formal presentations

Who I am

If you believe that “people buy from people,” and for what it’s worth, I do, then you need to know that the “Who I am” story may be the most important story you will ever tell.

In 1981, I went to work for a company run by a man named Michael Gerber.  He later went on to some amount of fame and fortune by writing a book called the E-Myth. But this was long before that happened.  Back then he ran a consulting firm that was attempting to franchise a new approach to consulting with small businesses. I know, it already sounds complicated which proved to be part of the problem. But I digress.

My job for that company was to cold-call on small businesses with the intention of moving them into a multi-part sales process that would result in them buying services and me getting paid. At least that was the theory.

My day looked something like this.  I would get up in the morning and put on a three-piece suit: dark gray or dark blue only.  Underneath I wore a white starched shirt and a conservative tie.  The only watches we were permitted were the kind with a leather strap. No sport watches please. On my feet I wore dark socks and wingtip shoes.

Frankly, I thought I looked like a dork, but Mr. Gerber felt that was the way serious business people dressed, and by all means, we were meant to be serious.

So I would get in my car without eating breakfast and drive to a promising looking neighborhood in the territory that I had been assigned.  Why didn’t I eat breakfast?  I was too nervous and too afraid to keep anything down. In fact, I considered it a minor victory if I could make it all the way to my territory without having to stop and search out a restroom.

Once I arrived in my patch I would park my car at the top of the street in some out-of-the-way location. I would get out of the car, grab my briefcase, take a deep breath, and walk into the first place of business I found. It was usually something like a flower shop, a body shop, a cabinet shop, or something similar.  Not the kind of place where people were looking forward to someone dressed like me coming through the door.

Through the door I would go, holding out my hand, and in my best executive sounding voice (and understand I was about 25 years old at the time and scared out of my mind) I would say, “Hi, is the owner or manager here?”  If I tried I could do the rest of the pitch for you right now, but I won’t.

Have you got the picture?  A young, barely out of school kid dressed like his father holding a briefcase and asking for the owner or manager.  So who do you think they thought I was?

Well, on a good day, perhaps they thought I was a salesperson.  More likely, they thought I was a NARC, an INS agent or maybe from the Internal Revenue Service.  In any case, the general response was some version of “no.”  And that was if they were being polite.  Equally as likely a Doberman Pinscher might have chased me off. That actually happened by the way.

I went through this same routine, day after day, for something like six months.  I made 22 to 25 walk-in cold calls every day, day after day after day, and made a grand total of $1,682.00 for my efforts over those six months. I’m here to tell you that even in 1981, that wasn’t very much money.

And then one day something strange happened.

There I was in yet another one of these semi-industrial neighborhoods, going door-to-door attempting to get people to talk to me and listen to my pitch, when I happened to spy one of my colleagues coming down the street the other way.  The normal reaction of any salesperson given such a sighting would be some version of horror, or at least indignation at finding somebody else poaching around in his or her territory.  But on this day, I was delighted to see a friendly face, especially given that he looked like he had just inhaled some sort of controlled substance.  You can imagine that I was curious to find out what it might be, and if I might have some.

This is where the story gets interesting.  In response to my questioning, my colleague told me the following story.

“Yesterday, I was making sales calls and I went 0 for 24.  Not a good day.  So I decided to go back to the same businesses today and this is what I said.”

“Yesterday I came by and attempted to make a sales presentation. I wasn’t feeling very well and I’m afraid I didn’t do a very good job.  As a result, I wasted your time and my employer’s resources.  So I wondered if I could ask you a favor?”

And the favor was?

My friend asked that person, “May I try again?  You don’t have to buy anything from me. I would just like the opportunity to do my job and make a proper presentation.  And all I am asking, is if you would just listen to what I have to say.”

And what happened?  He went six for six.  He never got to the rest of the 24 because everybody he talked to not only listened to him but wound up agreeing to his offer.

So why do I tell you this story?  If I’ve told it well I have hopefully given you a sense of who I am.

The other reason I tell the story is because I think there are a couple of useful lessons in there about selling.  The first is the power of two simple words.  One of them is the word “favor.”  The other is the word “help.”  It never ceases to amaze me how people respond to a request for help and the humanity that those words both ask for and offer.

The other is the power of the story. Was it not my colleague’s small story about not feeling well and doing a poor job that created the space for one human being to talk to another, and from there, for a sale to be made?

I have no idea what became of my colleague or whether that experience had any meaningful impact on his life or not.  But I can say that the experience, and the story that goes along with it, set me on a now 25 year odyssey to understand why people do what they do and how I might influence those thought processes in ways that are useful, ethical, and constructive.

These kinds of stories make us human to one another.  They communicate far more depth and context than any other form of communication possibly can.  These stories don’t need to be dramatic; they just need to be authentic.  And in every relationship I’ve ever been in, including relationships with clients, there is always a time and a place to tell a story about “who I am.” It is in those moments that I believe the relationship building process really begins.

Who we are

“Who we are” stories are similar to the “Who I am’ stories except they’re about the brand, the company, or the team.  When someone tells us that Nordstrom’s provides great customer service we just sort of nod.  “Whatever.”

When we hear the famous story about the salesperson allowing a customer to return tires, keeping in mind that Nordstrom’s doesn’t sell tires, we get a completely different impression about the brand.

Most of us that travel don’t think highly of the experience that airlines provide these days.  And how do we know this?  Well if we don’t have our own stories, all we need to do is read about this or that airline pushing an airplane back from the gate and letting their customers either roast or freeze on an airplane for eight hours to know all we need to know about that company.

If you work for a big company, chances are your clients know a fair amount about your company.  But times change, leadership changes, priorities change, lots of things change, and so you may find yourself needing to help somebody understands something new about the company, your offers, or your team.  A straight-up recitation of the facts is certainly appropriate, but I would submit isn’t nearly enough to carry the day, particularly if you’re trying to plant a new idea in the mind of the listener.

So this is a case where you need a well-told story that illustrates why it’s a new day. The story I told about Tom and the ATM is an example of that.

Here’s another example. Many years ago I was doing some work for a company and was trying to get across the importance of creating something I was describing at that time as a “covenant” between the senior executives of the two companies.  So I told this story.

The sales team at a very large technology company had been locked in what seemed like an endless negotiation with their counterparts at a very large industrial company.  The negotiations were going absolutely nowhere and the level of impatience on both sides was reaching the red zone.

Word of the impasse got all the way to the top.  The story goes that John, the CEO of the technology company called Phil, the CEO of the industrial company and asked him for a meeting.

The two great men sat down in a room, talked things out, and then memorialized their understanding in a letter describing the spirit of the relationship the two companies wanted to have with each other.  That letter went up on the walls of both companies and was re-signed or re-initialed every year thereafter for quite some time.  And it was that letter and the spirit that it described that broke the impasse between the two organizations.  People had gotten so lost in the details that they had lost sight of the bigger picture.

That story, which got told over and over in those two companies, also became the basis of influencing the Strategic Account Manager at my client company to ask the senior executive of her company to go and do exactly the same thing, as it happens with the new CEO of the same industrial company.  And with the same results.

It’s those kinds of stories that communicate volumes about how a company truly behaves with its clients or customers or partners.  It’s those kinds of stories that you want to be able to tell as you introduce changes in your company to your client or changes in your client’s company to your company to illustrate a visceral sense of “who we are” or “who they are.”

What’s the problem?

Defining the nature of the problem to be solved, or the opportunity to be taken advantage of, is ground zero of influencing any decision process.  In decision making, we call this the “frame.”  If you get the frame wrong, everything that follows will be wrong.  If people involved with the problem don’t agree on the frame, the subsequent decisions and everything to do with implementing them will be fraught with problems.  If you want to be part of the solution, and let’s face it that’s why we’re in sales, you need to be part of defining the problem.

Most companies today have some level of involvement in disciplines like Six Sigma.  What’s common to these sorts of methods is the devotion to data, particularly when it comes to defining the problems to be addressed and the solutions to be implemented.

Data is useful, but it is also seductive.  There are many traps associated with data.  One of the most common is called the “availability bias.”  That means that we make use of the data that we have versus the data that we truly need.

The data we have is incredibly useful for making decisions about known problems and known processes.  But what about decisions where that’s not the case?  What about decisions that relate to the unknown future? What about decisions where there’s a good deal of uncertainty?  In both cases, the most readily available data may not be the most useful data.

Please understand that I am not anti-data.  I love math and science.  But keep in mind that math and science are tools that we use to tell our left-brains stories.  There is never any lack of numbers about anything we can think about in business.  The obvious issue is which numbers to draw people’s attention to and why. Here’s a good story that illustrates what I mean . . .

I often find myself needing to challenge my clients to think more broadly, or differently about a problem.  I find the best way to do that is to tell the story.  One of my favorites is about Subaru in Australia.

Several years ago Subaru was struggling along with essentially no perceptible market share.  Someone did a piece of market research and came up with a fascinating insight: people are willing to drive 45 minutes to buy a car, but only 15 minutes to have a car serviced.  The big “aha” moment came when someone asked a question, “Why is it those two activities have to occur in the same location?”

So what did Subaru do?  Well, in Melbourne, they bought up all their dealers and closed them down.  If people were willing to drive to buy, then they decided they would make it the most amazing buying experience anyone had ever seen. It is called Docklands.

At Docklands you can find the normal things that you would expect like a showroom, a parts department, and a service department.  But there is so much more.

Out back they have a whoop-de-do track where you can bounce around in a Subaru Outback to see how it handles in mud and dirt.  They also have an autocross track where you can take a WRX out and slalom it around corners.  They have their rally prep shop right there in the same facility behind a glass wall where enthusiasts can press their noses against the window and lust after high-performance gear for their Subaru. It’s a cornucopia of sensory overload for the car buyer.

There’s more. When you order your car, your car sends you postcards all along the way.  “I’m being made now.”  “I’m being painted now.”  “I’m getting on the boat now.”  “I’m getting off the boat now.”  “I’m at the showroom now.  Come and get me.”

When you come to pick up your car, it’s delivered to you in a special room by a trained person.  The car is on a stage.  After the delivery specialist shows you all the features of the car and how to work them, you get in your car and drive off stage and out the garage door, there to be greeted by clapping and cheering employees of the dealership.

If you own a Subaru, you’re entitled to Subaru roadside assistance.  But not just you, everyone in your family is as well.  So that means if your daughter driving your old six-year-old Honda has a breakdown somewhere in the middle of nowhere, she is now part of the Subaru family as well.  She can call and get the same service you can in your brand-new Forrester.

And what about service?  Well, recall that people don’t want to drive more than 15 minutes for service.  So what did Subaru do?  They put small service facilities all around the Melbourne area so that nobody would have to drive further than 15 minutes to get their Subaru serviced.  In other words they separated the service and sales experience.

And what happened to their market share?  It doubled, and it doubled again, and it doubled again.  The next several years Subaru was the hottest brand in Australia.

A wonderful story, and a great way to provoke people to think about their problems and opportunities from a completely different perspective.

What’s the solution?

This sort of story, a story about “where we’re going,” is fundamental to leadership.

For example, if I were to tell you that were going to a restaurant called Ascada on Saturday at 5:45 p.m., all I have communicated to you are the name of a restaurant and a time.  Not very interesting is it?  You’re thinking to yourself, “Yeah, well whatever.”

But what if I told you this?

The other day while walking home I spotted a new restaurant that I had never seen before called Ascata.  So I stopped in and lo and behold the owner was there, a neat guy named Troy.

It turns out the Troy used to be big buddies with Jimi Hendrix and among other things helped him get the rights to his music back from his then publisher.  He’s also worked with Paul McCartney and a bunch of other legends of music.

A couple of years ago he started a restaurant across the water in Bellevue and recently decided to close it and open up a new restaurant in our neighborhood with the idea of mixing good food, good drink, and good music.  The restaurant is a funky mix of red chairs, black tablecloths, and eclectic food.  It’s a sort of “Goth meets gumbo.”  I have no idea whether the food is any good or not, but Troy seems like a very cool guy, and the restaurant seems like a fun place.

I have to guess that now going to Ascada sounds much more interesting.  You might even be inclined to look up a review on the restaurant, or listen to a little Jimi Hendrix before you go.

Another story . . .

I remember doing a project for yet a big west-coast bank.  In the business unit we were working on, there were about 300 salespeople.  That year, the top salesperson had done about $3 million in loans. The next three had done a little bit over $1 million a year. And everybody else had done considerably less.  In fact, by the time you got below the top 20, we were looking at people who had done less than $100,000 a year, and the bottom 100 had done virtually no volume at all.

There are lots of different problems that you could surmise about that sales force based on that data.  So what did my client see?

Well, she announced that she wanted a sales force of less than a hundred people where quota would be $12 million a year just to keep your job.  That was more than three times what the very best guy had done. You can imagine the reaction this caused up and down the food chain.  She reframed the problem.  She saw something completely different and challenged everybody working for her to imagine a business unlike any of them had ever seen before.

That story was one that she used to spur her team to think completely differently about the problem so that they might think completely differently about the solution. Later, when she had similar challenges in different business units, that story would get retold, often by me by the way, as a way of getting people to see the problem and opportunity very differently.

Far too often we make our recommendations in the form of a PowerPoint.  We fill it with bullet points, charts and graphs, doing everything possible to take all the life out of our recommendation.  A new product lies comatose on the page as a collection of features and benefits instead of coming to life as a means of changing how people do things, of transforming a competitive landscape, or of changing lives.

If you want to excite people about your ideas, your recommendations, or your solutions, you need to engage their imagination as well as their intellect.  You need to give them the story as well as the data.  You need to paint them a picture that they can see, hear, and feel of what their world will be like when they adopt your solution.  Most importantly, they need to see themselves in your picture.  They need to be able to imagine how your story becomes their story.

I know what you’re thinking

The last kind of story I want to mention is called “I know what you’re thinking.”  It’s the kind of story you tell when you find yourself working with people who distrust you or don’t believe in what you have to say.  I’ve seen this come up in a number of cases, but the most typical are when a new leader joins a group, when people are sitting in a training session, or in any other circumstance involving change.

You’ve all been in situations like these.  You’re standing at the front of the room looking at a sea of disbelievers.  You know what they’re thinking.  It’s some version of “who is this jerk, what does he want, and how soon will he leave?”

There is no good way to take on this sort of resistance directly.  You can’t just stand up there and say, “I know what you’re thinking and stop it.”  Likewise, dumping a bunch of facts and figures on your skeptical audience isn’t going to do the trick either.  If there were ever a time for story, this would be it.

In the current business environment there is a lot of fear and uncertainty.  People are wondering if they’ll survive the next reorganization.  They’re wondering if their companies will be bought. There’s not much leader can say that anybody will believe, but a story about sticking with it in the face of uncertainty could be awfully helpful.

For the past 25 years I’ve done a lot of training of one sort or another and I’m well aware that as I stand up there, people regard me with some mixture of boredom, skepticism, and if I’m lucky, some curiosity.  So I tell a story.  If it’s a group of salespeople, perhaps a story about my first sales experience.  If the subject is decision-making, perhaps I talk about my experiences in New York on September 11.  Or maybe I tell a story about my kids.  It all depends on the situation and what I think people are feeling, but in all cases I’m looking to use a story to turn me in their eyes from a talking head to a person.

Pretending there is no resistance in the room is a fool’s errand.  It won’t go away all by itself.  But telling a story that indicates to the person or people you’re dealing with that you understand what they’re thinking, and more importantly that you have some experience with their concern, does three things for you.

  • It makes you a human being to them.

  • It takes the air out of the immediate source of resistance.

  • It takes some of the air out of future sources of resistance.

This last point is in some ways the most interesting one.  Stepping up to the skepticism or indifference in the room communicates a kind of confidence.  Using a story to do it, as I’ve already said, shows your humanity.  If you are able to use some humor, that can break the tension as well.  And having done that, the people feeling the resistance now feel like they owe you.  They owe you the courtesy of hearing you out.  They owe you the benefit of the doubt.  Now they’re willing to suspend their disbelief.

Here’s another example of what I mean.

I know a man named Tim Philips.  He is the founder of something called the Project for Justice in Times of Transition. Their mission is to help states move out of a state of conflict to a condition where it’s possible to begin meaningful dialog. They do this by bringing together the principles from the country in conflict along with people who’ve done it before. An example might be the folks involved in ending apartheid with all sides of The Troubles, which is what they call it up in Northern Ireland. Another was putting the various sides in the Kosovo mess together with people from Guatemala.

As you might expect, the people currently wrapped up in the trauma of their own situation have a very hard time listening to what others have to say. They just don’t see that anyone has suffered like they have. This is a story Tim told me over coffee one day . . .

For example, in this meeting in London it was all these Bosnians, Serbs, Croats and Muslim.  It was just after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords.  The fighting had ended, but that’s all.  So they were still in trauma. 

 One of the things I found in our work is that everybody thinks, “Nobody understands what we’ve gone through.  Nobody has suffered the way that we have suffered.”  Everybody thinks that their situation, their country, their culture is unique. 

 I think one of the real contributions of Justice Project is that we recognized early on that each country has its own unique history.  But human experience is the same around the world.  How humans respond to violent suffering . . . their life experience is fundamentally the same.  There’s a certain set of biological human responses.  And so, what I try to do is understand them.

 In the meeting we’re talking about, the Bosnians are traumatized.  They were hearing from people from El Salvador and thinking to themselves, “Where the hell is that?”  Northern Ireland, that’s somewhere else, you know.  So we look to tell a story that automatically connects to their story.  So that narratives sort of meet. 

 This was the second session.  The Bosnians were walking out; they were talking to each other; they weren’t listening.  I have a photograph of that meeting and you can see them not paying attention. 

So I said to James Lemoyne, who had been the New York Times bureau chief in El Salvador, “Do me a favor.  When you go out, tell the life story of Ricardo Castaneda or Joaquin Villalobos, so that you can connect to this people.  Tell them what they went through,” because he had great stories as a journalist. 

 So he said, “Seated to my right is Ambassador Ricardo Castaneda, who had been the Ambassador to the United Nations, very involved in the Peace Accords, and somebody who had a lot of experience and involvement with the peace process but also in the conflict.”  And he told that one time he was invited to Castaneda’s house in the ‘80s to a diplomatic dinner.  On the way to the house, James came across all these other diplomats who were standing looking at the dead bodies of maybe a dozen campesinos.  They had been killed in the previous two hours.  And they were cut from their heads all the way down.  Their organs were splayed out.  It wasn’t done by the guerilla movement on the left.  It was the right wing, the party this guy belonged to.  They didn’t want the peace process to go forward.  And so what they were trying to do was intimidate them and say, “You’re next.”  And they just laid them off in front of his house. 

 Well all of a sudden the Bosnians were listening, because, you know, people who suffer and are in pain, want to hear about somebody else’s pain and suffering. 

 Then he told the story of Joaquin Villalobos, who had been the senior head of the guerilla movement. Joaquin was responsible for thousands of executions and deaths.  He was a brilliant strategist.  And there was one time where his wife, his compañera, had been captured, tortured, cut up into over 70 pieces, and then put in a bag for him to find. 

 All of a sudden telling these stories, these people started listening.  They could sort of connect to what they didn’t have to say.  And you know, it’s very difficult, and it’s really sad that you have to tell that story.  But it’s a powerful way to connect to the people, because all of a sudden they can listen.  And they can connect on that basis.  So, it didn’t matter that these people came from Central America. These were people who had been through something similar to.

The end of the story

I want to end where I began: With a story.  A bigger story than any of the ones I’ve told you so far.  It’s the story of the heroic journey.  It goes something like this.

A young man is working in a field one day.  Perhaps he’s planting or perhaps it’s later in the season and he’s harvesting.  As he pokes around with his stick finds a strange looking rock.  Except the rock isn’t a rock, it’s a frog.  And not just any frog, it’s a talking frog.

“Greetings” says the frog.

“Greetings” says the boy.  “I’ve never seen a talking frog.”

“There are a great many things you haven’t seen” says the frog.  “And that is why I am here.”

With that, the frog tells a young boy that he must go on long journey.  The journey will be difficult.  But at the end of their journey, the boy will find a treasure.  But in order to bring this treasure home, he will first have to defeat a dragon.

As you might expect, there are many parts of the story that trouble the boy beginning with the talking frog and ending with a fire-breathing dragon.

“Um, errrr, no,” says the boy.

“Suit yourself,” said the frog.  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”  And with that the frog hopped off.

That night the boy tossed and turned with dreams of talking frogs and fiery dragons.  The next day the frog was once again in the field.

“Well,” said the frog.  “Will you go on the journey?”

“No I will not,” said the boy

“Suit yourself,” said the frog.  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”  And with that the frog hopped off.

This business between the frog and the boy went on for some time:  The frog asking and the boy declining to go on a road journey.  Finally the boy said to the frog, “You’re not going to stop asking me, are you?”

“No,” said the frog.  “It’s your destiny.”

So with that, the boy packed a few things in a bag and set off on the journey.

You know how the rest of the story goes.  Along the way the boy encountered adversity and perhaps even some tragedy.  He acquired some skills and perhaps even some talismans that he would need later when he finally encountered the dragon.  He of course didn’t know this at the time; all he knew is that the journey was hard.

Finally he finds the dragon and using the skills and talismans that he’s acquired along the way he defeats the dragon in some clever and unforeseen way.  It isn’t with a sword; it’s with a riddle.  It isn’t with a bow and arrow; it’s with something mundane like a feather or a glass of water.

And then finally the boy achieves the treasure.  Perhaps it’s a bag of gold.  More likely it’s some form of new knowledge.

Finally the boy must return to the village from whence he came so that his new knowledge, his new treasure, can bless the village and bless his family.  And with that, the heroic journey is complete.

Joseph Campbell refers to this type of heroic tale as the “mono-myth.”  Every culture has at least one story like this.  It’s the story of Achilles and Jason and the Argonauts.  It’s the story of Moses and Jonah and the whale.  It is the story of Buddha.  It is the story of Beowulf.  It is the story of Parsifal.  It is the King Arthur legend.  It is the Arabian Nights. It’s Luke Skywalker and Star Wars.

Most importantly, it is your story.  Every culture has its heroic journey myth because these stories are meant to teach us something about ourselves.  These stories are meant to teach us that our lives are journeys.  These stories are meant to teach us what those journeys will be like.  These stories are meant to teach us to look within and find our treasure.

The heroic journey also applies to anyone in strategic selling.  It applies to anyone trying to lead.  It applies to anyone trying to influence others.  To understand how, you need to understand that the classic heroic myth has three parts.

The first is the “call.”  That’s the part where the frog keeps nagging and nagging until the boy finally agrees to go.

None of us start out as heroes.  We’re just who we are.  It’s the journey that makes us heroic.  One day we’re sitting at our desk answering e-mail, or talking on the phone, or doing whatever it is we do, and the next we are on a journey to accomplish something big.  Maybe not as big a slaying a dragon, but something bigger than answering e-mail or talking on the phone.

The second part of the journey is called the “separation.”  That’s the part where you actually leave what’s comfortable and head toward something that’s not.  Usually in mythology this means crossing a river or an ocean or maybe entering a forest.  During that part of the journey there will always be trials and tribulations.  That’s what makes the journey heroic.  That’s what makes it interesting.  It is at this point in the journey and we have our first moment of truth.  When the going gets tough, do we turn back, or do we embrace what’s difficult and learn what we need to learn so we can go forward?

The final part of this phase is the big test.  That’s the part where we meet the dragon.  It’s the big pitch.  It’s when we lay it all on the line.  It’s when we look the client in the eye and tell them our story and then tell them what it is we’re going to do together to create something great.

It is that creating something great that is the third part of the story.  In heroic literature, it’s called the “return.”  The hero has to make the decision to actually return to the village.  The journey isn’t complete until the boon is brought back.

In your case the journey isn’t complete until you’ve not just made the sale but help bring the new vision to life.

If you think I’m overstating my case by describing something as mundane as strategic account management or leading an organization or consulting with a client as being heroic you missed my meaning.  The heroic story is about somebody normal like you or me doing something that for us feels abnormal.  It feels abnormal because it’s hard.  It feels abnormal because we haven’t done it before.  It feels abnormal because were scared of it.  And it is in our embracing those challenges that we write our own big or little heroic journeys.

In other words, the measure of the heroic journey isn’t in the size of the accomplishment.  It doesn’t have to be a big dragon.  The measure of the heroic journey is in the lessons we learn along the way and the blessings we bring back when we return.

Every day of our lives we have the opportunity to write a new story.  We have an opportunity to write a new story for ourselves.  We have the opportunity to write a new story for the people we work with.  We have the opportunity to write a new story for the people that were attempting to influence.

And in saying these words “write a new story” I am asking you to embrace the idea of stories.  Stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Stories with calls, separations, challenges, trials, triumphs, and returns.

Our days are not made up of facts and figures.  Nor are our client’s lives.  Our days are made up of stories.  Stories are how we remember the events of our lives.  Stories are how we make sense out of what happens to us.  Stories were how we communicate complex things like feelings and experiences.  Stories create texture and meaning.

As you think about the months and years ahead of you, think about stories.  Think first about the stories that your clients and colleagues have told you.  Think about the stories that they haven’t told you that you should know about.  Go looking for the stories, and in doing so, come to understand what these people think is important, what problems and opportunities they see, what choices they perceive, and why they’re resisting.

Think about what it is you want and need to communicate to these people.  In doing that think about how, by adding a little detail, by using a little bit of drama, and by bringing your facts and figures to life, you can use stories to engage not just the intellect but the imagination of the people you work with and for everyday.  If you do that, I think you’ll find that the journey you’re on will at the very least become more colorful and interesting, if not even heroic.