Selling one’s ideas is a daily occurrence for many professionals. In my case, as a diversity consultant, it is often incumbent upon me to sell my diversity training and consulting services. To be honest, when I go to sell a proposal, for example, I often fall into the same trap that I will I caution against in this article. The trap I fall into, and caution strongly against, is relying on business logic to carry my argument. Too often I feel compelled to simply demonstrate return on investment (ROI), instead of aiming for the heart.
A Common “Selling” Mistake
From my perspective, using statistical evidence to sell diversity is a no-brainer. I can cite infinite statistics supporting the benefits of good diversity and inclusion practices. But I do this more often than I should, at least more often than I make the real case, that being the human argument.
I recently decided to write a blog article about empathy. While contemplating the topic in a coffee shop (my go-to creative space) I actually witnessed something I thought would make a great story to lead off with. However, rather than simply using that story as the full thrust of the article, I caught myself immediately going to google to try to find some compelling facts and figures concerning the science of empathy or what have you. Of course, there is plenty of hard evidence in support of empathy, yet, and especially so on this topic, I initially turned away from the most compelling argument. That of course was the incident itself that played out right before my eyes – the human story that I had actually witnessed and could relate to others. I almost blew it but caught myself, and hence perhaps the impetus to this article.
Take a Cue from Mr. Rogers
A very dear friend, colleague, and just an all-around good guy, Richard Brundage (author of The Heart in Communicating) tells a story in his communications workshops about Fred Rogers (yes, Mr. Rogers) addressing pediatricians as a keynote speaker at a large conference. What would Mr. Rogers have to say to an auditorium of physicians?
He talked about children. It was not a talk about procedures or drugs or billing or costs, the very things too many of the doctors got caught up in; but rather why these humans were there to begin with – they were there because they cared about children. Too long and too often these professionals were wrapped up in their own heads. When Mr. Rogers reminded them of their own humanity, there was not a dry eye in the house. He reminded them of their hearts and touched them there very acutely, and affectedly. The heart is a powerful catalyst.
The Science of Selling
That is what stories do, they actually reach a different part of the brain – the part responsible for emotion. Stories appeal to both logic and emotion. When listening to stories with rich imagery and meaning, the brain is stimulated as a whole. When this happens, emotions and logic are in play.
The London School of Business did a study (see article on Tenfold.com) and found that people retain 65 to 70 percent of information shared through stories while only 5 to10 percent of information is retained through the dry presentation of data and statistics.
Be More Persuasive
People make decisions in general with both logic and emotions in play, and more so the latter than the former. Consider how many people DON’T buy into diversity messaging, say LGBTQ for example, by logical argument alone. That is until they hear a compassionate story of a real person, especially a story of someone they know and can relate to. The heart is the mechanism of change.
Most importantly here, storytelling yields cooperative behaviors. Stories “motivate voluntary cooperation” as described in a 2014 HBR Article. There is much power in storytelling in many professional settings.
My experience is that in networking, building associations, building relationships, and forging teams when I led off with talking more personal than professional I made headway much quicker. Both personal and professional bonds forged deeper. I was more professionally effective when I was more personally affective. I see telling personal stories as the mortar between the bricks and make it a conscious practice to include them as much as possible.
How to Connect with Your Audience
The challenge in communication is to connect to the heart and not to the mind…
Why Do They Care?
Job one, get to know what others value – what they care about. For example, I worked for a director with a son who was an accomplished figure skater. I knew I could get his attention by first talking about skating, or anything related to it, prior to getting down to business. But I also give this huge caution – this is not about placating, or even greasing the wheels. This has to be honest interest, and authentic give and take of sharing stories, not simply a means of getting intel or opening another’s ears. Do not be insincere in this – it will show (eventually), no matter how careful in subterfuge you believe yourself to be. If you can’t be sincere in this skip this – really, I very often do just that. The goal is after all for your authenticity to make the human connection with emotion as described.
Think Like a Child
Think like a kid. Recall what is fun and/or interesting – don’t overthink. You want to open your mind like a child. I read a study once where researchers asked both children and adults what they thought a blot was on a piece of paper. It should come as no surprise that the children generated many more answers than adults. You want to be in an open relaxed frame of mind when telling a story. Over-thought stories will miss the emotional mark because in their logical framing they lose some of their authenticity and humanness. And in addition to thinking more childlike, aim for some of that good old childhood enthusiasm as well, to further the emotional connection. Enjoy your story if you want others to do the same.
Have the data and justification at hand. Yes, do also include some solid facts. These establish credibility. It’s very important to be seen as someone who is knowledgeable; someone who knows their stuff and not just someone that is fun, interesting, or even caring. The data, facts, and logic can be prepared ahead of time as opposed to the stories which should be ad-hoc as much as possible. In telling the story you could sprinkle in the data points, but I personally advise to either state them before any personal story or hold until afterward, so as not to in any way interrupt the natural humanity of the story.
Tell your stories (and no one else’s). Be sure your story has some relevance to the situation at hand. Relevance makes stories more advancing in nature, more catalytic. But understand sometimes the relevance is less important than being real. Your story should inform, but it can inform about you even if it less directly, or does not directly, inform about any item at hand. In the act of telling your story, people are often advised to ‘talk to the heart’.
This is good advice but in truth, we are really talking to a different part of the brain – the emotional part. And that part has more resonance with who we are, which in turn ultimately drives behaviors, actions, and decisions. Understand in telling personal stories there is a risk. You have to accept the risk of opening up and revealing yourself. It is in being vulnerable that we are approachable and connectable. The quickest way to drop another’s defenses is to drop our own.
Don’t sweat it. If your story missed the mark or was judged in some way not to your liking – OK, such is the nature of being real. You might feel uncomfortable or even embarrassed at the moment, but in the long run, I still argue you have built social capital. You have shown yourself to be human, which is far better than remaining unknown. To others, unknowns are riskier bets. Even if you don’t close a case, make a sale, or cause a decision on the spot – people remember you by telling stories. And in the end, you will feel better in being authentic than leaving yourself to other’s assumptions and misinterpretations. I personally find opening up with stories, hit or miss, is freeing. If nothing else I believe it has better connected me with the right people and weeded out those less appropriate to where I want to go.
In Summary (tl;dr)
Tell your stories. People may not remember all that you said, or perhaps not even your name, but they will remember the positive things about you by the way they were made to feel. And that is fuel to go forward.