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Great salespeople are great storytellers

January 28, 2019

Get prospects and clients to pay attention by incorporating storytelling skills into your sales arsenal.

Bart Shachnow

Sales Performance Director

As Sales Performance Director, Bart, with the help of his team, develops and delivers a broad range... About this expert

broker tip storytelling sales success

Like 99 percent of people in the insurance business, I didn’t grow up dreaming of working in this industry. My first choice was to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. When that ambition was crushed fairly early on, I pursued my next dream, to become an actor and director. I enjoyed modest success as an amateur, but it’s a long way from community theater to Broadway.

Still, I have never abandoned my love of stories, and it has served me well in the financial services industry. I fervently believe that capturing an audience with compelling storytelling is essential to being a successful salesperson.

To be effective and draw people in, great stories must be emotionally engaging. And the formula for an effective story is pretty much as old as history. There are variations on the theme, but basically a good story involves four components:

  1. A challenge or problem
  2. A struggle (or heroic battle) to overcome that challenge (the more roadblocks and obstacles along the way, the better)
  3. Gaining victory by overcoming the obstacles
  4. Reflection on what happened (i.e., the moral of the story)

You can apply this basic blueprint to any situation, even insurance sales. Let’s take the formula and apply the components that would evolve into an actual story that could be told to either an external audience (like a prospect) or an internal audience (a salesperson you manage):

1. The challenge or problem: A client has been with an incumbent broker for 20 years and is resistant to make a change. While acknowledging that the account might be managed better elsewhere, the principals don’t want to rock the boat. The hero — that’s you — must develop a plan.

2. The struggle to overcome the challenge: Multiple carriers are involved and decision-makers/stakeholders within the company are many and diverse. It’s difficult to get an audience with key stakeholders and gain consensus. How will you surmount the challenges?

3. Gaining victory by overcoming the obstacles: Your pursuit of the case took three years, by slowly winning over key stakeholders and earning an opportunity to present your plan to an executive committee. Your solution involved consolidating coverages and plugging serious, previously unidentified gaps in coverage while delivering a premium savings of 12 percent.

4. Reflection on what happened — the moral of the story: The deal was won with a combination of persistence, demonstrated belief in the value of the program and the long-term cultivation of strategic relationships. The hero prevailed.

All of the attributes mentioned in the moral of this story would be very attractive to a prospect, who would be impressed that your persistence, conviction and long-term relationship-building finally won the day. It would be equally impressive to someone you are trying to motivate to embrace these actions.

Of course, the “telling of the tale” is the hard part, and requires a lot of thought, practice, feedback and suggestions from people whose judgment you trust. In addition to the four-step formula outlined above, here are a few other recommendations:

  • Keep it short. We live in a “sound-bite” society. No one has time for a long, drawn-out novel. I’ll draw on my theater background again, where there’s an old mantra: Always leave the audience begging for more. (You don’t want to be in the opposite position!)
  • Engage people emotionally. Despite our data-driven society, we’re still human, and humans (even executive humans) often make decisions based on emotion and how they feel about things. The easiest way to engage people emotionally is to talk about the challenges that you (or they) may face and the kinds of things you do to help people overcome their challenges.
  • Look people in the eye. This is the easiest way to make a connection with your audience, but many people don’t do it. They look off into the distance, or at something else nearby. In so doing, they diminish the impact of the storytelling experience. Engage people by letting them know you’re talking directly to them.
  • Listen to a lot of stories. I try to use my commute time effectively by listening to news, political and industry podcasts. I also just listen to people telling stories. My favorites are about individuals who found themselves in difficult or even embarrassing situations, what they did to cope, how they overcame the challenges and what they learned from their experience. Listening to how other people tell stories will help you craft your own.
  • Practice — a lot. Practice and hone your story with someone you trust: It could be your manager, a colleague or a friend. Seek feedback constantly.

Taking the opportunity to examine your past successes, and communicate them as a storyteller, will not only help you reevaluate your business wins but can also help lead to stronger connections with prospects and co-workers. And that’s called a happy ending!

As always, I would love to hear from you. Email me your comments and suggestions.

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