When Ann Baker Ronn visits a prospect, she brings a goose.
It is a plush toy, and within that goose is a gold-colored egg. Ronn tells the prospect the Aesop fable of the goose that laid the golden egg and asks: “If you had a goose that laid golden eggs, which would you insure: the goose or the egg?” The correct answer to Ronn’s question is the goose. In Ronn’s version of the tale, the goose represents the prospect’s ability to earn a livelihood and the egg represents the prospect’s income.
Ronn is the owner of Income Protection Solutions in Houston and is a believer in the power of storytelling to connect with prospects.
“I think people are visual learners,” she said. “So often, we are so tied up with giving prospects facts and figures when all you need to do is tell someone a story.”
The toy goose is only one visual aid that she uses to make her point. She sometimes will display the obituary of her former client, Tom. Tom was a mountain climber and triathlete, but a brain tumor brought him down and eventually killed him at the age of 52.
“We had sold him life insurance, but when I found out he had a brain tumor, I kept asking myself, ‘Why didn’t I talk to him about disability insurance when I had the chance?’” Ronn said. “That experience really changed my discussion with clients and it’s a story I tell them.”
Charts are another type of visual aid that can spark a story with prospects, Ronn has learned. She often shows prospects a chart that spells out the odds of dying before age 65 versus the odds of becoming disabled before age 65. Seeing this chart gets the prospect thinking about the importance of owning disability insurance and starts the conversation.
In the case of one client who owned high-end restaurants, Ronn recalled, the client had come to her about buying life insurance, and she showed him a chart illustrating the need for DI as well.
“I pulled out a chart showing him what he could expect to earn from now until he reached his full retirement age at 67,” she said. “It was like a light bulb went off for him. He realized that he needed to protect a $2 million asset, and that started us talking about disability insurance.”
Ronn mentors younger advisors and recommends they brush up on their storytelling skills.
“I was mentoring someone who is new to the business and talked with him about telling stories,” she said. “And he said, ‘But I don’t have any stories.’ So I told him that it’s OK to borrow other people’s stories.”
Storytelling “is really the only way to be successful in this business,” Ronn contended. “We give people too many facts and figures. Storytelling gets people involved and engaged, and it makes them want to know more about how we can help them.”
A Basic Human Level
Storytelling connects people in physical as well as emotional ways, according to one of the experts on the subject, Nick Nanton. Nanton and JW Dicks are the authors of StorySelling. The book tells sales professionals how to “sell without selling” by telling their brand’s story.
When the human brain hears a good story, it emits oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone,” Nanton said. “So by telling stories, you have the ability to create a biochemical bond that is second to none when it comes to building trust.”
Transportation is another phenomenon that occurs when people hear a good story, Nanton said. To understand the concept of transportation, he explained, think about what happens in your mind when you read a fiction book. You mentally transport yourself into a character in the book, putting yourself in that character’s shoes. And your brain reacts the same way that the character’s brain reacts in a given situation.
“So if you tell your story correctly, not only do you create a biochemical reaction, but people put themselves in your shoes and they transport themselves into your position,” Nanton said. “And over time, if you tell your story effectively and personally, your clients begin to feel like they were part of your journey — like they have been on the journey with you.
“When this is done correctly, it becomes much harder if not impossible for customers to look elsewhere, because they actually feel like they helped you achieve your success. So going to your competitors would actually be tearing down something they helped to build.”
Telling a story that connects on an instinctual human level comes down to three steps, Nanton said. That formula is answering these three questions:
Who are you?
What are you doing now?
What is your vision of the future?
?Nanton explained it further.
1. Who are you? Nanton said answering this question also includes telling where you came from and what you have in your past that relates to what you are doing now. In addition to answering these, you need to add what Nanton calls “personal hooks.”
“For example, if you grew up playing football and you walked on to the college football team. Or you played a lot of soccer and you went to the Junior World Cup,” he said. “The more you can layer in what other people have in common with you, you build affinity. And affinity builds trust, so if someone is like you, you trust them. So people think, ‘They like the same things I like and I’m a good person, so they must be a good person too.’”
2. What are you doing now? The second part of this question, Nanton said, is “and how is it helping others?”
“You might tell your prospect something like, ‘Here is what I do and here are two or three different types of clients I’m helping,’” he said. “You lay out those two or three scenarios or case studies. Maybe you can do it as a video or a podcast. People can see that you are helping others who are like them and you can help them too.”
3. What is your vision of the future? People want to know what you think the future looks like and how you can help them in the future, Nanton said.
“Because if you have no vision for the future, if you don’t see a positive future, then people aren’t interested,” he added.
The buying process for insurance products has many emotional and financial considerations attached to it. That makes storytelling especially important in getting a prospect to act, Nanton said.
“It’s always a better approach to use stories to connect with someone,” he said. “There is an adage that says, ‘Facts tell; stories sell.’”
The story-selling concept moves to the next level when an advisor can get prospects to tell their own stories.
“If you can get them to reveal to you what they really want, that’s everything,” he said. “At that point, you’re building a relationship, and I don’t think there’s anything stronger than that.”
Telling Your Own Story
Val Mikesell’s website is devoted to storytelling, containing a number of videos that tell stories illustrating the importance of owning various life insurance products. Mikesell is owner and president of The Mikesell Group in Bellevue, Wash.
Mikesell’s interest in using storytelling as a sales tool stems from his personal story. A number of years ago, he had a heart attack that left him temporarily disabled.
“I had just finished playing basketball early in the morning,” he recalled. “I was on my way home and I had shortness of breath. I thought it was ananxiety attack. It kept getting worse. I recognized I had a problem.”
Mikesell said he went to the hospital, where he was treated for a heart attack and had a stent put in. But surviving the heart attack was only part of his story.
“I was scared, but I wasn’t scared for me — I was scared for my family,” he said. “It took me four or five months to get through it and get back to work. In this business, when you’re not at work, the commissions aren’t coming in, but the bills keep coming in.”
It didn’t take long for Mikesell’s family to burn through their savings during the time he was unable to work. They were lucky enough to be able to dig themselves out of the financial hole, but it took time.
Back when Mikesell was disabled, there was no such thing as a life insurance policy with a living benefit provision. If such a product had existed then, and if he had owned it, his family’s financial situation would have been drastically different, he said.
Today, he tells his story as well as the stories of others he knows who have been hit with what he calls “the snakes that are out there — things like cancer, heart attack and stroke.”
Not Enough Are Using It
Although storytelling may come naturally to some advisors, not enough of them are using that technique, Mikesell said.
“Part of it is that there is a lack of good content material for telling stories,” he said. “I also don’t think there are good platforms for sharing stories. People, for the most part, are in that two- or three-minute video-driven world where if you can’t illustrate a concept in a two or three minute video, then they don’t have much interest in it. If you can provide them with a video that can capture their attention that drives the point home, then they will listen to you, and that gives you the opportunity to ask how you can serve them.”
The sales process is not about “throwing numbers out there,” Mikesell said. “If you do that, you won’t make the connection. And as for storytelling, if you can’t do it, your competitors will.”
Keeping a Memory Alive
Karen Babbar uses storytelling to serve two purposes: keeping her late son’s memory alive and educating prospects on the importance of life and long-term care insurance. Babbar is a New York Life agent in San Ramon, Calif.
When her son, Rana, was only 18, she bought him a long-term care policy as well as a life insurance policy with a disability waiver of premium.
“People think life insurance is for when they die,” she said. “As for long-term care, when you’re young, you don’t think you will ever use it.”
But Rana’s situation was different. When he was 35, he began to suffer debilitating seizures and was unable to work. His illness progressed to the point where he needed full-time care before dying four years later.
The insurance that his mother purchased for him when he was 18 paid for his care.
Rana’s family filed the long-term care claim, and that enabled him to receive the care he needed. In addition, the cash value that had built up in the life insurance policy helped pay for Rana’s living expenses.
Babbar said her son was well-known in the community, and those who knew him and knew his story come to her asking for advice on how to protect their own families.
“What I tell everyone is, you never can tell when you’ll need insurance, so it’s better to plan ahead of time when you’re young and healthy,” she said. “It’s notw what life insurance does after you die, but what it can do when you’re alive — that’s what’s inspiring. That’s the story.”
A Matter of Survival
When it comes to storytelling, few in this industry can mesmerize an audience like Joe Jordan can.
The inspirational speaker and behavioral finance expert is the author of Living a Life of Significance. He is a former senior vice president at MetLife and has spoken to financial services groups all over the globe.
Jordan’s speaking gigs are filled with stories that put a human face on the world of insurance products. He often tells the story of how his family was devastated financially after his father died unexpectedly and without life insurance. He also shows a video titled “Mother-in-Law,” which tells a story about long-term care from the point of view of an ailing elderly woman who is forced to move in with her son and his family.
The ability to tell a story and relate to clients is what will separate the human advisor from the robo-advisor, and what will help the advisor survive in the high-tech, post-fiduciary world, Jordan said.
“What can face-to-face distribution do that technology can’t do? Technology can’t create trust,” Jordan said. “Trust is an impulse, not a calculation. Trust is not earned by the weight of evidence but by the depth of the desire to help people rather than to convince them of something.”
An important element of creating that trust with clients is the ability to tell them a story they can relate to, Jordan said.
“No matter what statistics you give someone, they don’t get it. It just rolls right off their back. All wisdom comes from specific human experiences. When you think about it, what people remember are stories,” he said.
“When you hear a story that you can relate to, all pretenses go down, all defense mechanisms go down, and then you can get into a discussion.”
A Pillar of Significance
Storytelling is so important to Jordan that he listed it among his “four pillars” of living a significant life.
Those pillars are:
People who have a religious or spiritual background can relate to these pillars, Jordan said. “People who belong to a religious group — they have a purpose that’s bigger than themselves,” he said. “And they tell it through stories — look at the Gospels and the Quran and the Torah and all the great religious texts. All stories, and it’s all hiding in plain sight.”
There’s a “business reason” behind these pillars, Jordan said.
“It’s others who give our lives meaning, by giving community and connection,” he said. “And if I have a strong connection with someone and I trust them, I really don’t care how much it costs.”
As for how this all relates to the Department of Labor fiduciary rule, Jordan said the DOL rule’s premise is the commoditization of all transactions and no advice. “But the only noncommoditized thing we provide for people is advice. It’s the storytelling that is the thing that gets people there,” he said.
Even though digital communication has made people more connected than ever before, loneliness and isolation are at epidemic levels, Jordan said.
“The things that really give people their purpose and meaning in life have to do with others,” he said. “And the idea of storytelling is to be able to connect with people because of common experiences. In our business, the way of making a connection with people is not by giving them statistics; it’s by giving them stories.”
Telling More Stories
How do you work storytelling into your client presentation? Jordan said the first step is to “get out of the transactional mode of selling and move to the idea of fact-finding — learning what makes people tick.”
During the fact-finding process, you can ask the prospect a question such as: “Do you believe you may have to take care of an elderly parent someday?”
“Here is where you get an idea of what’s on their mind and what their situation is,” Jordan said. “Then it’s the idea of where you can very innocently come up with a story that relates to that client.
“It could be something like ‘My wife’s mother lives in the attic’ or ‘My brother died at 33 years old and left behind a wife and kids.’”
Jordan said to beware of the prospect who does not want to share their own money story. “If you get someone who clams up and doesn’t want to tell you anything, pack up and go.
“But if they do share a story, you know you’re in like Flynn, and then you can relate on a human basis. No robo-advisor can do that.”
Storytelling in the sales process is a matter of using human and emotional elements as opposed to analytical elements in helping fulfill a prospect’s needs, Jordan said.
“In this business, we should think a little less and feel a little more,” he said. “Storytelling is one of the important structures for this. The people in this business who are able to create trust and relationships are the ones who will succeed.”