David Sheridan lived the kind of suburban Pittsburgh childhood familiar to baby boomers.
He and his pack of neighborhood friends spent their days playing sports, participating in Scouting and exploring the nearby woods. Their daily adventures didn’t end until the streetlights came on at night.
It was straight out of Leave It To Beaver. Until something happened to one of the gang and changed the group dynamic forever.
One of the neighborhood kids, Larry, saw his life upended after his father died.
Larry’s mother had to sell their home and move the family to an apartment on the other side of town. Their standard of living fell sharply. Larry ended up going to a different school, a different church, a different Scout troop and playing on different sports teams than the other kids he had known all his life. Larry fell out of contact with the group.
Sheridan now lives far from his childhood home, but he never forgot Larry.
He is vice president, managing director of brokerage distribution for Protective Life. He believes the industry is not telling the story of all the Larrys out there and why life insurance would have made a difference for their families.
Sheridan speaks to industry groups on the power of storytelling to inspire consumers to take action and protect their families. He challenges industry professionals to share the story of why they do what they do.
His company backs his beliefs. Protective Life has embraced the concept of “story-selling.” It has sponsored training for its people on the science of using stories to connect with consumers by focusing on the “why” of life insurance.
Getting To The Why
Why is the “why” so important in storytelling? Discussing the “why” reveals you to be more than a salesperson, Sheridan said. It creates a personal connection, it helps people understand what you believe and why you can be trusted.
“What you want to get into right away is the why of what you’re doing, not the what or the how. That comes later.
“But what you’re trying to get to is, what are the problems that the person you’re talking to really has? And have they expressed those problems to you? Have they said, ‘This is a problem I want to solve?’ Once you can get that person talking about what the real issues are and what the problems are, now you’re in a position to offer a solution. And they can see it as a solution instead of just another sales pitch.”
Sheridan said that the financial services industry helps people solve problems. “But you have to understand what those problems are before you start throwing solutions at people,” he said. Nobody buys a solution to a problem they don’t know or believe they have.
Telling the story of why you do what you do helps advisors build personal connections when talking to clients, Sheridan said. “You don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about things you do as a company that aren’t really relevant to the person you’re talking to.
“What sales people typically want to do is get in front of somebody, show the new whiz bang product or the new whiz bang sales idea. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if the person you’re showing it to isn’t receptive or doesn’t see how you’re offering a solution to a problem they agree needs solving, then you’re beating your head against the wall. And that’s why I think folks don’t do it very often.”
Sheridan said that one of the life insurance industry’s problems is “we don’t have as many classically trained life insurance sales professional out there who make people understand why life insurance is so important like we did 30 or 40 years ago. They actually did story selling back then but they didn’t call it that.”
He recalled an old story-selling process called “You’ll Earn A Fortune.”
“This was where they would help people realize that life insurance is not just about somebody dies and you get a bunch of money. And that’s the way a lot of people look at it — why should I pay this money to the insurance company today so somebody else will get all this money?”
Sheridan turned back to his friend Larry.
“Life insurance is not just paying off the mortgage. And that’s how people tend to narrowly think about it,” he said. “What they don’t think about is how life drastically will change for the people who are left behind. It’s not just about being able to pay off the car or the mortgage. It’s about losing all those life connections because now something has to drastically change in the life of the spouse who is left or the children who are left.”
The Outside Story And The Inside Story
Every good story actually consists of two stories. There’s the outside story, and then there’s the inside story. And the “why” is a big part of the inside story. That’s a major portion of the message Michel Neray conveys wherever he goes.
Neray travels around the world, teaching people how to use what he calls purposeful storytelling to connect with others. He is a master practitioner of neuro-linguistic programming.
Every story begins with a triggering event, Neray said.
“Something happens, which then creates a storyline that continues until the trigger event is resolved,” he explained. “Something happens, someone gets into trouble, they are personally transformed by that, and then they come out at the other end as someone transformed by that. They learn something from that.”
What Neray called the outside story is what happens. “I did this, he did that, and then this happened — that’s the outside story,” he said.
But the inside or internal story is what happens to the main character throughout the process. “We all know that in any story, the character ends up being transformed,” he said. “How is that person changed as a result of what happened? That is the internal storyline.”
The reason why the two parts of the story are important, Neray said, is that the external story outlines the action and keeps people engaged on a moment-to-moment basis. They want to know what happens next.
Meanwhile, the internal storyline is what Neray calls the universal storyline. “It speaks to universal themes. How would I behave in this circumstance? How do I grow? How do I make my life better, and what do I need to change to make that happen?”
What does this have to do with selling in the financial services world?
“We are always selling to people who have skepticisms, limiting beliefs, desires to make their lives better but fears at the same time,” Neray said. “It’s off-putting to just lay that out for them and suggest to them that they have these beliefs.
“But if we could embed those skepticisms, beliefs, fears or whatever into a story, especially in a personal story, then our listeners will say, ‘Hmmm, I’ve been there, I understand that.’ They won’t say that consciously, but that’s what they will think at a very, very deep level.”
With so many advisors and financial services companies competing for consumers’ attention, bringing the “why” into the sales story is what takes it to the next level, Neray said.
“Most insurance agents will understand the why is important,” he said. “They will typically tell stories that explain ‘I saw this happen to a neighbor, and they didn’t have any insurance, and their life was thrown into a mess.’”
But the next level, he explained, is telling the prospect “why I do how I do what I do.”
“When we go to that level, we not only explain why I so firmly believe in what I do, but we explain my differentiation, my brand differentiation.
“Especially with life insurance and financial services, it’s so hard to discern one person from another. Where we differentiate ourselves is not what we do but how we do it. We have to explain how we do things differently than everybody else.”
Although Neray said he believes storytelling is an important part of connecting with prospects, he warned against taking what he called “a heavy-handed approach.”
“When you think about it, ‘stories’ is just another word for ‘examples.’ Stop thinking about stories, and start thinking about examples.”
A Call To Action
You can tell the most compelling story in the world, but if it doesn’t include a call to action, it is worthless. That’s the message Myra Palmer has for advisors.
Palmer is president of The Palmer Agency in Atlanta. Her brokerage general agency was left reeling when her business partner, as well as her parents and brother — who worked in the business with her — died within an eight-year period. Her husband’s death during that period compounded her loss.
Palmer has spoken to a number of agent association groups, telling her story and pressing them to get their clients to take action in planning for their own needs.
“Every time I am talking to an advisor and they tell me about a client who asks about key man and buy-and-sell insurance, but they push pause on their planning, that’s when I go into my portion of the story about the need not to wait,” she said. “The time is now. I talk to them about what happened to our agency and ask them to take action.”
In her presentation, Palmer reminds the audience how valuable they are to their clients, and she urges them to keep pushing forward despite the amount of rejection they face. “No client wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I can’t wait to call my financial advisor today and talk about death and disability,’” she said.
Palmer begins her presentation with asking her audience questions.
“I’d like for you to take a minute and think about the people who mean the most to you in your life. Now imagine losing them one by one. Unimaginable isn’t it?
“I have a passion for the work we do, helping people plan to protect and provide for their families and businesses in the event of a loss. Even when presented with a plan, however, only a small percentage of people put those strategies in place. What makes it so hard to accept such a proposal, which in turn makes your job so challenging? What can we do to connect with our clients on a deeper level to help move them to action? How can we weave stories into the sales process to help communicate the value of the plans we recommend and the products we offer?”
Palmer ends her presentation with a PowerPoint slide showing a photo of her family; then, as she tells the story, each family member who has died appears as a silhouette.
That’s when she makes her final call to action.
“I tell them I never would have imagined the story of loss would become my story. As you have heard, I have benefited from excellent financial planning but also felt the disappointment and impact of improper planning,” she said. “Then I ask the audience, ‘Are you prepared for the unimaginable? Are your clients? When was the last time you contacted your clients for a policy review or just to tell them you are thinking about them?’”
The first time Palmer made this presentation, she wasn’t prepared for the audience reaction she received. It was dead silence.
Inspired By Life Experiences
Edward Auble has accumulated a library’s worth of stories from his long financial services career that included stints in such far-flung places as the Caribbean and the Middle East. He often uses them to lead off the e-newsletter he sends to hundreds of clients and prospects.
“Storytelling in general brings a real-world situation into your conversations,” said Auble, the owner of Auble Financial in Paoli, Pa. “If it’s something that involved you personally, there’s an underlying passion that gets passed along to the person you’re talking with. It’s more than just the numbers you’re throwing at somebody.”
Many of Auble’s clients are dealing with long-term care issues and end-of-life issues. The clients who have done the right kind of planning provide inspirational examples, while those who have put off planning until it reaches the crisis stage provide cautionary tales.
Auble’s family, friends and industry colleagues also are fertile territory for stories.
He often tells of how his family was affected when his father died unexpectedly at 49 without life insurance; Auble was only 11. Another family story centers on Auble’s infant brother, George, who lived only 19 days. After George’s death, Auble’s father bought life insurance on his two surviving children.
Auble’s sister’s recent move to assisted living — and the issues associated with that move — is is a source of stories on end-of-life planning.
And some old stories used to inspire sales are still relevant today, he said, and he still tells them to prospects when appropriate.
One colleague told him years ago: “Life insurance is the explosive expansion of capital at exactly the right time, paid out to exactly the right people in the exact amount that you want them to have — and it’s all tax-free.”
“That’s the most powerful sentence I’ve ever heard in the business,” he said.
Another old sales story Auble tells is an analogy of the difference between term and permanent insurance. “Imagine you take your car into a parking lot, and it costs you $1 and that’s it,” he said. “But imagine going to another parking lot where it costs you $2 to park your car, and then when you get your car you also get the $2 back. That’s a simple way to explain the difference.”
Auble said that his e-newsletter audience has responded positively to the stories he includes in his messages.
“They are stories everyone can relate to because sooner or later,” he said, “everyone either knows someone who was in a similar situation, or they have been in a similar situation themselves.”