Humans are wired to enjoy stories. Throughout history, storytelling has been the primary pathway for people to bond with one another and pass critical information down through generations. Stories pull us in, resonate deeply, and live on for decades in our minds. In my business, I use stories and metaphors extensively for establishing rapport, teaching concepts, and shifting people’s mindsets.
Well-told stories simulate experience and allow people to learn vicariously. Scientists have discovered that when people are interested in (and can relate to) a story, they are “transported” into another mental realm. Stories act like simulators, allowing listeners to learn what it’s like to be in certain situations and how to overcome obstacles encountered.
In my early twenties, I was a newly divorced mom, baby in tow, trying to get through graduate school with no child support. After scouring the classifieds and realizing that my “dime a dozen” psychology degree wouldn’t even buy me a cup of coffee, I turned to the profession of sales—where there is literally no limit to the potential income. (Mind you, there is also no floor!)
I was offered positions hawking knives, selling magazines, and touting timeshares, but I wanted a sales job that came with a car, a territory, and health benefits. I was told that I needed years of sales experience just to apply. So I told gatekeepers that I had the necessary sales experience. (I just didn’t say that it was when I was ten years old selling candy to win prizes from comic books.) When the sales manager would see that my resume didn’t have any professional sales experience, I would quickly ask, “Did you notice my resume is on gray paper?”
As a look of confusion and shock would appear (which I later learned in NLP was a good place to start) I would explain that it’s funny how, in life, almost everything is gray. Black-and-white rules (like requiring sales experience) are meant to protect principles (like not wasting precious company money on training). Then, without letting him respond, I would proceed into the question: “How much interest does the bank down the street pay on a savings account?”
The reply was “around 5 percent.”
Then I would ask, “Do you know of a safe investment that would pay you more than that?”
“Mutual funds” was the predictable answer at that time.
I would smile, pull out a ten-dollar bill, and ask my interviewer to throw it in the trash. “Doesn’t it hurt to throw money away?” I would ask next. Then I would point out that if a safer investment was known, yet a person still decided to put money in the bank, “they’d be throwing money away, right?” As heads nodded, I made the claim that not hiring me was exactly like throwing money away!
I would propose that “superstar” salespeople were probably not answering ads in the paper. They were more likely either staying put to master and excel, or they were being headhunted by competitors. Salespeople who answered ads, were probably “mediocre” ones who were looking for greener pastures instead of looking in the mirror.
I then went on to claim that even though I had no formal sales experience, I was sure I could perform like a top mutual fund and that if he (or she) didn’t hire me instead of one of those mediocre (but steady like a savings account) applicants, it would clearly be throwing money away.
I figured if I used that metaphor in enough interviews, someone would fall for it and give me a job. It turned out I got offered every job I applied for! I took the best offer and went on to become the top salesperson in a fortune 500 company.
I continued to use metaphors throughout my sales career. I remember once I had literally worked for months on a really big sale, only to watch my boss blow it for me by making an unrehearsed guest appearance at an important meeting. After my initial shock and feeling of loss, I felt a fire rise in my belly and thought, “who says it’s over?” (even though the client had clearly indicated that it was). I put on my obstacle-overcoming thinking cap and showed up at the client’s office with a special gift. I asked the receptionist to send in the velvet box (containing a wooden and brass “twiddler”) and announce that I was waiting in the lobby. The enclosed note said, “We botched our last meeting so badly that instead of you easily enjoying the solution I wanted to propose, we left you twiddling your thumbs, wondering what to do. I thought the least I could do is to help you with your twiddling!” A few minutes later my client emerged laughing and invited me in to finish the proposal and seal the deal.
I tell you those stories to illustrate my point. Which do you think you will remember better? My explanation of how important stories are and what scientists have discovered about their power, or my stories about how I overcame the challenges of unemployment and failure? Which made you feel closer to me? Which empowered you to go out and face some challenges of your own?
When I started my network marketing career, I targeted moms like myself. I didn’t start my meetings with facts about our company or products. I started by telling a story about how a dear friend of mine called me up sobbing one day because her baby daughter had taken her first steps—in front of the babysitter while my friend was stuck at work. After a pause to let the deep sadness of that story sink into every mother in the audience’s heart, I then stated that the number one reason I was in the business was to give mothers who wanted to be home with their children the ability to do so.
After being in the networking business part-time for many years, one of my sons had a terrible accident. He had jumped off of a three-story roof. He and his friends were just having fun and were trying to land in a swimming pool, but he had landed on the concrete instead. First the doctors said they would have to amputate his legs. Then they said they could patch him back together, but he would never walk again. Then they said he might walk, but with fused ankles, he would look like Frankenstein and fall backwards walking uphill. Ultimately, he fully recovered and walks fine today, but I had to stop working for almost a year to play nurse at his bedside during the ordeal.
At that time, my husband (who is a CPA) noticed that while my training and consulting business had gone into the red, my network marketing income had grown. He said, “You know, these two avenues seem pretty similar to me: in both places you get paid to talk to people. After our son is better, why don’t you talk more over here?” (He was pointing to the network marketing income).
It was the first time that either of us really understood the true value of “residual” income. We were both self-employed, highly paid consultants, so we weren’t really looking for “freedom” or the joy of not having a boss. But the accident had clearly shown us that it wasn’t just about loving what you do and getting paid well for it; it was about creating a pipeline that would pay even when you stopped working! After my son’s recovery, I dedicated myself full time to network marketing and only part time to training and consulting.
The switch really paid off, because ten years later, my husband was the one in the hospital fighting for his life. He had contracted a serious “superbug” on one of his trips to visit me in Asia (I was over there building my network marketing empire). The bacteria attacked all his organs, took out one eye, and almost destroyed his heart. Thanks to a great surgeon and some cow valves, he is alive and well today, but the ordeal lasted five months. Rather than dropping during my absence, my network marketing income doubled! Needless to say, we are very grateful to have “passive” income, even though we both love working.
My stories have helped people learn all the things we try to teach or claim in network marketing, but rather than creating resistance, they draw people in and empower them to be unstoppable. It’s much easier (and effective) for me to tell the story of my son’s accident than to try to convince someone who is happy with their career to join network marketing.
I urge you to find your stories. They are the currency of human contact. The richer your stories, the bigger your wallet. It doesn’t really work as well to tell other people’s stories (although it’s better than nothing), so dig into your past and find your toughest moments and your greatest successes. Shape your memories into official stories by recalling inciting incidents (things that happened that started journeys or problems), problems faced, obstacles overcome, internal and external conflicts, interesting characters, suspenseful moments, and ultimate resolution.
If you mine your life for good stories, you will not only become better at establishing rapport and teaching others, you might also find some healthy self-redemption, acceptance, resolution, and transcendence!
STEPHANIE DAVIS is an international speaker and business consultant who has created training programs for sales, service, and leadership. She is the global master distributor for a thirty-year-old network marketing company.