Tom “Big Al” Schreiter is one of the most skillful and revered educators in the network marketing space. Unless you’re brand new to the business, you’ve probably read some of the Big Al books or his free newsletter at BigAlReport.com—and if you haven’t, we highly recommend you do so. You may have seen Tom speak at the ANMP convention, at Art Jonak’s Mastermind event, at a Big Al live workshop, or at one of the numerous other events he speaks at every year.
A living legend in the profession, Tom built large distributor organizations and also founded two network marketing companies. But rather than work in the office on marketing plans and theories, Tom always preferred to be in the field, personally sponsoring and training distributors. Logging his forty-third year in network marketing, he developed a treasure chest of tips and tools which he generously shares with audiences around the world.
An engineer by training and a natural marketing genius, Tom has meticulously tested every strategy he teaches—from icebreakers to building rapport, from how to get distributors started fast to more advanced marketing lessons and case studies. We recently picked his brain about his newest book How to Prospect, Sell, and Build Your Network Marketing Business with Stories.—J.G.
What led you to write a book about storytelling?
Stories are the best way to communicate with people, and that’s our job. We have to get ideas from our heads inside theirs, and the story is just the absolute best way to do it.
Before the written word, all information was passed on from generation to generation with stories, so the mind is set up to accept information, remember it, and visualize it in story format—and it does all this automatically. We can remember a story from age five, but we can’t remember dates we studied for a history exam fifteen minutes later. The human mind is set up to understand and see things in story format. Think about dreaming: while we sleep: the mind takes useless bits of information it can’t file away, puts them together, and creates a story.
For most people, story is the only way to communicate directly to the subconscious mind, because it does everything automatically. When you tell a story, the subconscious mind of your prospect pops up a movie screen, pulls up a barrel of popcorn, stuffed chair, sits back, and watches the story on the screen. What’s really cool is the subconscious mind is not very smart. It says, “Wait a minute, if it’s up on the movie screen, I’ll put myself in as the main character.” That’s why we enjoy books and watching Pirates of the Caribbean, because we feel we’re one of the main characters.
Since our subconscious mind doesn’t have the thinking capacity the conscious mind does, when it sees the story up there, it’s as though that story actually happened to us, and it helps us feel and understand things and make decisions. The bottom line is: facts tell people stuff, but stories sell people stuff, and that’s why successful networkers are all great storytellers.
How does a story lead to a decision to buy or join a business?
Let’s take a look at how the human mind works. Research over the last couple of decades shows that all decisions are made in the subconscious mind. We make decisions automatically based upon preexisting programs. For example, if I say Democratic Party, depending on your internal programming about the Democratic Party, instantly your subconscious mind creates a feeling or an opinion. If you say to me donuts, my subconscious mind has a program that says it’s one of the four basic food groups—I’m in! If you say Los Angeles Lakers where you live, people are going to have an automatic response based on whether they love them or hate them.
We all have programs about sales people. Most people have a program that says, “Salespeople? You better be careful.” “It’s too good to be true.” “There’s always a catch.” “Think of excuses... save your money.” When you use stories, it kind of bypasses those programs. They say, “I have to be careful with salesmen... but just a moment, I want to hear the story first.” If you present the information in story format, it goes past that salesman program into the subconscious mind, and now it’s inside their head.
If you don’t do this, here’s the problem. I’m in a store looking at some clothes. A sales clerk walks up behind me and says, “Can I help you?” Now, because of my past bad experiences with salespeople, I have a program in my mind that says “Looks like a salesperson, acts like a salesperson, feels like a salesperson...,” then sounds the sales alarm: “Run! Save your wallet. Save your purse.”
When someone says, “Can I help you?” it activates that program in the subconscious mind, the decision-making part of my brain, and I automatically say, “No, I am just looking.” I made a decision I’m just looking. I don’t want to be sold. The decision is made instantly and the sale is dead.
If we talk to people and we look, act, and sound like a salesman, they make an instant decision, “I don’t want to do business with you because I’m afraid all these bad things can happen.” But people will listen to a story, so why not put your information in the story format and avoid all those decision-making problems with the subconscious mind.
You’ve convinced us. Now how do we put our information into a story? There are many ways to do that, as you teach in your book.
We can do an entire sales presentation in story format. Let’s say your presentation includes some slides about the company building—that’s exciting. There are some slides about the company founder, a family photo with 2.5 kids and a dog. And then you show some slides about your product and all the statistics scientists can use to shut up other scientists. Finally you show the compensation plan with the boring circles and percentages people don’t understand.
Or, you can communicate quickly and efficiently by describing each one of those facts in a story format, which could sound like this:
Thank you for coming tonight. Let me tell you what happened to me. I thought I’d check out this company, so I went down there. You see this slide here? Yeah, it’s a big building. I walked in and met the owner, and we went out to lunch. Over lunch, I asked him all these questions. He had all the answers I was looking for. I said, “Wow, what a great company with a great vision to work for.” Then they told me about the products. I took one of these products home and tried it. Here’s what happened to me [...]. I thought it may be just me, so I gave it to my neighbor, and he tried it and had this fantastic result. Two days later I walked down to the mailbox, and I found this bonus check I didn’t even expect. I gave it to my wife to go shopping with, and she said, “This is really a cool business, we should tell other people about it.” And we started doing that. After we told a few neighbors, they told a few friends and a couple of relatives, and the checks started getting bigger. Pretty soon my wife and I were racing down the driveway waiting for the mailman on the fifteenth of every month to see how big our check was going to be!
When I tell that story to people I don’t even need a slide or a flip chart, and it’s more entertaining. And it’s much easier for them to visualize and remember than seeing those meaningless facts on a slide.
With Art Jonak in Venice, Italy 2008.
At train station in Siberia.
Is it best to tell stories about yourself?
You can tell them about other people, about other people’s bonus checks, about what happened to your friend at work who got fired three years before his pension was due. Yeah, people love stories. Think about little children age two or three. What do they always ask? “Mommy, Daddy, tell me a story.” Stories are like crack cocaine to the human mind.
Stories are certainly entertaining, but a good story also makes a point. Any tips on how to make sure to get your point across?
We’re natural storytellers. A lot of people say they can’t tell a story. I tell them, “Watch this: Monday morning, can you pick up the phone, call work, and say, [cough] I’m sick. I can’t come in.” They all start laughing. Yeah, okay, we tell stories. We tell stories all the time. One of the greatest stories ever is when a man proposes to a woman and says, “I’ll be responsible. I’ll come home every night, take out the trash...” It’s a great story, but it’s so engrossing she actually buys it and married him. Go figure, right? Stories are just a way to take what’s inside your mind and put it inside their mind, and it flows naturally.
If you want to make your stories just a little bit more interesting, like in movies and books, we add something called tension. You have a boring story when you say, “I woke up in the morning, everything was okay that day, and I went to sleep.” But when you say, “I woke up this morning, I had this searing pain in my heart, and when I tried to move I couldn’t move my right,” all of a sudden there’s tension and the story becomes more interesting.
You can throw tension in the story by saying, “I went to work last month, and there was a note on my desk that said, Please go see the boss and bring your personal belongings.” Already there’s tension in the story. Or you can say, “I went to this meeting, and when I went home my mother started yelling at me, ‘What did you get yourself into? Don’t you know about those crazy people that are always positive and having fun and smiling? What are you thinking?’” Now the argument’s starting, and we have tension in the story. People kind of naturally know how to make stories interesting, and if you don’t, just look at people’s faces. When they start rolling their eyes while you’re talking, that might be a hint. When they fall asleep, you might want to work on it a little bit.
How do we influence people with story? How do we move people into action?
People will decide what to do based on their preexisting programs. If your father was a Democrat, your grandfather was a Democrat, and your spouse is a Democrat, chances are you will have a program that will make you vote Democrat. People have programs in their mind that tell them health comes from an antibiotic, or that expensive skin care is better than inexpensive skin care. But we also have programs that keep new information from coming inside our head—prejudices, etc.
What a story does is it bypasses those programs and we now have the opportunity to put new information inside their head past all those barriers. Then, with the new information inside their head, they can decide if what we are offering is going to serve them or not, and that’s important. So we’re not exactly influencing their decision. What we’re doing is getting the information inside their head so they have something to base their decision on.
Let’s say you’re talking to a 69-year-old grandmother with really bad arthritis in her knees, and you happen to sell some product that could help her naturally to heal her body. To bypass all that dysfunctional programming that says “I don’t want any new information,” you tell a story:
My aunt is 83 years old. She used to walk with a cane, but now that she started taking this product she feels so much better she’s taken up break dancing and karate classes.
That story sneaks by all those barriers in this grandmother’s mind, and now she has it in her brain. She’s thinking, “If I take this product, maybe I could feel better.” You’ve done your job, you’ve got the information inside her head. Now, depending on the programs inside her head, she’s going to decide whether that will serve her or not. She might say, “I want to try that and be able to take my grandbabies to the zoo again.” Or she may have another program in her head that says “No, I don’t want to feel better, because my children visit me more when I pretend to be sick.” People are going to decide what they want to do depending on their personal circumstances. And that’s okay.
I’m perfectly okay when they make that decision. What I’m not okay with is not having the ability to get the information inside her head so she has the choice. If you cannot get your information across, you’ve effectively withheld those options, and that’s almost criminal. As networkers, our job is to let people know about our opportunity, our products, and our services, and get past all the prejudices and barriers to get that information inside their head. Then they can decide if it’s going to serve them or not, if it’s going to make them happy.
In front of Amsterdam Central station, Netherlands.
Telling stories makes our job easier because we are not trying to manipulate, we’re not attached to the outcome.
Right. We’re just helping them past the dysfunctional barriers we all have that prevent us from listening. For example, let me tell you about my mother.
By the way, when I said, “Let me tell you about my mother,” everybody put down the barriers.
Here’s what happened. My mom was diagnosed with diabetes many, many years ago. I thought I needed to do something, so I went and found a product for her diabetes.
My mother lives in a small town, everyone knows each other. She goes to see the doctor often; it’s a social visit.
I said, “You need to take these tablets, it will help control your blood sugar and you’ll get healthier.”
She takes the tablets.
I visit her a month later and say, “How did the tablets go?”
She says, “I can’t swallow tablets.”
Oh man. So I went out and I found a product that was liquid, a drink, something similar to help her with her blood sugar levels. I give that to her.
A month later, I said, “How did it go? How’s your blood sugar been?”
She says, “I can’t swallow liquids.”
At that moment I realized that my mother can’t swallow tablets, she can’t swallow liquids, and she doesn’t want to take anything for her diabetes, because she enjoys visiting the doctor every two weeks. She doesn’t want to give that up. And her program is health comes from traditional medicine all these years. It’s just the way it is.
When I tell that story, people understand that we have to get the information inside, but they’re going to decide what they’re going to do depending on their personal programs and life experiences.
People then totally understand why their mother will reject them or why somebody will say, “I know I need it, but I just don’t want to take it.” It explains it to them in a way that they don’t feel personally offended. They understand that the person simply has another agenda that’s going to make them happier.
In my case, my mother enjoys visiting the doctor a whole lot more. Why not let them be happy, as long as you’ve done your job. You gave them the opportunity, then it’s up to them to see if it’s going to serve their life or not. That little story helps people overcome rejection almost instantly. They understand how it works and where it comes from.
Tom, you spend your life going around the world telling stories. Where do you get your best material? How do you come up with all those new stories all the time?
You just have to be awake. They happen to you all the time. People ask, “Did that really happen to you?” Some of these things you can’t make up. If you’re out there talking to people, you’re going to accumulate stories. Just think of all the stuff that happens to you when you travel. Let me give you a couple of other stories just to show how easy it is.
You might say, “I’ve got this brand new distributor, they just joined. But they’re not listening to me, they don’t want to follow the system. How do I convince them to stop trying to do it their way?”
Everybody who joins, even though they’ve never done networking before, thinks they know how to do it better. “I’ve got this special mail order system,” “I’m going to rent this big hall and everyone in the city will come,” and so on.
Here’s a very short story you can tell them, it’s just three sentences, and you’ll put inside their mind why they should listen to you.
You say to the new person:
Imagine you wanted to walk through a minefield. Would you want to go first? Or would you rather have a leader who knows the way go first, and you simply follow carefully in his footsteps?
That little story’s better than preaching to them about following a system. They get it. And you can do hundreds of these stories. I encourage everyone to have a story about your product, about your opportunity, about your trips, your checks, the friendships you build. If you have stories about all these things, people will remember you. That’s the bottom line.
There’s an old story that goes like this.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a little camping trip, and as they’re laying down the conversation went like this. Sherlock Holmes says, “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.” Dr. Watson says, “I see millions and millions of stars.” Sherlock Holmes says, “What does that tell you?” Dr. Watson says, “Astrologically it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Theologically it tells me that God is great, and that we are very, very small, and meteorologically it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Sherlock?” And Sherlock says, “Watson, you bonehead. Somebody stole our tent. That’s why you can see the stars.”
Stories help people see the obvious.
Here’s another secret. When you start telling a story, there’s a program in the human mind that says if anybody anywhere at any time is telling a story we have to listen all the way to the end, because we cannot go on with life until we know how the story ends. It holds people’s attention. You really don’t have to worry about attention spills as salesmen do. Let’s illustrate this with another story.
There used to be a television classic called The Dukes of Hazard, and before every commercial the General Lee car was flying through the air, and they’d stop it halfway through the air and go to the commercial, because they knew we would wait to come back after the commercial to see if the car would come back down. It’s just a way of holding people’s attention and getting your message inside so they see it. Stories are the most efficient way of communicating, which is why top leaders in network marketing always tell stories.
One bonus tip: a few years ago we shared the stage in Singapore, and you taught me, “When you have stage fright, just tell a story!”
It takes care of the two basic problems of public speaking. Problem number one is I might forget what comes next. With a story you remember automatically what comes next. You don’t need notes. Number two is Will the audience like me? It takes care of that as well, because if you’re telling a story the audience will love you. No matter how bad the story is, the worst story is better than the best presentation of meaningless facts. To cure yourself of those two big fears of public speaking, tell a story and you’ll be fine.
Take your brand new distributor who just joined. You tell her, “You’re going to speak at tonight’s meeting.” She doesn’t know anything. You say, “Don’t worry, just come up, tell the story of what happened to you, and then sit down.”
You start the meeting, and you say, “Now, to show you how our product works, we’re going to invite up a brand new distributor, she joined just 36 hours ago. Come on up here, and just tell us what happened when you got your product.”
She stands up and looks at the crowd, “I got the product, and I opened it up. My knife was a little dull, so I cut my finger. Blood was running down my arm. I took a bottle of this miracle product out and put two drops on my finger, and it healed right before my very eyes. I’m so impressed with the product. Thank you very much.”
Everybody is mesmerized, and she’s not nervous. She just says what happened.
Or we have our brand new distributor at the meeting and say, “Please come up and tell us what it’s like to get your first bonus check.”
“I walked down the mailbox, and there was a letter from my network marketing company. I thought, ‘Oh no...’ I ripped it open and looked inside, and it wasn’t a letter. It was a check!”
Everybody just sees this in their minds so vividly it holds everybody’s attention. If you want to find people who become instantly great leaders, just find a bunch of great storytellers. They’re already trained.
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