18 months ago I posted a very popular article on Selling With Stories where I described how stories and anecdotes can be used to great effect by professionals to provide more meaningful, resonant descriptions of what we do and how we work.
Stories are also particularly effective when we're asked those tricky questions that clients like to throw at us when we're pitching for business.
Faced with “what would you do if…” and “how would you handle…” questions, there's a great temptation for professionals to try to demonstrate their expertise by trotting out management, legal, accounting or other theory for how situations should be handled.
But that's not what clients actually want to hear. They want the confidence that you have handled these situations and that you will be able to deal with them in practice, not in theory.
The best way to handle these questions is with a short story or anecdote about a client situation where you faced such an issue and were able to address it.
When I sold and delivered large consulting change management programmes, I had a series of stories about overcoming resistance, stories about programme management, stories about delivering results and stories about culture change. Each of these gave me credibility when a client asked how we could address the organisational obstacles to change, or how we could make sure they really achieved the benefits they were looking for from the programme, etc.
Some stories are reusable for multiple situations. One of my overcoming resistance stories about a senior executive in a client organisation who had been overlooked for the CEO role and initially wanted to obstruct any initiative launched by the CEO also doubled as a story about how to address executive politics.
Sometimes the story doesn't even have to be of a great success to be effective. About 5 years ago I won a rather nice multi-million Euro sales process implementation project for the consulting firm I was working for. We'd had a tricky relationship with the client and found out later we were in last place coming up to our final presentation. The turning point came when the senior client executive told us that all previous sales process projects he'd known had failed because the consultants hadn't engaged with the front-line staff. I was able to tell a story about how I'd learned the hard way in a previous project where we hadn't involved the key salespeople and first line managers early enough and so had struggled with implementation until we eventually got them on board. It wasn't a story about a great success we'd had – but it told the executive that I'd been in that situation before and I wasn't going to make the same mistake again. We won the project, and in a debrief meeting later the client told us that had been the key moment when they knew we had the right practical experience to work with them.
These “early lessons” stories can be even more effective than success stories as they're highly believable, don't come across as pompous or “show offy”, and really send a clear message that because of that hard lesson you've known what to do right ever since.
Of course, the “early lesson” type story has to be set a decent distance in the past – it can't be a mistake you made the previous week!
Most professionals should be able to create a list of tricky questions they often get asked and prepare example stories to address them. They're best not replayed verbatim as stock answers, but stored away as an easy-to-recall memory to build on.
And using stories to answer tough questions is not only more believable – it's much more interesting than a dry theoretical answer too.