When meeting with prospective clients, every financial advisor wants to deliver a message that sets him or her apart and makes prospects walk away wanting to work with that advisor. But despite that goal, many advisors go wrong by focusing on their own backgrounds, credentials, firms, processes and teams.

Research shows that what makes all but the most analytical of prospects select an advisor isn’t facts and figures that appeal on a rational level. Rather, the best way to motivate and connect with most prospects is to use a simple, relevant and memorable story to strike an emotional chord.

It’s not that performance and process don’t have a role – they do. But for most prospects, those attributes simply back up a message that resonates on an emotional level.

The head vs the heart

There’s growing evidence for the powerful impact of an emotional appeal.

An article, entitled “To increase charitable donations, appeal to the heart – not the head,” published by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, looked at research by marketing professor Deborah Small on the approaches that could be taken by a charity working in Africa requesting support.

The first approach: “Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger. Four million Angolans – one-third of the population – have been forced to flee their homes.”

The second approach: “Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a seven-year-old girl who lives in Mali in Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed and educate her and provide her with basic medical care.”

The first appeal is much more substantive, with facts and figures that make the case. But the second appeal, which focuses on just one young girl in need, drew significantly more support.

“It’s all about putting together a simple, emotionally compelling message,” Small stated in an interview published in the Wharton online newsletter. “The best way to do that is in the form of a picture or a story – something that purely engages the emotional system. The mistake that many charities make is trying to appeal both to emotion and reason. [Charities] assume this would be more effective than appealing to only one or the other, but it isn’t.”

Just as charities need to hone their stories to focus at an emotional level, you need to translate your work into how individual clients are better off as a result of working with you.

The power of stories

Jennifer Aaker of the Stanford Graduate School of Business has done extensive research on the power of telling the right stories. In a video entitled Harnessing the Power of Stories, she explains why “stories are up to 22 times more powerful than facts alone.”

Aaker begins by describing how the power of storytelling motivated more than 25,000 people to participate in clinics to look for a bone marrow match for a recent Stanford graduate – by humanizing the situation and making it personal. Aaker maintains that our brains are wired to retain stories, and she describes how a “signature story” moves you closer to your goal and gets people to look at you differently.

And the right story can make a lasting impact. Aaker relates an experiment in which students were told stories and statistics. Ten minutes later, the students were instructed to write down everything they remembered about what they had been told. Only 5% remembered the statistics, while more than 60% remembered the stories.

Aaker maintains that the best stories have a protagonist who journeys through a narrative arc, which has a beginning, a middle and an end and results in persuasion and action. This arrangement is similar to that of effective case studies, which typically are structured as follows:

– before = the problem your client faced

– the actions that were taken

– after = the outcome

Note that stories aren’t just relevant to prospects. For example, if older clients resist discussing long-term care insurance or life insurance to deal with estate tax issues, telling short stories about other clients who used these strategies to good effect can get people to rethink their resistance.

Creating effective stories

The key question that all prospects want answered is how they’ll be better off working with you. The right story can help you answer that question in a persuasive and memorable fashion, provided that your story has five key characteristics:

1. It’s short and to the point

Practise your stories so that you can get them down to 60 seconds. That doesn’t mean you tell prospects everything there is to say in that minute. But you need to capture their attention in that time and use your story as a jumping-off point to talk about the prospect’s situation.

Emotional intelligence coach Harvey Deutschendorf wrote in an article in Fast Company magazine entitled “The Simple Science to Good Storytelling”: “‘Less is more’ is a basic rule of good storytelling. Avoid the complex and details, as well as the use of adjectives and complicated nouns. Using simple language is the best way to activate regions of the brain that help us relate to the events in a story. Remember that you are not trying to impress, but to share an experience.”

2. It’s interesting

Here’s what Aaker wrote about making a story interesting and engaging in an article in Stanford Business magazine: “Unless you’re telling the story about the proper assembly of an Ikea bookshelf, your story probably shouldn’t start at the beginning. Chronology matters much less than having your story follow an interesting arc. Events need to build, one after the other. Your story should describe increasing risk and increasing consequences until the final, inevitable conclusion, but not necessarily in the exact way that the audience expects.”

3. It’s credible

The best stories have a ring of truth. In these stories, clients don’t always achieve the outcomes they’re looking for without effort and trade-offs, and without encountering setbacks and adversity along the way.

“Engaging stories do not chronicle a straight line to success,” Aaker wrote in Stanford Business. “Imagine if Rocky won every fight … yawn. Home in on your protagonist’s problems or barriers to achieving her goal. What is standing in her way? By incorporating moments of vulnerability or doubt, you create empathy and lend authenticity to the story.”

4. It’s relevant

For stories to resonate, they have to be relevant to your audience. Unless you have a narrowly focused client niche, one case study won’t work for everyone. Instead, you need to draw from an arsenal. The closer to your prospect’s situation to the clients in your story are, the more those prospects will be able to relate and remember the story, and the more motivating they’ll find it.

The more stories you have to draw from, the higher the likelihood that you’ll be able to select one that will resonate with your prospect.

5. It’s not about you

Effective stories need to put clients at the centre. While you may be tempted to focus on the key role that your insights played in creating a happy ending, that can undermine the credibility and impact of your story. It’s not that you don’t play a role; but you are a supporting character, with the clients in the story taking centre stage.

Whether you are describing your approach to prospects or in conversation with clients, the traditional focus on facts and figures with you at the centre of the conversation no longer works. For maximum impact, shift your focus to stories that strike an emotional chord. Spending the time to hone your stories and your storytelling skills can be one of the best investments you’ll make in your business.

Dan Richards is CEO of Clientinsights (www.clientinsights.ca) in Toronto. For more of Dan’s columns and informative videos, visit www.investmentexecutive.com.

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