The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively. This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. — Yuval Noah Harari
Have you ever told an anecdote, in a casual setting, and found that you’d lost your audience’s attention (whether that was to a partner, family or colleague) or that they’d even moved on to another subject with someone else? Ouch, right?
MEET MY JUDGEMENTAL INNER NARRATOR
That’s happened to me a bunch of times. Regardless of the amount of enthusiasm I put into it, my original audience (aka my family) rarely displayed much interest in the stories I told them. So much so that one day, I heard an inner voice pipe up which proceeded to shout at me about my limitations: ‘Stop trying to tell stories! See how people get bored and switch off? Just give up, you’ll never be any good at this.’
That insistent inner critic brought me some evidence-based feedback — annoyingly — which spotlighted this particular trait of mine; I often use too many details and that’s where I lose people.
From that time onwards, I integrated this as part of my identity, like: ‘Hi, My name is Anne, I’m good at lots of things but I can’t tell a story.’ Was that true? Probably not. Was there room in the world for my kind of storytelling style? I’d say yes, but then again this newsletter stands as some kind of proof to that point. I’ll let you, reader, be the judge.
One of my good friends, Michelle, a seasoned fashion executive who I had the pleasure of working with on a consulting assignment, had some similar notions floating in her head about herself. I often heard her say to me: ‘Oh I just talk too much’, or ‘I’m not good at expressing myself clearly’. She is certainly the verbose kind but what does that ‘too much’ mean, really? And where was this self-judgement coming from?
As I’ve established before, I’m not the most concise writer. Does the plentiful nature of mine or Michelle’s communication lessen its quality? Again, I’m thinking not.
THE STORY IS IN THE DETAIL
So what makes a good story? What makes people pay attention? And what creates a change in our listeners?
Luckily for me, while I had an inner narrative about my story skills, I had others that compensated for it, in particular, my fantastic memory. I’d even go as far as calling it my superpower or my trademark. I also have the ability to focus my energy very deliberately over long periods of time, something I know has become eroded over the years due to our immersive devices.
So I can easily recall conversations down to the word and memorise long strings of sounds, figures, sentences. Psychologist Marisa Peer explains that a lot of our internal or external qualities are not only reinforced by the stories we hear but equally by the stories we tell ourselves. Like Michelle, I may have put myself down in public (or with close friends) about my abilities as a narrator, but then equally, I reinforced my superpower every time I tell anyone about how great my memory is.
The words we use define us. Is this something we are aware of? I’d say not so much. Broadening the lens, the patterns of our language does too, as do the stories we convey to others to affirm our identity.
So as it happens, that skill — my memory — was in part the reason why I lost people’s attention; being able to recall so much, I went too granular, unnecessarily, hence failing to make my point salient.
The other day on the podcast, I rambled on a bit about one of my personal favourite customer service stories, when I was working as a boutique manager in London. The broader subject matter was how to create immersive experiences on e-commerce websites, getting them closer to the IRL experience people would get in the retail stores. The gap between the two is generally abysmal. I edited myself out of the final episode because it wasn’t serving my point much (that’s why I use the word rambled on) but I think it fits in well in this context. This story is nagging at me for a reason.
ONCE UPON A SHOE
Let me paint the picture: a small corner boutique on Motcomb Street, Knightsbridge, in 2000 or early 2001. Back then, that particular corner of London had little to offer passersby, so as a result there weren’t many. There was Zafferano — a delicious and pricey Italian restaurant — and fancy Motcombs, which I can best describe as a chardonnay ‘watering’ whole.
Now, the street has moved up a lot, with the poshest Waitrose (think Wholefoods, for you Americans) where I once encountered Joan Collins doing her grocery shopping, super patisseries and a Starbucks. So, we were calling ourselves a destination store, except that no one knew about us, so perhaps discovery more than destination then.
One late afternoon, just around closing time, a tall attractive woman in her 30’s entered the boutique. She announced she was only browsing, so I indulged her and let her wander around at her leisure. I want to say we cultivated a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, despite the plush red carpet and the luxury price tag of the products on display.
She picked out of one of the alcoves encased into the wall the best shoe in the whole shop, a delicate 10cm stiletto slingback in grey silk with big light pink polka dots (yep), adorned with a pink square of Swarovski crystals to the side of the strap. I’ll find a picture, I need to.
The client asked for her size, and then as I was about to go downstairs, she also asked for another fabulous pair (the second-best in the boutique that season in my eyes); a black suede t-bar with a small insert of turquoise lizard and small feathers (or was that some kind of fur, I’m not sure). I was obviously enthusiastic about her choices, as you can tell 20 years later I am still into these two exceptional pieces of design. One thing led to the next and, guess what, she purchased both pairs.
So this lady had no intention of buying anything from me when she first entered the store, but we were a perfect fit, me, her, the shoes. She returned two weeks later to tell me she had gotten a fabulous new job. Blushing, she said she owed it to the black suede pumps which she wore at the interview; she swore they were the reason she had gotten the job.
What does that story tell you?
Firstly, that I truly love shoes.
Also that the product was stunning. When you are selling something beautiful, or handmade, half the story is visual and I have little to add to the mix — maybe even holding space for the design rather than overwhelm the client with information helped.
The customer was lucky: the shoes were almost sold out, these were the only pairs left in each style. I did tell her that — it wasn’t a tactic only the result of a small production run, the reality of a small brand. That may have prompted her into action.
Luxury purchases are often emotional purchases. I don’t know what frame of mind she was in, but the most outrageous items often capture our hearts way more than the sensible ‘I should get these’ type of purchases. She was gifting herself.
This story could also lead other women to reach the conclusion that a beautiful pair of black suede t-bar pumps may land them the job of their dreams.
That’s one of my favourite stories from my time on the shop floor. Over the years, we had tons of hilarious moments with strange clients. At some point, my colleague Claire and I even talked about writing our retail memoirs, called ‘Do my toes look big in this?’ after an unfortunate and equally hilarious strappy sandals incident.
While my role as a sales assistant or manager of the boutique was not seen as elevated in the eyes of my peers, I found meaning and purpose in helping my clients find the item that made them feel really special, or maybe even made their day. I told my friends proudly about my shoe adventures, though I still felt like the “career underdog” for a long time.
STORIES AND SILOS
‘The value of everything from tulips to shares, diamonds to real estate, bottled water to Bitcoin, depends on people believing a story. Our internal narratives even change what we believe we are capable of.’ — Bernadette Jiwa, ‘Story Driven’
As it stands, when you work in luxury retail, telling stories is kind of important. If you want to be successful as a sales assistant or a general manager, stories and details matter. The closer the relationship with the designer, with the head office, or the design team, the more colourful the stories, the more compelling they are.
My methods of communication, whether peer to peer or via branding and marketing tools, has greatly benefited from my attention to detail and ability to generously recount the right story at the right time. A keen observer and an avid reader, it helps that I have always genuinely listened to people. First, paying attention to their choice of words, and second, listening with my full presence: paying attention to energy, gestures, listening beyond the words.
Stories are what bonds us together. At some point, my musings and anecdotes became pitches. I took something I believed in and built it up. I remember a particularly emphatic sale season where I focused a lot of my time extolling the virtues of a nude patent round-toe pump. This is before they became a wardrobe staple of course. I did think they made (my) legs look longer. This became a huge part of the business, years before the beige colour of that nude shoe was extended to a range of nude tones that would span many more colours, representing the diversity of women from around the globe.
Working simultaneously in PR and wholesale for a long period of time, I was capturing and sharing fun facts from one side of the business to the other, from one external partner to another. This surprising structure — the staple of a small business — afforded everyone access to information that would have otherwise not been shared. My stories were not always great or on point, but I did frame and offer context, as good salespeople do, about the collections I was selling, doing my best to adapt to the audience (client, wholesale client, stylist, or editor).
Later on, I remember the legal team or eCom and IT always loved when I popped in my head through the door and told them about projects my team was working on. Because stories give context and connect the dots, my visits were very appreciated by those who were far away from colourful customer-facing activations. Most of us want to work for more than just a paycheck. We seek meaning in our work, so it feels good to be connected to something greater than ourselves. Sharing gave rise to a common sense of purpose, one that animated my colleagues and helped build long-lasting bonds with people in these departments too, and I think it tapped their creativity. We became closer partners as a result.
Despite my earlier negative inner narrative, my sharing tendencies turn out to also be a form of collaborative superpower that supports the businesses I have been working with.
SHARING A COMMON GOAL AND ALIGNING TO PURPOSE
There is a really strong case to be made about what stories companies tell about themselves, internally as well as externally. Making the brand come alive for employees is as crucial as it is for clients. Few companies I know of have invested in finding these precious anecdotes or proof points of their values and publishing them to become a part of their DNA.
Have you got an internal company story that makes you feel proud?
How is it shared across departments?
Could it foster a better sense of connection between your people or with your clients?
Making the connection is not as easy as it sounds.. Marketing tactics and mass advertising have invited businesses to find shortcuts to sell and in the process, they forget to create trust or build relationships with their client base.
Over the weekend, I really enjoyed reading Bernadette Jiwa’s book, ‘The Right Story’, full of compelling examples that I imagine would touch me, were I the client of the businesses she looked into. Bernadette is a renowned specialist in business philosophy and the role of identity and story in marketing. Her case studies invite a profound inquiry about the why of our business messaging.
As beautifully laid out by Simon Sinek in his original Ted Talk, our ancient limbic brain, the amygdala, is the part of us that controls our decision making. It is the part of us that responds to whether we get persuaded or not. Not our rational mind. Surprised? I was too at first.
But then have you ever felt alienated when pushed towards purchase of something you really wanted and then dropped (whether online or offline) for example? Our brains react as if we have perceived a sense of threat, resulting in a fight/flight/freeze response.
Re-targeting advertising campaigns do that to me for example. There is a pair of Art Deco jade earrings from 1stDibs.com that have been pursuing me on my browser for a few weeks. And that has totally put me off them! Isn’t it strange? They are the same earrings as before, they are truly stunning and not super expensive, it stands to reason that putting the item in front of my eyes again would lead me to purchase. But reason is not at play here. This standard follow-up tactic leads me to feel uncomfortable, followed, and my response is emotional.
“One of the mistakes we make when we’re attempting to persuade is to only appeal to the thinking person and his rational mind. Messages that resonate deeply connect with people’s feelings. Successful ideas appeal to people’s hearts, not just their heads. We don’t just persuade people to act. We move them to act.” Bernadette Jiwa, ‘Story Driven’
That’s why empathy is such an important concept for brand marketers and any human being who wants to create an impact with their communication, personal or professional.
A couple of years ago, I was invited in the course of a guided meditation to put myself in someone else’s shoes. My eyes closed, I imagined putting this person’s sneakers on, and with them, suddenly, I felt I was in that person’s body, in their skin. I asked myself a few questions about their motivations, how they were feeling about themselves in the world. The answers came fast and clear. Empathy is not hard to access, but like anything else, it’s a practice.
Looking at the narratives we uphold, our own worldview, it may be useful to consider how the receiver is going to be perceiving the story we tell. The content, the delivery, the intention of course, along with the body language or images associated with the message all create a more immersive narrative. Does that mean we can control the outcome? No, and we don’t all process stories in the same way. But we still stand much better chances to create a sense of connection.
MINDFUL OF OUR STORIES
‘Communication isn’t only about finding the right words. It’s about finding the right way and the right time to say them.” Bernadette Jiwa
I can laugh about it now, but I remember that for a long time I was a little ashamed to work in retail. When I first arrived in London, everyone my age was fresh out of uni and I was fresh out of a video store — my own apprenticeship. It only felt palatable to announce that I was a sales assistant because even then, I was a hyphenate: sales assistant/singer. It ended up serving me well in the end! Understanding the retail experience, the immersive aspect and psychology of it, really makes a difference, and leads me all the way to this present moment.
Way before it became a buzzword, I approached what we now call the path to purchase with mindfulness. It helped that I was an early adopter across platforms. Without experimenting on platforms, how could I put myself into my customers’ shoes? (pun intended!)
The most important tool and take away I can offer today is the cultivation of self-awareness, the practice of becoming mindful of the content of our thoughts and narratives. I’d say pay attention to the inner critic in particular. Recognise the voices and the messages they give.
Because these messages are the key driver of our lives.
I may be an average storyteller when at a party but I feel right at home telling the same stories on a shop floor, and or in a business context. Finding the right environment and the right audience played a big part in the success of my delivery. I needed to find the right container for my skills.
Do yourself a favour, lovely reader, sit down and spend the time to identify the stories you tell yourself — whether as a company, as a person — then rejoice in the creative power that you hold; decide whether these narratives serve the purpose and the values of your business, serve your employees and your clients. If they don’t, then reframe. Rewrite. Retell.
The words we use, the visual language we choose, these pieces tell people who we really are and what we stand for, defining us both internally and externally.
I invite you to learn to tell a better story. Because stories matter, they are the glue that binds us together.
This post was originally published on March 26 2021 in the AVM.Consulting newsletter, which comes out weekly. For more insights into business development, storytelling and coaching,visit: https://avm.consulting/