Today a client called to cancel their Storytelling workshop. “Our budget has been frozen. The first thing to go is this workshop,” she said and I could hear the disappointment in her voice. Twenty-five mid-level technical staff were counting on that workshop to improve their presentations and communications at a time and in an economic environment that demanded really good strategic decision making. The workshop was probably the last thing that should have gone. And here’s why.
I remember my first day of outside sales. I had spent years in that sales trench to end all sales trenches – telemarketing – to pay for my trips around the world. My skin was thick and I could take a “No thank you…” over the phone. But telemarketing gave me the armour of facial anonymity. As a brand new outside sales rep, today was my first day, in person, knocking on doors and talking to people. I had no armour! I was vulnerable…and nervous as all hell. There was always the possibility that I might just suck at this. I was selling textbooks to university professors and that day brought me to the long, dimly lit hallway in the University of Lethbridge’s Psychology department. I started knocking on doors and I couldn’t deny the relief was stronger than the disappointment when door knock after door knock yielded no answer. And then, with one door, I didn’t have to knock at all. The door was open. Bright and airy, this professor’s office invited me to enter and there she sat, quietly reading but looking up and smiling when I did tap on the door. “Hi, I’m Colleen Henderson with McGraw-Hill. I’m your new rep.” After a quick handshake, she started telling me all of the classes she teaches and a couple were the big first year courses every rep was hungry for. And she kept talking. She told me she loved our Social Psychology textbook and she hadn’t used it for a few years because she had wanted to try something different but maybe this was the year to go back and, yes, in fact, how about she just do that and she would need a copy as soon as possible and all of the ancillary materials and could I get them to her next week so she could start planning her outline and she would be placing an order for 300 copies for that class and could we please make sure they were in the bookstore one week before the start of classes? She said all of this before I had even sat down. In fact, I didn’t sit down with her that day. I wrote frantically while she spoke, I barely registered I had just made my first sale, I thanked her, and I left. I stood in the hallway, jubilant and thinking, “Boy, this sure beats telemarketing!” It was easy, that sale. All I had to do was take the information and give her some in return. This outside sales gig was going to be a cakewalk.
Except it wasn’t.
Anyone in sales knows those sales calls are few and far between. With most calls, you’re up against your competition, your customer’s assumptions about your product, your customer’s resistance to change, and a lot of the times your own fear of rejection. You have to pique your customer’s curiosity, create a connection, and earn their trust. You have to captivate and inspire them and you have to share your enthusiasm and passion for your service or product. All in a way that is meaningful to your customer. In my 21 years of selling and managing national sales teams, I learned to be a storyteller. Stories created meaning, helped my customer interpret and see the world in a different way, and they were hard to forget.
What does my sales story have to do with a group of technical presenters at my client company? A technical presenter with a potentially brilliant and business-growing idea in hand is a lot like the sales rep with a textbook package that could make a first year course go from good to great. When times are good, pots are full, and financial statements are in the black, it can feel a lot like that first sales call did for me – an easy yes. Confusing and convoluted presentations don’t pose any danger when the money is flowing in and the shareholders are happy. So we made a bad decision. Didn’t hurt us too badly. So we spent four days trying to figure out what the presentation really meant. Didn’t do any harm. So we all just spent two hours in a boardroom and no one is any closer to knowing what decision to take. We’re still making money! It’s the bright and airy feel of that Psychology professor’s office.
But what happens when the darkness hits? When the shades are down, the pot is emptying, and suggesting anything new creates more fear than easy excitement? If we can’t see in the dark, we might miss that next innovation that will make us great. Now is when we need project updates, technical idea pitches, and Town Hall meetings that light up the darkness. That quell any blinding fears. That clearly point to where the business could go. We need storytellers.
And that’s why – when the business was hurting most, when the “yes” was far from easy – my client should have persisted and given their technical presenters exactly what they needed to shine a light in the darkness.