7 MIN ARTICLE
Making storytelling part of your client conversations can help you reinforce foundational investing knowledge that may otherwise go in one ear and out the other.
- Stories engage listeners in a way that logic-based arguments don’t.
- Storytelling can be a highly effective way of communicating important financial concepts to clients.
- You can up your storytelling game by employing a few simple tactics.
- Four stories can help you get started incorporating more storytelling into your client engagement.
Remember the first time you studied the data about the danger of sounding false alarms? No? How about when you learned about “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”? You may remember that one quite a bit better, because it’s a story. Whether it’s the tale of a boy who kept ringing a false alarm about a wolf until it was too late, a tortoise with a slow and steady strategy that beat the hare, or an ant and grasshopper who have different ways of getting ready for winter, stories can make a bigger and more memorable impression on us than data and logic. Stories help us question our assumptions, and hint at certain expectations and consequences for behavior in a way that’s meant to shape the behavior of the listener. That’s why storytelling can be such a powerful tool for financial professionals to convey key principles about money and investing.
To anyone who’s ever cried in a movie theater or read a child her favorite book for the hundredth time, the power of story is indisputable. Stories convey concepts while also appealing to our emotions, which helps our brains personalize concepts and spur us to action in ways logic-based arguments often don’t.
Ironically, stories can actually help us benefit from the emotional, left-brained part of ourselves that drives us to make bad decisions during market extremes. Here’s why stories have so much power:
In 1986, cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner observed that Western science and philosophy largely focus on “knowing the truth.” A storyteller, however, shares that truth in a way that is memorable and relevant to the listener. Put another way, stories don’t simply convey information, they give meaning to information. Weaving information and meaning into a single narrative opens more of your brain’s receptors to the lesson being communicated.
The more we learn about the brain, the more we realize that there’s no single way of learning and processing information. There are visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners and those who learn through methodical study. Well-told stories featuring evocative details and familiar narrative structures enable teachers to connect with a variety of learners.
There’s a reason most people can probably recount the plot of “Star Wars” but fall short when it comes to remembering when Socrates lived, let alone what he had to say. Characters. Obstacles and consequences. A beginning, a middle and an end. These are storytelling devices that form the basis for nearly all stories, and they are devices that we have all internalized. Using these devices, even in short instructional anecdotes, can connect and resonate thanks to our innate sense of story.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet was onto something when he predicted that “the play’s the thing” that would catch the conscience of the king. Great stories put listeners in the shoes of their characters, which can motivate them to consider what they might do in similar circumstances. In this respect, stories offer something close to a free lunch — enabling us to learn from someone else’s mistakes without suffering any of the negative consequences.
- Keep it brief. You may have noticed that movies nowadays minimize the scene-setting and get the story moving. When the lesson is more important than the story, brevity counts.
- Add specificity. Proper names, dates and places paint a picture in the mind of a listener and lend authenticity to stories.
- Build in tension. Paraphrasing Anton Chekhov, if you introduce a gun in the first act, it should be fired in the second. Engage listeners by establishing the stakes upfront, withholding the outcome, then resolving the story as close to the end as possible. This classic story structure is familiar and gratifying to listeners.
- Connect the dots. You know the point of your story, but it might not be immediately clear to the client. Make sure you draw the connection between the moral of the story and the concept you’re emphasizing.
Seasoned financial professionals often share and retell favorite stories, to have lessons to draw from when speaking to investors. If you’re seeking ways to make financial concepts memorable and meaningful to your clients, here are four stories that can help you emphasize important investing behaviors:
If you’ve ever watched the World Cup soccer tournament, you’ve probably seen a typical penalty kick.
The player taking the kick runs to the ball. Before she even makes contact with it, the goalkeeper lunges. Often that lunge is in the opposite direction of the trajectory of the ball!
What you almost never see is the goalkeeper holding her ground. Indeed, according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, goalkeepers stay put just over 6% of the time. This is counterintuitive, because the ball is kicked to the middle — where the goalkeeper originally stood — nearly 29% of the time.
These figures suggest that goalkeepers will have more success if they stay put. Why does that rarely happen? The answer lies in action bias: the desire we have to act when we’re under stress, even if doing so runs counter to our best interests. In the case of soccer goalies, doing nothing puts them at risk of looking foolish in full view of fans and teammates. For investors, a bias toward action typically plays out in one of two ways: During rising markets, investors may deviate from a well-balanced strategy to buy “hot” stocks. During downturns, investors are prone to panic selling. Both pose risks.
What’s the lesson for investors? Making investment decisions based on a desire to “do something” is common … and destructive. Recognizing that this impulse is driven by our “fight or flight” instinct and not our best interests is valuable.
In the early part of the 20th century, the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright won the commission to design the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
Wright came back to the developers with a design that, when built, proved to be one of his masterpieces. But before giving the project the green light, the developers wanted a money-saving revision. They asked Wright to eliminate a large reflecting pool included in the plans.
The architect pushed back, defending his design on aesthetic grounds as well as practical ones. In designing the building, Wright knew that Tokyo was prone to earthquakes. While the quakes themselves inflicted lots of damage, it was the fires that typically arose in the aftermath of quakes that proved most devastating. That’s because quakes disabled water systems, which made it impossible to fight fires. The reflecting pool solved that problem by providing a water source for firefighting.
The developers relented, and Wright moved forward with his design. Sure enough, just a few months after the hotel opened in 1923, Tokyo experienced a monumental earthquake. The resulting fires brought widespread devastation, but the Imperial Hotel’s reflecting pool did its job, providing an emergency reservoir to help fight the fire. The hotel was spared.
What’s the lesson for investors? A so-called emergency fund is a reservoir of cash you can deploy during tough times — whether a job loss or a market downturn — to spare your finances from greater damage.
In the late 1300s, a group of workers built the dining hall at New College, Oxford.
A key structural element of this hall was the enormous oak ceiling timbers that held up the roof. In the early 20th century, those timbers were beset by powder beetles — creatures whose handiwork is often not discovered until they’ve done irreparable damage.
Upon finding the infestation, college administrators were understandably concerned and set out to devise a plan to replace the ceiling. The only problem was that large replacement timbers weren’t available. As the story goes, the worried administrators eventually paid a visit to the college forester, who greeted them with: “We were wondering when you’d come calling.”
It turns out the original builders anticipated the beetle infestation and set aside a special area of college-controlled woodlands. There, oaks were earmarked as eventual replacements for the beams. Down through the centuries, those trees were off-limits to would-be harvesters. So, just as planned, when the college needed the lumber, it was ready and waiting.
What’s the lesson for investors? A thoughtful, strategic plan is crucial to long-term financial security. Sow seeds well before the need arises.
About halfway between Sundance, Wyoming and Spearfish, South Dakota, up against the Black Hills that give way to the Great Plains, is a natural sinkhole.
At the bottom of that sinkhole are the bones of over 4,000 buffalo. How did they get there? Native American hunters found a way to exploit the buffalo’s instinct to follow the herd. In short, groups of hunters worked in unison to drive the buffalo over the edge of the sinkhole where, immobilized, they’d be killed by the hunters awaiting them there. In a heightened emotional state, the buffalo simply followed one another over a cliff.
What’s the lesson? It’s not just buffalo that are prone to the herd mentality. Humans are, too. For investors, this type of groupthink can mean following investors into overvalued or risky investments or, conversely, fleeing investments en masse when markets turn down.
Tell us a story
At PracticeLab, we aim to collect and share the best ideas from advisors like you. Have a story that’s helped you illustrate savings or investing concepts with your clients? We want to hear it.