Campaign Trail Lessons for CEOs, Owners and Investors
“To hell with facts! We need stories!”
Ken Kesey, author, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Reporters, bloggers, pundits and other election “fact checkers” are tallying up what seems like record numbers of lies, half-truths and misrepresentations in this year’s presidential campaign.
Ezra Klein, a writer for The Washington Post, combed the text of Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican national convention and said that all but two of the vice-presidential nominee’s statements were false. And President Obama is accused of lying about nearly everything — his record, his intentions and the cost of his wife’s dress.
All this fact-checking makes for entertaining election coverage but obscures one important fact: Lies help politicians win elections – as long as they are wrapped in a compelling story.
Presidential candidates may make the occasional (or frequent) blunder in extemporaneous remarks. But they have the intelligence and the resources to check, double-check and triple-check every statement they make in a prepared speech. So, if they’re obscuring or just plain ignoring the truth, they do it for good reason.
People buy stories, not facts or attributes or technologies. Politicians tell whatever story they believe their constituents will find most compelling and adjust the facts to match it.
Tell a Compelling – and True — Story
Now, I don’t support twisting the facts to match your story in business or anywhere. But there is something of value to be learned from the 2012 presidential campaign: If you want to win in business, you need to tell your clients an exciting, inspiring story about your product or service. Support your story with facts, but don’t start with them.
The facts about a computer, for example, interest almost no one but the people who design, build, program and repair them. People buy the computers they believe will give them a happy ending to a story – a successful business, a bestselling novel or the perfect mate. Information about gigabytes, processor speeds and screen resolution can help sell the story but, by itself, won’t sell a computer.
“Stories are how we think,” says Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, crate our identities, and define and teach social values.”
When we buy something or vote for someone, we want to feel good about what we’re doing. We want to feel that our actions get us closer to our goals. But we also want to believe that we make our decisions based on logic and objective information. We look for facts, or what appear to be facts, to support our view.
If we like the story, we find facts that fit the script and ignore the ones that don’t. Politicians know this. And you should, too.
Love Now, Learn Later
I like to think of myself as an intelligent, fact-driven guy. And when I make an important purchase – a car, for example – I check out the specs, the reviews and the expert reports before I hand over my money. But I do this after I’ve already settled on one or two models. I first find a car in my price range that looks and drives great and then I look for facts to support my opinion. I fall in love first, do my homework second.
Similarly, Mandalay Entertainment CEO Peter Guber, fell in love with a story Magic Johnson told him about a foreign country with a large population of young people who’d spend a lot of money on movie tickets if someone built movie theaters in their neighborhoods. When Johnson told Guber about the “foreign country” – South Central Los Angeles — Guber bought the idea of financing movie theaters in black neighborhoods. Of course, he did due diligence before investing. But first he bought Johnson’s story.
Improve Your Storytelling Skills
When you approach your clients or prospective clients, tell them a story. Don’t sell them features or technical details. Tell them a story about how you will make their lives better, more exciting. Tell them that they can make more money or have more fun with your products or service. Tell them, if you truthfully can, that buying what you offer may make them look better, feel better and fare better with the opposite sex.
Then support the story, the vision you’ve created, with some facts.
If your story is good and exciting enough you will be surprised by how many of your clients will put only a small emphasis on the facts. Sometimes they’ll come up with reasons you hadn’t thought of to buy from you.
Skillful storytelling is critical to your success. Write a story for your business and tell it often to your clients and to the market.
But don’t tell the stories to yourself. Don’t believe too much in the stories you tell the world. Inside your company, believe in the facts.
Stories sell products and services. Facts build and support them.