The COVID-19 pandemic has cut us off from face-to-face contact and made advisors dependent on virtual meetings for managing client relationships. As we have explored in other blogs, limitations of the screen, microphone and speakers significantly reduce the information we can send to and receive from other people. We can’t rely on rapport and emotional connections, but we can tell a story that increases the impact of the message in our virtual meetings.

This is good news for every advisor because, as behavioral scientist Daniel Kahneman reminds us, “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.” Because most advisors are much better with numbers than they are at creating powerful stories, here are four techniques that can improve the quality of your stories.

1. Stimulate Emotions

Great stories stimulate emotions as well as ideas. Catch your listener by surprise by starting with this observation: “There is a problem you need to know about.”

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes the two types of feelings that move clients to take action: fear of pain and desire for pleasure. Importantly, he reveals that the fear of pain is almost three times more motivating than the desire for pleasure. This means that a great story will start by pointing out a problem or a challenge that’s unfolding in the world and that’s likely to affect the listener personally.

When reporting on a portfolio’s progress or reassuring a client that his financial plan is working, you can start with, “I’ve got some great news for you!” However, if you need to motivate a client to take action or you’re trying to inspire a prospect to engage your services, it’s far more powerful to start by saying, “There is a problem. Here’s what you should know.”

A great story gets the listener personally involved and emotionally engaged.

2. Carry the Listener Along

In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath caution us as storytellers about “the curse of knowledge.” With your experience about the capital markets, investment strategies and financial planning, you see the connection between what’s happening right now and what may unfold in the future. For example, you probably knew that the COVID-19 pandemic and the actions necessary to slow the spread of the virus would impact the worldwide economy.

This is the value of being an expert: the ability to see the future implications of what’s happening now. When crafting a compelling story, you cannot assume that your listener will have the same level of knowledge—thus the idea of the curse of knowledge: it can cause us to assume that other people see all the connections we do.

A great story explains the market dynamics and their implications.

3. Fill Your Stories with Surprises That Hold the Listener’s Attention

Most of us have a memorable teacher or coach who became a significant person in our lives because she taught us something crucial that we didn’t know, and it surprised us. It may have concerned the world around us, or perhaps it was something surprising about ourselves.

A great story reveals something important that the listener didn’t know about the markets and points out how it affects his situation in an unanticipated way.

4. Always End with a Call to Action

In his book Narrative Is Everything, Randy Olson explains that people follow leaders who hold their attention, not those who are boring or confusing. Too many facts are boring. For Olson, the only story that works is a narrative that includes some kind of contradiction or problem that requires a response and a conclusion that tells the listener what she needs to do to solve this problem. For advisors, this insight is especially valuable when presenting information in a virtual meeting. For the listener, the only reason the meeting is worth having is to get surprising new information that stimulates motivation to act in order to solve a problem or protect herself from danger.

A great story sets up the call to action from the very beginning and ends with, “All of these things that I’ve told you can impact you; therefore, here is what I think you should do…”

These principles will help you become a better storyteller, whether you’re sitting with others around the campfire or conducting your fifth virtual meeting of the day. Either way, people will want to listen to you if you’re telling a great story that gets their attention, impacts them personally, surprises them with new information and motivates them to take action.

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The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AB portfolio-management teams.

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