In one of our “best-of” episodes, Bobby Lehew joins us to share some of the great opportunities B2B companies have to tell amazing stories throughout the entire sales cycle.
Bobby joined Kerry O’Shea Gorgone in early 2020 to talk about the power of storytelling and where B2B marketers can really make an inroads. If you weren’t able to catch it the first time around, now’s your chance to grab this popular episode.
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Full Transcript: Storytelling in B2B
Kerry O’Shea Gorgone: Welcome to Marketing Smarts, an interview series brought to you by MarketingProfs.
The episode you’re listening to today was recorded live for our MarketingProfs PRO Facebook group. If you’re a PRO member, join us over on Facebook at Mprofs.com/progroup to see this and many other livestream videos, and also to connect with your fellow PRO members.
Thanks to those of you who will watch this later on-demand. I’m Kerry with MarketingProfs and I’m here with one of my very favorite MarketingProfs instructors, Bobby Lehew, who is an expert storyteller and the chief content officer at Commonsku. He has co-created our exclusive storytelling workshop that we’ll be offering in a few weeks. Bobby is fantastic.
What reading are you doing to get through the lockdown quarantine?
Bobby Lehew: Other than news, I think I’ve just resorted to mostly poetry. I think just because everything has been so heavy and you just kind of need something to concentrate on. I think I’ve had a hard time getting into long form narrative since all this started. Poetry has kind of been my go-to on a regular basis. That’s usually my morning habit, but I’ve noticed I’ve turned to it a lot more.
Kerry: That’s interesting. Do you think you lost the attention span for longer format?
Bobby: Maybe. I’m supposed to be doing the storytelling workshop. Right?
Kerry: Sure. The workshop is going to be great.
Bobby: Actually, I think I just needed that. Ann is this way, too. We love poetry as storytellers and content people because it allows you to fall in love with language again. When you’re processing so much information, poetry has this ability to truncate everything down into smaller bite-sized pieces that are richer. In a funny way, it really helps you with storytelling because, again, it just makes you fall in love with language. That’s the part I love.
Kerry: I wanted to tell people to follow you on Instagram, too. I was teasing you, you said something the other day about how you were binge watching junk TV and stuff. But then you look on your Instagram and the posts you write on Instagram are so long, this is all text.
Bobby: It’s too much.
Kerry: No, it’s great. I’m actually saying that I like it, which is rare for me, so just run with it. It says, “We should learn to live within the citadels of our ourselves,” and you actually are calling out quotes from Marcus Aurelius, and you write this big thing. I have to screencap your Instagrams and go back and look at them later because I can’t while I’m scrolling. There’s a lot there. So, don’t hit me with this you just look at haikus to get by.
Bobby: I think Marcus Aurelius is a great example, though. The Tao and some of these books have greater meaning and greater impact right now, I think, during this time. That’s kind of why I’ve returned to some of that stuff now.
Kerry: What kind of poetry do you find helps you the most?
Bobby: Folks like Jack Gilbert, Mary Oliver, some of the poets of the 20th Century. It’s interesting that going through World War II and that time period there is so much emotional comparison to what we’ve been going through here lately. Those poets that went through that were able to express an economy of words that we’ve kind of lost, and it really resonates now. I think that’s why I’m finding a lot of comfort in that, as well as instruction and guidance.
Kerry: For those who aren’t familiar with those poets, what is it about their work, what kind of poetry is it? Is it going to be fun? Does it rhyme?
Bobby: No, there’s not a lot of rhyming. Mostly, I think it’s both inward and outward. I think it’s reflection, as well as a commentary on what’s happening in the world at the same time. It gets to story, because one of the things we talk about in the storytelling working is that a story is both a window and a mirror, and that’s what poetry is a lot like, too.
When you’re looking out a window, you’ll often see in the reflection sometimes yourself. In a very dim way, in a silhouette form, or a shadow self of you looking out at the story. In storytelling we talk about this in the sense that as the story unfolds, or as you’re reading a novel, as you’re reading a poem, you’re looking at the story, you’re following the narrative, but it’s also ecumenical for everyone and it’s intrinsic as well. You’re processing it as far as what you identify with.
When it comes to poetry and story, N. Scott Momaday is one of my favorite novelists. Some of the Native American writers are some of my most beloved writers, because they have this ability to share a story that allows you to experience a journey, to experience another world, to develop strong empathy with a character, but then you do that because of what’s going on inside you.
The screenwriter Robert McKee said that two people can read a book or read a poem or a see a movie, and one of them will think it sucks and the other one will think it’s incredible. The distinction is the one that thought it was incredible empathized with a character in the story or the poem. Even with poetry, everything is a narrative, it’s just a narrative in the short form.
Kerry: You’re so well read, Bobby, I’d never guess that you went to a school for juvenile delinquents.
Bobby: I knew you were going to bring that up.
Kerry: I should point out that you weren’t a delinquent.
Bobby: Exactly. We’ve talked about this before, S. E. Hinton and all those books. Folks that are listening right now, one of the things that we do in the workshop that’s a lot of fun, and this isn’t about the workshop but it’s actually a fun exercise for you, is to look back in your life at the most formative stories that have been a part of your journey.
Those of us as marketers, one of the interesting things that I’ve learned doing this workshop before is that my job in a large part is to help people extract the knowledge they already have about story. Because we are all binging on Netflix, especially these days, we’re binging more story, we’re reading more story, we’re processing more story. My job is to actually extract what you don’t know that you know about the power of story.
Sometimes we go to our businesses and our work and we leave all that we know and that has entertained us and that has moved us at the threshold of the door, then we go into our work and we sit down to a write a story and think, “I don’t know how to tell a story.” You actually have the fundamental basics because your entire life has been comprised of enjoying narrative or being taught through narrative.
Kerry: How do you repurpose that knowledge and experience and apply it to something like B-to-B selling? If you sell logistics software for power plants or something, what kind of stories are you looking to tell during that 18-month sales cycle?
Bobby: The interesting thing about B-to-B is that you’ll notice with nonprofits and you’ll notice with the B-to-C market they get emotion really well. Their commercials, the stories they write, the case studies, everything is built around an emotional experience. When you think of nonprofits, a lot of them are in the business of raising money, but they don’t talk about raising money. They talk about how the money impacts its final destination.
A lot of our job in B-to-B is to actually welcome emotion into the boardroom and to talk about that, because we’re so features and benefits oriented, we’re so pros and cons and logic. What’s sort of fascinating as the world begins to unfold from what’s happening recently is that I think as folks return to purchasing – let’s say B-to-B for example – empathetic narrative is going to be more important than ever.
Like in the Great Recession, folks returned from that with a greater emphasis on our why and a greater emphasis on meaning. I think you’re going to see things like sustainability and meaning, and the purchases we make and the life we live is going to need to be fueled by an emotional experience and an emotional reason.
To try to be a little clearer, one of the things that I love doing is if I were talking to the C-suite or accountants or folks that are very pro/con black-and-white, I like to ask them if their last big purchase was an emotional purchase or a rational purchase. Usually it’s a car or a house, and often it was an emotional purchase. Let’s say it was a car. It was either for safety reasons, or maybe the car looked cool, but they justify it rationally.
We actually as consumers buy emotionally and justify rationally. In the B-to-B world we’ve kind of had it backwards. We think we should approach the world rationally, when in fact we should unpack and spend a lot more time around emotion.
I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “Bobby, what I sell is a very boring product.” When you begin to unpack what it is that your product ends up doing for someone, you’ll find out that if you trace the emotional journey, like tracing the emotional journey of a character in a story, that your story has far more meaning when you get in touch with that.
One last thing is Howard Shultz with Starbucks said that an emotional connection is their only value proposition. That always kind of blew my mind because coffee is actually a commodity, so how did Starbucks build this empire around what he said that the number one value proposition was an emotional connection.
Kerry: I don’t even like their coffee that much.
Bobby: Right. Storytelling is like joke telling, so it sounds really simple and yet it’s very hard. The minute I ask a room full of people, “How many people would say they’re terrible at telling jokes?” most people will raise their hands. It’s a learned skill, but it’s also something that we have been doing intuitively since we were little.
Kerry: Like you were saying, we sort of put it away when we go to work because we think, “Here I am again, trying to convince people to buy this boring thing.”
Bobby: Right. Or to buy something they don’t want. That’s usually the case. Just not mapping the fact that there is an audience that’s very hungry for that narrative. Folks will say to me that what they sell is a boring product, or they’ll say to me people don’t have time for a long story, which is really not true.
Look at your own consumption history and you’ll realize that you’re reading long form and you’re binge watching shows back to back. So, it’s not the case. It’s not that people don’t have the patience for the story, it’s that the story is not targeted to the right audience, it’s not told from the right perspective.
That’s a lot of what we do, especially with B-to-B. B-to-B typically has the perspective of, for example, the company, the ROI, the objectives, but you’re dealing with a human buyer. That’s one of the things we unpack is if a human buyer is behind this decision then it’s going to be an emotional decision.
Kerry: What opportunities are there to tell stories in the B-to-B buying process? They have sales collateral, obviously you need that. You have product landing pages, you need that, too. But where can you build story into the process?
Bobby: There are multiple ways. Typically, a lot of B-to-B organizations have multiple buyers. You’ll have the company that has a particular return that it expects; return on experience, return on emotion. You’ll have the buyer themselves that have their own personal journey they’re going through. You’ll have multiple audiences, like the community. You’ll have an audience like your internal colleagues. I don’t know how to answer your question, but one of the things we talk a lot about is perspective.
One example is that you can really understand perspective when you think of something like the movie Monsters Inc. When you think of Monsters Inc. and the perspective it’s told from, imagine that story with just a slight shift in perspective and point of view if that story were told from the perspective of Boo’s parents. Suddenly, it’s not so funny and it’s a tragic story, with a good ending but it’s a much different story.
Kerry: If you’re unfamiliar, the little girl wanders into the monster world at night and spends a pretty significant amount of time there having adventures. So, she’s just gone.
Bobby: Right. That shift of perspective is everything. Another example is to simply look back at your own experience with story and talk about the type of narrators and people that you have strong empathy for and with, and ask the question why.
Kerry: When you’re thinking about that perspective then, what you should be doing ideally is creating content for the different people in that buying committee that you’re going to be talking to.
Bobby: Right. Exactly. Really discovering what it is that they want. Storytelling really is just a heuristic, it’s just a mental shortcut, it’s just a bridge to help us get from one point to the next. The cool part is that it’s also a conduit. We have learned our greatest lessons through philosophy and religion through the power of story, through parables and narratives, so we have this sort of ready-built conduit to receive news and information that way.
I’m paraphrasing, but Momaday said anything can be accepted or understood if it’s told through the power of a story.
Kerry: My kids remember some stuff that I really wish they didn’t, because I told them stories about when I was their age to try and be like, “It’s okay, we all make bad choices,” and they remember them.
Bobby: You’ve been with me before through some of this and you know that those are some of our most enjoyable exercises, when we ask people to share stories. They’ll go back into their own family history of their lineage and they’ll tell a story that they’ve had around Thanksgiving that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Kerry: We still remember them. We did a client workshop and the woman in the 22nd row spoke up about that story and how she had been born, that her parents had gone to see King Kong and her mom went into labor, and they had to find their way out of the middle of the aisle and go all the way back so that she could go to the hospital. I remember that still. I remember this one person’s story out of all workshops we’ve done, all the people who went, I remember that one.
Bobby: That’s why it’s fun. We have sort of this repository, if you will, of story embedded in our hearts and our minds. That’s part of the process is to extract what you know about story and then apply it to business.
Kerry: In a situation like we’re in right now with a global pandemic on, when is it appropriate to tell a story relating to the pandemic or tell some aspect of what you’re doing with it? I’ve seen a lot of brand storytelling that’s kind of like, “In case you’re wondering what this business is doing in the pandemic,” and I was thinking I really wasn’t. When is the right time to tell a story and when not to?
Bobby: I think we can all agree that we were all immediately fatigued by the “we’re in this with you, too” kind of commentary. Of course we are.
I’m not an expert on that type of social commentary about it, but I will say this. Right now, people say that you shouldn’t be selling or that selling is difficult. This is why it’s more important than ever to tell story, because as a salesperson, or as someone who is writing copy or writing narrative for a sales force, you can avoid a lot of that conflict by simply telling a story from the customer’s perspective.
As far as when and how to tell or what story to tell during this time, if you focus on the audience and the ROI for them emotionally and the experience for them, then that keeps you out of this
direct selling heat that you get from selling at a time when you’re insensitive or tone deaf or something like that.
Kerry: I think it’s just that people are hypersensitive, so you have to take that into consideration. But you always have to think about your audience when you’re telling a story, and the kind of condition that they’re in.
Bobby: Sure. Yes.
Kerry: We talk a lot about B-to-B selling, but there are points at which it’s really stressful having to find a new vendor or something when you’re in B-to-B. They’ve been using this solution or whatever for months and months, now you’re going to ask the whole organization to switch to another one. There’s going to be some angst. So, I think we’re always approaching people at what’s a difficult time.
Bobby: Yes. That’s a great point. Also, especially in B-to-B, we know a large percentage of B-to-B sales are made through referrals. If that’s the case, then never is it more important to tell stories from the perspective of a customer. In fact, the larger the sale and the larger the organization, the more angst you’re going to go through, and the more you need a comparative narrative to point to.
Kerry: Did you just say comparative narrative?
Bobby: I know, it was so bad. Too much poetry. Think about your own favorite story. What is your favorite story, Kerry? Am I putting you on the spot if I say that? It’s like asking what your favorite meal is.
Kerry: Wuthering Heights.
Kerry: It’s a dark one. Don’t read it thinking you’re getting a light romance or something.
Bobby: And why? Why do you love that story?
Kerry: It is its own story and it’s kind of stupid, but my sister was babysitting me one night and the 1939 version of the movie came on, which ironically is nothing like the book.
There was this scene where somebody sees the ghost of Cathy. I love ghosts and I love ghost stories and all of that. I did even then as a very young kid, so I was like, “I want to watch it.” My sister was instantly bored and wanted to watch something else. My dad from the other room, this disembodied voice, “Let her watch what she wants,” because I was a pain. So my sister had to watch it. She didn’t like it, she didn’t like me, it was this whole thing.
At the time, I liked it, but I didn’t totally understand it. So, I wanted to go back to the source material when I got older. I read the book, which of course was nothing like it. I ended up liking it a lot more than the movie. I don’t know, it’s all kind of wrapped together in a very confusing way.
Bobby: Did you identify with a character or characters in the story? If you didn’t identify, did you at least have a strong amount of empathy for them?
Kerry: Yes. There are so many missed opportunities in it, I think, for people to really connect and to form positive relationships. It’s tragic in that way, but it also gives me hope because you think of all these interactions you have with people where you come off thinking that they’re jerks or something, you actually have a lot more in common than you have differences.
I don’t know. It was just interesting seeing that sort of thrown into such sharp relief. It’s like what happens is very dark, but what could have happened, there’s just infinite possibilities for better outcomes.
Bobby: Yes. One of the things that we talk about a lot is this tension, or the trials, or tribulations, or struggles that the main character or a character goes through.
That’s the same thing with a business when they’re making a decision. They’re going to go through pre-buying angst. They’re going to go through angst during the purchase. Say it’s a software product and it’s a long cycle for closing, finally getting everyone up to running in this new system or whatever it might be, they’re going to go through a kind of angst through that. Then there’s going to be this post response.
You have these three parts of the journey, pre, during, and post. We’re watching these characters as they go through this transformation. That’s a big part of it is we’re all watching a transformation journey.
One other interesting side note is that as far as villains in stories, the reason why villains are so appealing to some of us is that the more human they are the more tragic the story is or the more difficult it is, or the more we remember it because there are very human connection points with some of these characters. It’s really about mapping those human connection points.
Kerry: One of my other favorite MarketingProfs speakers, Chris Brogan, said that every villain is the hero of his own story. It’s all about perspective, like you were saying.
Bobby: That’s a great point about perspective.
Kerry: I just wanted to back up a little and think about where we’re telling stories in the B-to-B buying process. Are you creating pieces of content around story, are you building it into your sales presentations, all of the above?
Bobby: I think it’s all of the above. I think the biggest task is to capture those, first of all. Then of course these days repackaging those in multiple formats, bite-sized formats, long form formats, email formats, PowerPoint presentations.
The biggest thing I think we get hung up on or that we don’t do as a discipline is that we don’t begin to build a library of stories. Right now, you can go to your library, if you needed a story, if you needed that kind of empathetic moment, you can go pull a book from your shelf.
The same thing in our businesses. We need to build this repertoire or this library of stories, once we build that muscle into our organizations where people are looking for stories. A lot of people will say it’s marketing’s job to come up with stories, when usually it’s frontline folks or salespeople that are talking with customers on a regular basis who are the ones who need to be involved in stories.
It’s almost like every business needs to have its own special forces unit that’s comprised of people from different departments and different organizations to capture stories, to share those, and then to create this library so that you can choose. Once you have an essential story that talks about a particular challenge, you can just pull that off the shelf and then repackage that, as you need it, to the right audience.
Kerry: We all know a good story when we hear it, so all you have to do is pass it up.
Bobby: Right. Yes. A boring story to one person is an exciting to another, it all has to do with audience and perspective. You can tell a story about the ROI on an insurance or finance story to the wrong customer and it’s a boring story. To someone who has an emotional investment, it’s very important.
Kerry: Tell me the story of the workshop. What’s the story going to be like for people who come to your storytelling workshop?
Bobby: Here’s the pre, during, and post. You’ll come confused and frustrated. Actually, some folks will even come thinking, “Story, how hard can this be?” Then by the time you look behind the curtain at what people like This American Life does and you look at the nuances behind their processes and their productions, when you look at the story journey, the hero’s journey that has been responsible for Hollywood’s biggest films, then you realize that there is a science behind telling a story.
Mostly, I think it’s just opening our minds up to the emotional possibilities, no matter what it is that you’re selling. You’ll come through your own experience of going through a transformation as a storyteller and coming out the other side with the tools and the knowhow to do it. Then the hard work begins in just sort of finding them.
Kerry: Bobby and I will be doing three of these workshops together. If you want to know how you can come join us, you can go to Mprofs.com/storypro. If you want to learn more about Bobby, you can follow him on Twitter @BobbyLehew.
I recommend following Bobby in Instagram as well because he will make you feel really bad about your education and make you buy a whole bunch of books that you may or may not ever read. You’re very positive and uplifting about it. It’s not that you say, “Kerry, your high school really fell down on the job.” It’s not like that, it’s just I look at your collection and it is kind of insane. It’s very classically driven, but there are some surprising choices on your bookshelf.
Bobby: That too. Right. We all have those surprises.
Kerry: Yes. Thanks so much for talking with me, Bobby.
Kerry: Thank you for listening here to the very end. This has been the Marketing Smarts Podcast, brought to you by MarketingProfs. Talk with you next time.