Telling Their Story: Narrative in Finance

If you work in the financial sector, storytelling might not be the first technique that comes to mind in handling complex, often difficult conversations with clients and associates.  You might be more interested in ‘getting down to business,’ and explaining concepts, predictions, and approaches directly.  Despite this understandable hesitancy, though, your conversations probably already involve a good deal of storytelling—and that’s a good thing. 

When you tell a client how you were able to take a struggling business out of the red using your organization’s expertise and guidance, you’re telling a story, whether it feels that way or not.  It’s a short story, but it’s one that casts you as the protagonist, your former client as the character in need of rescue, and ends happily with success for both you and the client.  Let’s explore why this approach works so well, and how you can continue to leverage storytelling for results in finance. 

Sarah McNabb has some valuable insights on how storytelling engages the listener and convinces them of your understanding and value.  She explains that well-told stories that are emotionally compelling motivate the listener to take action, and that the most emotionally resonant stories are those that show “that you genuinely understand their struggles, their desires, and their journey.” 

This in-depth understanding allows you not only to tell a better, more effective story—it makes you a player “in their story as much as they are in yours.”  Think of how profound this shift is: a powerful, real story that stirs emotion has the ability to captivate an audience, but a story in which they are the main character is one that goes beyond mere engagement. 

When outcomes could determine the client’s ability to run their business, purchase a home, rest assured that their earnings are protected, or more, a story about you (the representative offering the service) will never be as powerful as a story that centers on the client.  If they feel they are the hero, and yours is a supporting role, they feel more control and confidence—they’re the decision-maker, and you’re a trusted advisor who understands the stakes the way that they do. 

McNabb goes on to add that the story needn’t be convoluted and lengthy; what really matters is the connection that you form with the listener.  Proving that you understand their pain points, and that you want to move their story toward a happy ending (instead of simply securing their business for a win in your own story), will reliably form that meaningful connection.   

You should also remember that storytelling and finance are inextricably linked.  Every story contains a finance angle if you look closely enough.  Let’s take an example of a couple who live in a small apartment at the beginning of their relationship, until one of them receives the major promotion that lets them move on to a nicer home, with enough room for the children they want to have. 

Sounds great, but it doesn’t sound particularly financial—or does it?  Dig deeper, and you’ll learn about how the two pooled their finances for that little house, and saved carefully for years to afford that home.  The salary from that promotion was carefully managed, using a variety of financial services and strategies, until they could support children—and now, they’re working on college funds. 

Viewed with the right eyes, finance is always a part of the story.  The lesson?  There’s nothing unnatural about tracking a financial line through your client’s story, because it is already there.  Of course, depending on the hardships, ups and downs, and other particulars of that through-line, you may want to modify the story you’re envisioning for them.  Exercise tact and judgment in your questions and narrative, but remember that the narrative approach itself is not a strange or inappropriate one. 

Chris Matt has some great pointers to make sure you’re using good judgment in your storytelling, which he borrows from Coca Cola’s criteria for good brand storytelling: 

Does it answer the “Why Should I Care” test? 

Does it surprise you? 

Does it have universal appeal? 

Does it generate interest? 

Is it new—something you haven’t seen before? 

Is it different from what your competition is offering? 

Is your content being measured systemically? 

Matt notes that “Your organization may have other criteria, but this core set is a good place to begin the story evaluation process.”  He’s absolutely right it being a starting point, as we can probably all identify a few of these that are less in-line with finance than others.  Universal appeal, for example, might not be very relevant to someone considering the own financial situation; then again, it may carry some weight, as proving that you’ve had clients from wide-ranging financial backgrounds benefit from your service can certainly be convincing. 

Matt also reminds us that storytelling needs to vary on a broader demographic scale—in other words, while many of these techniques are stellar for the “stories [that] reside with your people in the field,” your storytelling strategy should also be applied across multiple channels, and should therefore be mutable.  “If YouTube is a destination for your audience to consume brand content, video should be a focus… if blogs are more appealing, leaning on LinkedIn’s built-in publishing platform can be your financial storytelling arena.” 

How will stories change for these media?  The main consideration will be “based on your target… your content medium should reflect those groups’ consumption preferences.”  Here, the research you’ll do will be more trend-based and collective, rather than the one-on-one, highly intimate stories between representative and client.  “If you have a mobile-first audience, longer-form storytelling may be less appealing than digestible, quick-hitting anecdotes.”   

Fundamentally, storytelling in finance isn’t an abstract, fantastical technique; it’s built into the subject matter at every level, and the consumer is wired to seek and consume stories.  Make a meaningful connection that involves their story, not yours, and make sure you’re telling the story that your organization needs you to tell at the same time.  Modulate as necessary, and you’ll see the results you need, with more consumer confidence and comfort. 

Do you promote storytelling within your financial organization?  Who tells the stories, and how do you evaluate them?  Do you agree that every story has a financial angle?  How do you vary your financial storytelling?