Warning! You can’t fake engaged listening.

While running a workshop with a group of international sales people, I asked the group to pair up for a listening skills activity. The catch was that one person had to spend five minutes solely asking questions – no statements – about the topic that was least interesting to them from a list of the other person’s hobbies.

Many of the questioners found the conversation to be surprisingly interesting, and went on to gain new insight into their partner’s personality. And of course, the partners who had the chance to explain their hobbies and passions absolutely loved the attention! The five minutes passed quickly, and I had to interrupt all these flowing conversations to move back to our group debrief.



As we came together to reflect, one pair that had ended their talk early caught my attention.

“Well, I guess I just wasn’t interested in his hobby in the first place,” explained the first salesman. “I tried to follow the exercise, and asked a lot of questions. I really tried to show interest, but he didn’t give me a lot.”

The second salesman responded, “Well, I could tell that you were sort of pretending, so I didn’t share much.”

The first salesman was genuinely surprised, “Wait, did that really show? Wow, I didn’t realize. I thought I was doing a good job masking it.” (Awkward laugh)

This exchange led to an lively group discussion about “fake listening.” The group consensus was that they all had sensitive radar for the verbal and non-verbal cues of pretend listening.

I’ve sometimes deluded myself into thinking that the other person doesn’t realize I’m giving less than 100%.  Have you ever told yourself these types of lies too?

1.       Overestimate your ability to fake engaged listening.

She can’t tell that I’m reading something else during our phone conversation.

If I ask all the right questions, he will get so wrapped up in his own talk that he can’t tell that I don’t care about his answers.

I know how to interject with “really?” and “tell me more” at just the right time to keep them talking.

2.       Underestimate the cost of pretending to listen.

It’s actually more efficient for me to do two things at once.

As long as he gets to say his part, it really doesn’t matter. I’m getting all the information I need.


Is it possible to fake engaged listening?  Is it worth it?  Why do we still do it?


red alert photo courtesy of rykerstribe

Posted in Learning, Sales Tagged with: , ,

B2B Case Studies: Beyond “Situation, Action, Result”

Where is the drama? Build a story to make B2B cases studies more engaging.



Don’t be boring!

White papers and B2b cases studies traditionally use the abrupt and clunky “Situation, Action, Result” format, as if the steps just happened lickety-split in 1-2-3 order. This paint a story-by-numbers approach misses the opportunity for some more emotional engagement.

Here’s an example from a case study for large technology company, with a few identifying details changed.

The Challenge:

XYZ has been growing rapidly over the last 19 years. As a result of this growth, the company’s infrastructure costs were escalating. XYZ started to investigate ways to reduce the operational and capital costs of supporting multiple office locations around the world.


Nineteen years. In the real life business world, the “Situation” has often existed for years before any “Action” is taken!

Is that your experience as well? Think about your organization. You could probably list a dozen “situations” in need of some attention right now!

The longer the lag time until action is taken, the more questions.

After all this time, why now?

Who decided that enough is enough, and made things happen? A hero — somebody, somewhere, made a decision and reached out. What was this person’s thought process? There may be a fascinating aspect of the story just waiting to be discovered. To develop an engaging B2B case study, dig deeper and ask more questions.

What was the opportunity cost of not acting sooner?  Were costs rising or revenues falling? What was the effect of inaction on morale, operations, branding, or some other pillar of the business? Was there an inciting incident that proved once and for all that a better strategy was needed?

There’s a dramatic story buried in there somewhere, waiting to be found and shared.

This doesn’t mean you can’t also use bullets, summary points, or visual design elements to reinforce the message. But bullets and lists alone do not make a story.

Who are your compelling characters?

“Situation, Action, Result” is a great place to start. But don’t stop there. Build the emotional tension with a story to engage readers.

Facts and figures alone are soon forgotten, but a meaningful story lasts and lasts.

With compelling writing and storytelling, you may inspire potential clients who may be experiencing similar pain to act, and you just might get a sales inquiry!


Photo, Dominion Drama Festival, “Il était une bergère” courtesy of BiblioArchives, Creative Commons License.

Posted in Marketing, Sales Tagged with: ,

Make it Personal: Share Your Own Stories in Business Storytelling

Share a personal story for maximum effect in business communication




The two of us were having lunch on a sunny Friday afternoon. A fellow program facilitator, whom I’ll call Jonathan, asked for my thoughts on how he should close out the week at 5 p.m.

We were finishing week number two, and some participants were “hitting the wall” in this very challenging marathon of a four week training course. Demanding tests, a month apart from friends and family, and long days were all taking a toll.

“Here’s the sports video I’m thinking of using,” he shared. “It has a great motivational message.”

Indeed, it did have a generally positive message, but it seemed somewhat disconnected from the situation at hand.

“Jonathan, what about that story you told me a few weeks ago?” I asked him. “That was a story from the heart, and I think it would be much more meaningful for everyone to hear that story directly from you.”

At five p.m. that Friday afternoon, Jonathan went ahead and shared the story of a challenge he had faced as a child.

Jonathan’s energy was up. He spoke deliberately, with conviction. He paused to collect his words, further increasing our anticipation. His voice cracked at moments and his emotion was obvious to everyone in the room.

As he finished the story on a high point, telling how he had eventually overcome a personal hurdle, the participants broke into applause. The mood as they left the room for their weekend of relaxation (and some more studying) was noticeably more positive than it had been just few minutes before.

I left the conference room just as buoyed as everyone else—happy that it had gone so well for Jonathan—and reminded of the need to do a better job of regularly incorporating personal stories into my own business communication.

The sports video that Jonathan wanted to show would probably have not had as much effect as the personal story. Certainly, “borrowed stories” that we find from other people should be part of any well-rounded storybank, but they usually can’t trump a relevant personal story.

Personal Stories:

Are easy to tell, because no memorization is required.

Emotionally attract us because of the speaker’s own energy level.

Convey a sense of authenticity that borrowed stories cannot.

Help us to feel closer to the speaker, who may reveal private thoughts or feelings.

Can make the speaker stronger through the vulnerability paradox.


Is there an experience that you’ve had that might work well as a story in a professional setting? Give it a try!

Posted in Communication, Story

Make Story a Priority

The privileged status of story.

Important Message

Our minds prefer to prioritize stories more highly than they do communication in other forms of information, like lists and figures.

University of Virginia Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham has referred to stories as “psychologically privileged.”

He writes, “Research from the last 30 years shows that stories are indeed special. Stories are easy to comprehend and easy to remember, and that’s true not just because people pay close attention to stories; there is something inherent in the story format that makes them easy to understand and remember.”

Effective Stories Pique Our Curiosity

Research shows that there is a “Goldilocks” aspect regarding the level of causality that makes a story grab our attention. Not too obvious, not too unclear. Willingham continues, “Story structure naturally leads the listener to make inferences that are neither terribly easy, nor impossibly difficult. New information that is a little bit puzzling, but which we can understand, is deemed more interesting than new information that is either very easy or very difficult to understand.”

Artificial intelligence researcher Roger Schank describes this Goldilocks curiosity effect: “Stories illustrate points better than simply stating the points themselves because, if a story is good enough, you usually don’t have to state your point at all; the hearer thinks about what you have said and figures out the point independently. The more work the hearer does, the more he or she will get out of the story.”

Our Brains Index Memories as Stories

In a 1994 study by Dr. Art Graesser of the University of Memphis, people were asked to listen to information presented in story form or in explanatory style. 35 minutes later, their memory was tested. When results were compared, the researchers found that people remembered about 50 percent more from the stories than from the explanatory passages.

We don’t fully understand why stories are easier to remember than lists, but Roger Schank explains that our brains index every bit of information and every experience we have in story format. It makes sense that offering information already in the story structure would make it easier for the mind to index. Schank says that our memories, our narratives, and our intelligence are interrelated. The ability to recall the right story at the right time requires “a massively indexed memory” and is a hallmark of intelligence, believes Schank.

Make Stories a Priority in Your Business Communication

Are you leveraging the mind’s preference for stories in your own professional communication?

Think of your next presentation or important conversation. Would a story be more informative and meaningful?

Think of your plans for your next sales call. Would a story be more influential?

Think of your #1 current marketing message. Would a story be more memorable and engaging?






Willingham, Daniel. American Federation of Teachers, “The Privileged Status of Story.” Summer 2004 issue. http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2004/willingham.cfm

Graesser, A. C., Singer, M., Trabasso, T. (1994). Constructing Inferences During Narrative Text Comprehension. Psychological Review, 101, 371–395.

Tell Me a Story:  A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory by Roger C. Schank, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (1990) pages 11-12.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Denker, Creative Commons License via Flickr

Posted in Communication, Marketing, Sales, Story

The High-Mileage Marketing Case Study

The client success story is versatile marketing content

high-mileage-case-studyMarketing case studies are high-mileage vehicles. A well-written success story breathes life and humanity into what others might have previously viewed as boring business problems. Even accounting can be a fun topic. I have found that potential clients actually want to read about the interesting experiences of other clients. It’s refreshing for them to hear from somebody besides your marketing department–in other words, a real, live customer!  And because well-written stories are naturally engaging, one marketing case study can be extended into a variety of different formats. Your mileage is limited only by your imagination.

Posting it on your website is just the start.

The collaborative nature of the case study lends itself well to new marketing opportunities. For example, here at Seven Story Learning, we recently completed a case study for email validation experts LeadSpend and their client, online publisher ArcaMax. Both CEOs were energized by the partnership, which then sparked a number of additional productive marketing efforts, including a co-hosted Webinartwitter activity, an interview on Marketing Sherpa, blog posts, blog posts, and blog posts. Talk about high utility!

Of course, the case study should be available on your website for visitors to easily view and obtain. However, placing the client success story on your website is just the start. Don’t stop there! Here are just a few of the many other ways that client success stories can help grow your business:

  • Inbound marketing and SEO to drive site visits
  • RFPs, proposals, and investment pitches
  • Press mentions
  • Tradeshow collateral
  • Industry blogging
  • Social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram and more.
  • Before, during, and after face-to-face sales calls
  • Partner with your featured client to speak at conferences and webinars
  • User-generated content campaigns
  • Internal training
  • Converted into audio testimonials or video case studies
  • As a thank-you, framed on the office wall of the featured client

Are you getting good mileage?

What other ways are you using client success stories and case studies to market your business?


Flickr photo courtesy of angeloangelo, Creative Commons license.


Posted in Sales
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