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What Fairy Tales Can Teach Us about Marketing Financial Services

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Fairy tales are an important tool for helping our kids develop. And we should not leave them behind simply because we become grown-ups. In fact, the importance to parents of these ancient teaching techniques translates well into the marketing of an advisory practice and even, in fact, into the delivery of advice.

I have written before about the importance of storytelling in marketing and others have discussed its role in advising clients. A few of the specific benefits of stories, and fairytales in particular, are worth going into in more detail.

The brain is wired to remember stories – People don’t remember features and benefits. They don’t remember lists. They remember stories, especially about people. When we form a memory, it is not a collection of data points – it is a story. If we come across a fact we have not seen or did not expect, our brain creates a story about it so that we can remember it. When we interpret what other people say or write, we develop stories about what those people meant or how they felt. Stories seem to be integral to the functioning of our brain. In fact, the neurotransmitter dopamine that stimulates pleasure is triggered by curiosity. That is the neurochemical foundation for the reason that it is difficult to put down a really good book. Therefore, translating your skills, your services, or the benefits of working with your firm into stories simply caters to how your clients’ minds desire information.

Stories show clients how to solve problems – rather than a technical, dispassionate (and boring) description of how you might assist a client address a challenge, a story illustrates how a person can put theory into practice. You might tell a client that an analysis of the effects of strategically withdrawing retirement funds from taxable and tax-deferred accounts can help them extend the life of their portfolio but they will have difficulty comprehending the benefit of it and almost certainly will not remember the value of that service you might provide them. But describe to them a client (real or hypothetical) who was faced with the possibility that they might outlive their savings but who worked with you to take some money out of this account and some money out of that account and legally deprived the big, bad IRS from taking any more than was absolutely necessary and you will leave an impression.

Stories help clients deal with scary situations – Ever work with a client who absolutely refused to discuss life insurance and risk management? It may have been because of their experience with the life insurance industry but in many cases it is because of clients’ fear of death. Pointing out that there is 100% mortality in the long run probably won’t help. Relaying a narrative about the struggle of a family who lost a breadwinner and how, because of proper planning, they could ultimately live happily ever after may help them at least talk about the issue. Take the attention off their own mortality and present a vision past death. It is easier to discuss the problem when it is someone else who has it. Show the client that while the character in your tale could not overcome death, they helped their family survive. Stop asking them to deal with their own death and let them learn from someone else’s.

Similarly, some clients may have difficulty subscribing to an appropriate asset allocation because of their fear of the stock market. This fear, because it is irrational, probably cannot be resolved with an Ibbotson mountain chart. Tell them the story of an investor who stuck to a long-term strategy through 2008 and has more than recovered from that devastating market decline. G.K. Chesterton said “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Help your clients take the hero’s journey. Your clients and prospective clients face challenges. Instead of describing the services you can offer them or the skills you possess, tell them a story about someone else who, with your help, faced a similar challenge and prevailed. Help prospects envision the positive outcomes you can help them achieve. When they get to the point of feeling “yes, yes I want to be that guy” they will go on the adventure with you. They may even bring their friends by telling them the same story.

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