When teamwork doesn't make the dream work

It happened in Frankfurt almost a decade ago. What I am about to describe repeated itself on several occasions, but there is this one specific instance comes to mind right now. 

The client must have really been wondering what he had gotten into when he came to meet us in the reception area. 

He was outnumbered 5 to 1. 

In the early days of our business, we had this thing about going on roadshows as if we were a diplomatic 'delegation’. We thought it would impress our prospects by showing a higher level of commitment or even a demonstration of respect and devotion.

It was an innocent idea that carried the best intentions, but I quickly realised that it did more harm than good. In reality, it came from a place of desperation. As a start-up fund manager, we were trying to secure investors for our first fund. Our ‘pull all the stops out’ attitude made us achieve incredible things, but this little antic clearly wasn’t one of them.

During the meeting, it was clear that our potential investor was struggling to keep his focus in the right place as we kept on switching between presenters. I noticed how he placed our business cards in the exact same configuration that matched our seating order around the table. I guess here needed a prop to remember who was who. 

Our little show went on for over an hour.  The role-play was on and everyone on our team made a contribution. And then we had this other habit of wanting to tell our entire story whenever we got the opportunity. But that is another topic to dig into for another article. Instead of listening to our message, his mind seemed too busy trying to figure out how to tie all the different narratives together. It wasn’t entirely clear who was in charge either

The great thing about the investment industry is that people are usually polite so he was going along with our group performance. But as what often happened in those days, our act ended abruptly as we ran out of time. We shared a lot of information but we never got down to a conclusion and there was no time for a Q&A.  

We had just managed to create yet another confused prospect...

There are a number of reasons why this ‘delegation’ approach didn’t work very well.

When we started this little travelling circus, the idea was that all of us had something to say at the meeting. We thought it would be great if the prospect got a chance to meet all the key players in our team. While we had the best intentions, in hindsight, it often had the same effect as taking your entire family along with you on a first date.  

On a more practical level, we soon realised that this approach usually forced us to go overtime and didn’t leave much time for the client to speak. If you have any experience in sales, you know that this is not going to help you win the business. We eventually changed the game plan and only one or two of us would do the talking, and even though it helped to bring more focus to the meetings and gave the prospects more space to talk, it still kind of creeped out many clients with a "what are these other silent, suited up people doing at this meeting?" feeling.

The bottom line is that the ‘delegation’ approach caused a lot of distraction that got in the way of our main goal: to qualify the right prospective investors. The first impression we made was one of complication and confusion. 

I picked the above example because it is extreme, somewhat funny, and quite illustrative for the purpose of this article. We didn’t always go out as a team of 5, but that day in Frankfurt it got a bit crazy. However, it would be fair to say that our culture was all about travelling out to clients in teams of 3-4 people! Personally, this habit drove me crazy and we had long arguments about it. 

I think there was another reason why we went out on the road as a ‘herd’. To put it bluntly, I think we didn’t trust each other to go it alone because the ‘control freaks’ inside of us worried about others botching up the meetings. There was this thinking that by going together, we would mitigate that risk. In hindsight, that was such a misguided and limiting belief on many levels.

There is one thing that I didn’t understand back then. And because hindsight is 20/20, if we would have spent more time and effort on clarifying our message and making sure that everybody always knew exactly what to say, we could not only have been able to leverage our coverage but also trust each other more to get it right.

So, instead of the 5 of us cramming into a conference room and creeping out our prospects, we could have been doing meetings in 5 different places and get a lot more traction!

And then I figured out a way to fix it!

I eventually discovered the power of storytelling and it changed everything. I know, there is a lot of talk about storytelling and it is quite a nebulous subject, but for me there is a life before and after the moment I learned how to create engaging and repeatable business stories.

Before I go on, allow me to offer you a reality-check on storytelling: Many still see it is a ‘silly’ buzzword that somehow found a way to sneak into the world of business. It is mostly associated with entertainment, and therefore hard to take seriously.

I could not disagree more.

Storytelling is the secret magic formula that has always been hiding out in the open. I like to think of it as the 'password to anyone’s attention'.

Tell a great story and people will fall under its spell. Stories are designed exactly for that purpose. They weren’t developed for the purpose of entertainment. In fact, the entertainment industry leveraged these powers to get us to waste time and money on multi-million dollar movies and endless TV series that always tell us the same story.  

Don’t get me wrong, I love a great story and I spend more time than I should binge-watching TV shows and reading fiction. And even though I know this and that about storytelling, I always fall for its tricks.

But long before we all knew how to read and had all these magic screens, the main reason why we perfected the art of crafting stories was to efficiently transfer information across space and time. For thousands of years, stories were the only way to keep important knowledge in circulation.

It is precisely because we always use the same story formats that they are easy to remember and reproduce. Religions use this to spread their messages over millennia. Folk tales are stories that help us tap into the collective wisdom and avoid mistakes. Major historical experiences are packaged as stories so we can learn from them. Entire nations and economies are built upon nothing more than a story that its citizens adopt, believe and sometimes are even willing to die for.

So, coming back into the main fold of this article, can you see how getting your businesses story right makes it possible for anyone, inside or outside of your organisation to get your message right?

There’s a more dramatic way to put it: “A great story can make your business as contagious as a virus”.

I know, that last phrase might evoke all sorts of feelings, but if you really believe what you do is valuable, why not make it contagious...

Can you see why your story is your most strategic asset?

A good way to get your message right is by starting with your elevator pitch...