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Quotable Podcast Episode #68: “Become a Star Sales Storyteller, by Being a Better Listener” with Cathy Salit

Host: Kevin Micalizzi, Tiffani Bova
Storytelling is central to the way our brains work, and key to engaging with customers and prospects. Join Cathy Salit, CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, and author of Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work, where she shares her tips for telling better stories.

Get into your customer's shoes and see the world from their perspective.”

Cathy Salit | CEO, Performance of a Lifetime

Episode Transcript

Kevin Micalizzi: Welcome to the Quotable Podcast. Today we’re talking with Cathy Salit. Cathy is the CEO of Performance of a Lifetime and author of the Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work. And today we’re really digging into storytelling — how to approach it, how to embrace [it], and really how to tell your own story, as well as listening to your prospects. Let’s jump into it. Cathy, thank you so much for joining us today.

Cathy Salit: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

Micalizzi: Cathy, for our listeners who aren’t familiar with you, would you share a little bit about yourself?

Salit: Sure thing. So I am the CEO of a training and leadership development company called Performance of a Lifetime. And we work with leaders and their teams on what we have come to call the human side of business strategy, using a pretty unusual methodology. We work with people to help them to learn and to grow by putting together some of the tools of the theater, improvisation, and breakthroughs in the human development sciences.

I live in New York City. I’m an actor and improviser and a radical educator. I actually dropped out of school at the age of 13 because I hated it. I started my own school here in New York City, and really learned something about both building something from scratch, but also that you could break rules and make up new ones. And so what Performance of a Lifetime is really about is helping people to both relate to, navigate, make their way through the status quo, but also to innovate and to create new possibilities.

Theater and improvisation is a wonderful tool and set of ideas to help people to do that.

Micalizzi: I love it.

Tiffani Bova: Well, I’d have to say Cathy’s totally underselling herself, so I’m going to tell a story. I did the art of event with Cathy a couple years back in Canada. And rarely do I get a chance to sit in the audience during a presentation. Normally, I’m running between things. So I got to sit in the audience. I was in the middle of a row in this sort of theater-style room.

It literally was a theater, so the seat went up. So she gets onstage — and I hadn’t ever seen Cathy before, so I didn’t know what to expect — and the next thing I know we’re in a full-blown improvisation workshop and we’re talking to people next to us and standing up and sitting down, and telling stories. It was so much fun. The hour flew by and it was a great way to get people to get out of their comfort zone. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Salit: Well, thanks so much, Tiffani.

Bova: It was a lot of fun. Rarely do I go, “Oh, I’m a little uncomfortable.”

Salit: That takes a lot.

Bova: Yeah, that takes a lot. I didn’t want you to undersell yourself.

Salit: Oh, thanks.

Micalizzi: I love it. So I’m Kevin Micalizzi. I am the Executive Producer of the Quotable Podcast. And I’m joined today by Tiffani Bova. Tiffani is the Global Customer Growth and Innovation Evangelist here at Salesforce. Welcome, Tiffani.

Bova: Thanks for having me.

Micalizzi: So, Cathy, everyone is talking about how important storytelling is in the workplace. What’s your perspective on it?

Salit: Well, I agree. People love stories. They make us care. They help us understand. They’re a wonderful vehicle for learning. They’re also a way to see ourselves and to see others. You can learn about, and to some extent, inhabit a world and a life that’s different than ours, but that is also similar. And I think the human species, we are a storytelling species. It’s just in our DNA.

There’s just so much that we say and think about that is actually a story there waiting to be told. I just think it’s so connected to what it means to be human and what it means to be alive.

Bova: Based on what you do, I couldn’t agree more. I think stories are in the fabric of everything we are as a society. History is told through stories. And the future is also sort of uncovered through stories.

Salit: Yeah.

Bova: I’m a believer that people can get better at storytelling. Do you agree?

Salit: Absolutely. To some extent I think it’s almost like a mindset shift that you have to make. Just like, “Okay. How do I [storify] all of this data that I have in front of me, and put it into a form that will make people care and that will interest people and, frankly, that will interest me?” Because we can bore ourselves to death, as well as we can bore our clients.

So I think that people can get better at it. I think it’s a wonderful way to expand that to different ways to look at a situation, because there are so many vantage points from which you can tell a story. You are always telling it from one person’s vantage point. And so switch it up. For example, a lot of the work that we do at Performance of a Lifetime is to help our clients to get into their customers’ shoes, and to see the world from their perspective.

Because we’re so focused on how we see things and what we are there to do, it’s really important to help people to get into another’s shoes. Storytelling is one of the ways that can help us do that.

Micalizzi: Where do you think we went wrong? We have very much lived in, I’ll call it, a PowerPoint generation, where it was all about what kind of slides, what kind of data you could put in, as opposed to the story you could tell.

Salit: Where did we go wrong? Oh, my goodness. That’s a big question. I think that we went wrong in the belief that knowledge is king. That content is king. That information is what will change the world. I don’t think so. I think that information and knowledge is important, but I think that human beings are not just computers that take in information and spit it out.

We are living, breathing, reflective, and reflexive creatures that include emotion and subjectivity and imagination and creativity. And I think that stories are a way that we can tap into that. I also think, by the way, that stories can become commoditized, and become a way that we actually cannot understand and see all there is to see.

So you have to be careful with it. That’s why my orientation and our orientation at Performance of a Lifetime is to help people not just to tell stories, but to become and to perform as storytellers all the time.

Bova: I’d also say that I think that the “Where did we go wrong?” — I think it’s more of a “Where did we shift?” Because before, when I used to sell, I knew more than the customer sitting across from me, so I had to bring a lot of information with me.

And now, today, with the customer being more informed, you have to come with something unique and different that they don’t know. And I think maybe stories is the way to do that.

Salit: Yeah. I think that’s a great point. One of the things that we do in helping people to learn how to tell stories — and I think this is fundamental, I think it speaks to what Tiffani was just saying — is the role of listening in becoming a good storyteller is absolutely key. We often think, “Okay. What I’ve got to do is, I’ve got to get my story together. Here’s how I’m going to tell it. I’m going to have wonderful color and narrative,” and blah-blah-blah.

That’s great. However, I think from a sales point of view I think that you always need to do more by way of listening and caring about and learning about what’s important to your client and your customer, and then craft a story that connects with their world.

Micalizzi: It almost sounds like you’re saying you need to understand your customer’s story before you can really create the right story for yourself to have an impact.

Salit: Yes. And I think that it’s exactly that. And, in addition, we’re helping our clients to understand their story also. And that’s where improvisation and performance is so important. Because we have a term in improvisation that’s called an [offer]. And the job of the improviser, if you’ve either seen improv comedy or dramatic improv or if you’ve done any of it on your own, what you see is that they’re incredible listeners.

Because what they’re working with is all of these different [offers]; what somebody says, how somebody sits, someone’s emotional state, something about their character or their history or the environment. And they’re building with all of those [offers] to move the scene forward. And, similarly, in sales there are all kinds of offers that we get from our clients that we could be making much more use of if we learn how to improvise, in general, and improvise from the vantage point of building business and sales relationships.

Bova: I’m going to ask you something, Cathy. People come up to me often after I give a presentation, or they see me and they’ll say, “Gosh. I really want to be better at giving presentations.” So not just storytelling, but just feeling comfortable “onstage.”

Salit: Yeah.

Bova: And stage can literally be a stage, or stage could be standing in a room in front of two people. Stage has got all kinds of definitions. In that case, it could even be a phone call because that’s your stage at the moment. And sometimes I will offer a suggestion actually based on what I saw you do.

I’ve said to them, “Take an improv class. Take something that will start to stretch you.” So for people listening that maybe aren’t so comfortable onstage, whatever that stage may be, do you think an improv class — obviously, you’re going to say yes — but what is it about that that makes it helpful for them to kind of overcome some of their insecurities?

Micalizzi: Yeah, I do recommend that they take an improv class. You’re right.

Bova: That was an easy on. Sorry, I led you right into [unintelligible].

Salit: It’s funny, though, because as I think about it, an improv class is really great when you have the back and forth that you’re doing with an audience, like you said, whether it’s one person or whether it’s 1,000 people. Because you have to think on your feet. You have to be a good listener, as I was just saying, because you’re always both listening for what it is that people care about, and you’re putting that together with what you have to bring to the table. And you’re creating something new together on the spot.

But what I will say is that even if you’re in the front of the room and there is a lot of one-way talking going on, namely you’re there talking, you are in a relationship with the audience. And the quicker and the sooner that people realize that it’s really not all about you, it’s about the relationship, that’s going to help you feel more comfortable because there are real human beings sitting in that room with them.

And so your job is to connect with them. And improvisation is all about making a connection with other people in the scene with you. So in that sense, I think improvisation is super-helpful because it helps you to recognize, “Oh! I’m here with other people. It’s all about collaboration.” Even if you’re the only person speaking, you are still collaborating with your audience because you need them and they need you in order for that whole thing to work.

Micalizzi: What’s your feeling on organically creating the story as you’re getting the offer from that prospect? You’re really getting more information from them versus what I’ve seen some organizations do. In the same way they teach the pitch deck, they’re trying to teach a particular story to use, as opposed to creating one organically. Where do we fall? What’s the best approach to it?

Salit: We do a lot of sales training. And I’m thinking of a client that does a lot of social media work.

They asked us to come in to help them to use stories to pitch. So it’s just the kind of situation that you’re talking about. And what we do — and we didn’t used to do this years ago, but we finally learned our lesson I’m happy to say — is people would say, “Okay. I want you to help us to tell stories in our pitches.” And so we would just go right to it and say, “Okay, fine. Here’s what we’ll work on. Here’s how we’ll do it,” blah-blah-blah. But what we did is something that — some salespeople know this and some salespeople don’t — it’s a process called discovery.

That is learning about what’s important to your client, and what’s going on, and being a good question asker. And so in the process of our discovery with this client, what we learned is that what they do when they prepare for a sales presentation is they sort of make sure that they’re up on the latest technology that they’re using to do the things that they do with their product, which is constantly changing. Then they just plug-and-play from previous decks.

Then they come in and they do their spiel. They literally never ask the client what’s important to them. So to ask the client, “Tell us more about why you want to use stories. What are you getting at?” — what we discovered in this discovery process was that the stories they were telling were only about them, and they hadn’t learned anything about the client and what was important to them.

And so we shifted the theme of and the hero of the story to the client being the hero. Not you, the salesperson, and your company, but the client is the protagonist. They are who is important. So you ask them all kinds of qualitative questions that will lead you places that you don’t know where it’s going yet. That’s important. That’s another part of improvisation, that you’re doing things that you don’t know how they’re going to turn out.

And so you want to give over to that. Then in the process you discover, “Oh! This is what’s important to you.” And then you feed that back to them. “Here is what I’m hearing. Here’s what I’m hearing.” They didn’t, necessarily, even put it all together, but the combination of you being a good listener and a good storyteller gives back to them what their story is. Then you can go from there to say, “Here’s how our product can support you in the successful version of what the story is that you want to get to for your company.” Does that make sense?

Bova: Yeah. I’d also say that within there, though — and I haven’t heard you say this — is this listening, the part of listening. Listening not just with your ears, but paying attention to the audience — to feel and sense what’s working and not working, so you can adjust the story quickly. And I think that that’s one of those skills you have to work with over time, where you start to read the room, if you will, on what’s landing and what’s not landing.

Salit: Absolutely.

Bova: Is it resonating? Are they engaged in the story? Are they participating? And participating not just by speaking, but are they even paying attention? Have you lost them? And whether you have three people in the room or 1,000 people in the room, you will know right away if you’ve lost them.

Salit: Yeah. And back to what you were saying when people say to you, “How do you get better as a presenter?” — sometimes the way that you can do that, get that listening going right away, is ask questions right up front to read where the audience is at, but also to engage in a conversation with them where they’ve got some skin in the game now.

And for you to, then, be responsive. You may think, “Oh, this is going to be an audience that’s going to really care about X.” Then it turns out they don’t care about X. “Well, okay. Whoops! Let’s talk about Y.” And you have to be ready to do that.

Micalizzi: I really like that. The “asking questions early,” I think, helps to create a sense of ownership with your prospect, as well. They feel more invested in the process.

Salit: Yeah. And you’re more invested in it because you’re not just there to go, “Blah-blah-blah-blah,” your shtick. But you’re co-creating what this conversation is going to be, what the story is, and what the solution is.

Micalizzi: I think bouncing off of another person, or as Tiffani was saying, reading the room, is much easier to do when you’re in person. And I know a lot of sales now, especially with all of the digital technologies that enable sales, is done remotely.

What do you recommend to your clients who are not, necessarily, sitting down face-to-face with their customers?

Salit: Well, then you have to listen, obviously, even more. I’ll say some of the obvious things. Don’t do other things while you’re on the phone.

Micalizzi: No multitasking.

Salit: That includes everything from picking your teeth to reading your emails. You really want to be very focused and in the moment and there.

One of the things we sometimes will do is, literally, if it’s not Zoom or WebEx or whatever it is, have pictures of the people that you’re talking to if you have them. Or go to their LinkedIn page so you can see their face. And I think that checking in regularly is important. You can say, “How does this sound to you? Is this interesting to you? Is this going in the direction that you wanted this conversation to go in?”

Be genuine about that, like I said, in terms of them being able to switch gears. But you don’t want to ramble, and you want to make sure that you’re hearing from them.

Micalizzi: So are your clients doing more video calls in these scenarios than they used to?

Salit: It depends. I’d say it’s probably about 50/50. We have such a wide range of clients doing different kinds of work. And sometimes their “customers” are internal to their giant organization.

Sometimes it is literally that they are face-to-face. We do a lot of work with pharmas, for example, and so they go from office to office. It’s still sort of like an old school kind of thing. They’ve got 30 seconds to interact and to try to get the attention of a doctor and an office receptionist and so on. So their ability to create rapport, and also to remember and to keep building on the stories that those conversations and those relationships have given birth to — and to keep it updated — is an important part of the sales experience.

Yeah, then I’d say there’s a lot of other people who are working virtually.

Bova: If you think about the video and the storytelling, I posted something on LinkedIn a number of weeks back. Probably one of the most active responses was around this whole usage of video in sales calls, just to better connect with the person you’re trying to communicate with and converse with and sort of engage with. Do you think that that’s going to be the way that people now start to transition storytelling?

Salit: Yes.

Bova: Yeah.

Salit: I do. We’re certainly doing more of that. Once again, the ability to improvise and be really, really connected with your partner — is the term we use in improv — with your client, or whoever, is more and more important, because you can’t sit there reading from a script. So actually looking at them and they’re looking at you. I actually was just thinking about some of the recent pitches that I’ve done. A number of them started with a video call.

I was able to get other meetings off of them. So I do think it’s the wave of the future, as they say.

Bova: Finally. I remember when video was going to replace our travel schedules. I haven’t seen that happen quite yet.

Micalizzi: No, not at all.

Salit: No, unfortunately.

Bova: But I think that people still like humans. But I think if you’re going to be in the call center, service, any of those things, giving it this new twist of a more personal touch, even though you’re not there physically —like you said, even just putting a picture up, whether it’s a LinkedIn picture or you’ve searched them on the web, or whatever it might be — that you feel like you just know who it is you’re speaking to.

Salit: I agree, I agree.

Micalizzi: I think the video is a forcing function. It forces you to be more in the moment. To Cathy’s point earlier, you can’t be picking your teeth. You can’t be doing email, because it’s blatantly obvious — because they can see you.

Salit: Yeah. Have you guys seen the video of people doing a conference call, but they do it in -person, and all the stuff that people do when they’re on a conference call, they’re doing it in person? And it’s the most hysterical thing, because they come in their pajamas. They’ve got their dog with them.

Bova: Well, it’s like that guy’s — it went viral. He was on a conference call and his daughter came in and was like —

Salit: Oh, yes.

Bova: And he’s in a suit because it was a video call. And it’s like, “Daddy, Daddy, I need … Daddy, Daddy …” And he’s like, “Oh, my god.”

Salit: And the little baby comes in on one of those rolling things.

Bova: It was awesome. And then the mom comes in, “Oh, sorry.” It was great. It was great.

Salit: Yeah. It was like, “Oh, my god. We’re human beings with real families and real people and real homes.”

Bova: It was great. So what would you recommend for people that listen to this podcast who are the sales side, or the marketing side, or the customer service side?

What sort of things would you say, “All right. If you’re going to try anything Monday morning to get yourself more comfortable. . .” what are the first one, two, three things that you would tell them, whether it’s morning exercises or tips and tricks, or anything like that>

Salit: I think that a frame that can be helpful, just sort of back to the larger concept of helping people to become better storytellers, there’s a format, a frame that we use.

It’s not so much an improvisation, although it grew out of the improv community. It’s called Story Spine. You can actually go online and look it up. Just type in Story Spine. It was created by a wonderful improviser, a guy named Ken Adams. The structure of it, very quickly, is once upon a time, blah-blah-blah. And every day, blah-blah-blah. And what that’s doing — is it sort of setting up where are we? Who are we? What’s life as it currently is?

And then there’s a catalyst, then there’s a change. So once upon a time … And every day, blah-blah-blah. Until one day … and that’s the change. Some occurrence happens. And then because of that, something else is true. And then because of that, something else is true. And you can do as many as you want, until, finally, all of that results in the new input, the change in the status quo, or something new — is possible as a result of that disruption, that catalyst.

And now and forever after, blah-blah-blah. You can take any kind of business situation, your sales product, your product, your services — what’s the promise that you offer to your client? Or what’s the possibility of what can happen as a result of what your product or service provides? Put it into a story spine like that and start playing with that.

I think that will give you some really interesting ways to take all that — going back to what we were saying before — information, all that content, all that data, and say, “How can I bring it to life?” And start experimenting with that frame. And, of course, you should get a copy of my book, Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to the Success of Work. How did I almost forget?

Bova: And so should they test it on friends, family-like groups? Or stick themselves in a situation where they put their hand up to present at something?

Salit: All of that. All of that. I’m a big fan of rehearsal. Even though I’m an improviser, I’m also an actor and a singer, and so you’ve got to rehearse. In a sense, where improvisation is so awesome is when you are prepared, is when you’ve done the rehearsal. And I think that people think that deciding you’re going to do X, Y, and Z is the same as getting ready for something.

Oh, no, no, no, no. Perform, perform, perform. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Practice, practice, practice. And so, yeah, if you can get your friends to help you, say “Okay. Let me see if I can turn this into a story,” and practice with your friends and family and your colleagues. You could also do it in meetings. I think that it’s a really wonderful thing for a group of people to do. I’ll say one other thing, though, Tiffani and Kevin, is that, so much of what we say is the basis for a story.

I had a terrible day today. That’s a trigger for a story. The dog is still not pooping. That’s a trigger for a story. I have a really difficult meeting coming up this week. That’s the trigger for a story. Do you know what I mean?

Bova: Absolutely.

Micalizzi: Yeah. There are opportunities all around you. Cathy, I need to ask you our lightning-round question. If you could take all your knowledge and experience that you have now and go back to the beginning of your career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?

Salit: This thing I mentioned earlier about — that I was a junior high school dropout and I started my own school. I used to be frightened to tell people that because it was just so damned weird. I never went back to traditional school. I just created my own nontraditional education. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that a really wonderful friend and mentor to me said, “You are afraid that people are going to find out. Stop that. Tell people. Say, ‘My name is Cathy Salit and I’m a junior high school dropout.’ ”

And I was like, “What? I can’t do that. It’s too strange.” He said, “No. It’s because you’ve had the history that you have that you actually are able to help people.” Because I didn’t come up in the usual ways. And I started doing it. And the fact that that story, if you will, about me — and there’s many ways that I tell it — has contributed to Performance of a Lifetime being three years in a row on the Inc. 5000 fastest-growing companies list, I wish that I had done that sooner and that I hadn’t spent those years being frightened of coming out of the closet.

But, rather, it was something that made me and what we do at Performance of a Lifetime very unique and different and something that could be of great value to people.

Micalizzi: Yeah. You’re really embracing your own story.

Salit: Yes, exactly, exactly.

Micalizzi: I love that. It’s great advice. So, Cathy, thank you so much for joining us today.

Salit: What a fun time. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Tiffani, it’s so nice to talk to you. Kevin, it’s so nice to meet you.

Micalizzi: And, Tiffani, thank you so much for jumping in and interviewing with us today.

Bova: Of course. I wouldn’t miss it.

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