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Episode #125
John Livesay

Tell Better Stories And Win More Consulting Sales

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When we want to sell something, we have to consider not just selling the product, but to also make ourselves or our company sellable. We have to make an impact to our potential customers if we want to fully sell our whole package, especially if we are to market ourselves as consultants. In this episode, host Michael Zipursky talks with The Pitch Whisperer John Livesay about his winning sales strategy – telling better stories. Don’t miss this episode to learn more about selling yourself effectively to your target audience.

I’m here with John Livesay. John, welcome.

Thanks, Michael.

John, you’ve been selling for many years. You’ve done a TEDx Talk. You’ve been interviewed by Larry King. You’ve been working with companies like Coca-Cola and Gensler where you’ve been speaking. They’ve attributed your advice to generating millions of dollars in revenue for them. You have a pretty storied career. Take us back to how did you get involved in this. What was the starting point? How did John become a speaker and an expert in storytelling and pitching?

I’ve had several different careers that have all helped me with my speaking career. I used to sell multimillion-dollar mainframe computers in Silicon Valley. I learned how to sell through telling stories because a lot of people would say, “If it’s going to break, you’ll get fired if you hire somebody else that was not IBM,” which I was. I realized people make decisions emotionally about fear, uncertainty and doubt of getting fired. If they want something that’s faster and even less expensive, that still wasn’t enough. That’s where I got some of my sales training. I then worked in the advertising world, creating commercials for movies coming out on DVD at the time. You had to learn how to hone your storytelling skills to take a two-hour movie and cut it down to a 30-second spot and convince the studios that this was the best use of getting people to want to rent the movie.

Learn how to tell better stories and don’t take rejection personally. Click To Tweet

I went and worked for Condé Nast, which is all kinds of brands like GQ, Wired and W, you name it. I would have to convince big companies like Lexus and Guess jeans to run their ads in those brands. That was all about taking the editor’s vision of who would read this and showing how that would fit the advertisers’ world. While I was doing that, I would help the clients like Lexus or Jaguar by giving talks to their sales teams on how to sell for the luxury market and not take rejection personally. The ads in the magazine would drive people to the showrooms and then my talk would help them learn how to tell better stories and how not to take rejection personally. That’s what launched my career. In the last several years, I’ve been speaking to big companies who have sales teams that need to learn how to tell stories instead of pushing out information.

What pushed you out of the corporate world into consulting and speaking? What drove you to say, “I’m going to launch a business and run my own show?”

What’s interesting about that was in 2008 after being there for several years, when the economy was crashing, luxury advertising went down with it. I got laid off along with everybody else outside of New York and 30% of New York’s team. I had to reinvent myself and learn how to sell digital ads, not just print. They hired me back two years after that and I got the salesperson of the year. I thought, “I’m the same person, whether I’m being laid off or winning this award.” I thought, “I’ve been on the self-esteem roller coaster, only feeling good if my numbers are up and bad if my numbers are down.” I want to help other people get off that self-esteem roller coaster. The best way to do that is to go out to as many companies as I can because I’ve been in their shoes and help them learn how to win new business without burning out and without pushing.

Clearly, you have a sales background where you’ve accomplished a lot in the sales world. One challenge that a lot of consultants have where people transitioned from corporate into consulting is in their previous corporate work, the brand was the product or they’re promoting a product. Now, they themselves are the product. Did you feel and have any challenges with that? A lot of people feel uncomfortable around selling themselves and promoting themselves as a product. It’s not something that they’re used to. Was that something that you also face as a challenge or you zoom right past that with your sales skills?

CSP 125 | Selling Through Telling Stories

I’ve always believed whether you’re selling yourself as a consultant or as a speaker, or you’re selling a company’s products or services, you have to do three things. You have to sell yourself first. You sell the company, even if it’s a one-person company with your culture as your brand, and then you sell whatever it is you’re selling, “I’m a consultant, I’m a speaker,” whatever it is. The problem most people have is they skipped the first two and jump right into, “Here’s what I do.” Even when I was in Condé Nast, I realized people were buying me first, my integrity. “My job is to make you at the ad agency look good to your client. If I say the ads are going to appear on this page and this issue, that’s where it’s going to appear. I’m not going to do anything that’s going to make you look bad to your boss or your client.”

That’s how I was selling myself and my own personal passion for ideas, then I sold the company. Here’s what Condé Nast stands for. Here’s what we do. Here’s what makes us different than poster time. I would say, “Here’s what my particular brand within the company does and why we think this is such a great fit for this launch.” I’ve always realized I had to sell myself the brand. Like myself, I tell people all the time, “You need to figure out who you are as a brand. What do you stand for?” Part of the exercises I do with clients is, “Tell me what purchases you’ve made.” We find out whether they bought Nike versus Reebok or whatever it is.

There’s something about that brand that spoke to them, then resonates with who they are as a brand. My three brand attributes are passion, integrity, and joy based on what I believe is important and based on the brands that I support. That becomes my own moral compass. If I’m not passionate about something, then I’m not going to do it. If the people I’m working with don’t have integrity, I don’t want to work with them. It’s not bringing me or somebody else joy. That’s not a fit either. If all three are in alignment, then this is the perfect client.

I love that filtering mechanism that you can use to make decisions, that all three boxes need to be checked. You also know the three ideas around selling yourself, selling the company, selling what you’re actually selling in terms of the products. When you launched your business several years ago, how did you go about getting your first clients? Where did they come from? What did you do to start building that pipeline of business?

You need to figure out who you are as a brand and what you stand for. Click To Tweet

The first thing I did was realize that I had either the riches are in the niches. The more I realized here are the people I’ve already spoken to. When I was at Condé Nast, I was speaking to car companies, jewelry companies, fashion companies, travel industry and hotels. They all advertise with me. I understand those industries and the problems they face. Let me see what that can be. Ironically, I got hired to be speaking in front of clients that had people, but they didn’t want to be seen as salespeople. That was Gensler, the architecture firm. They happened to be the architecture firm that designed Condé Nast building and Architecture Digest is one of Condé Nast’s brands. There was a connection there. Someone I met in college said, “I’ve seen your social media posts that you’re a speaker now and some of your clips, would you come to speak to us?” I think the big takeaway is don’t underestimate the power of your social media posts in your network of people who could then end up wanting to help you launch your business.

When you first launched, because you talked about car companies and architecture firms, those are different industries, but you also said that the riches are in the niches. Did you prioritize? Did you say, “I’m going to start with luxury car brands. I’m going to do that for X number of months, then I’ll move on to something else?” Did you say, “These are the 3 or 4 different industries that I’ve worked in and have relationships. I’m going to go at them all at once?”

I decided I wasn’t going to just focus on trying to be a speaker at car companies. I was going to be figuring out who do I help? What’s the big problem I’m solving? Figure out what industries are those. The irony is the architecture firms had the same challenges that I had when I was selling advertising. Alexis Agency would say, “It’s going to be media day. We looked at twenty magazines. We’ve narrowed it down to five and we’re going to pick two. All five of you can come in back-to-back to pitch.” The architects typically fill out a proposal and they’re in the final three. If it’s an airport renovation, the airport says, “All three firms get to come in for an hour and tell us why we should pick you.” The problem was those architects didn’t have any sales training. They would show their designs and hope that would win the business.

I said, “That does not hold off anymore. You need to tell a story of why you became an architect. Sell yourself first through storytelling.” Selling yourself doesn’t mean pushy, and that was a big a-ha for them. They say, “We have a case study.” I said, “Let’s call it a case story instead of a case study.” I would encourage all your consultants to make that little shift because people love to hear stories. If you say study, it sounds like homework. Here’s the before and after pictures of another airport we did, but where’s the story? I taught them how to tell a story that would show the challenges and how they solve them. The goal is to get the client to see themselves in your story and you’re the Sherpa or Yoda in Star Wars that helps them get through those challenges. Anybody who has to do that final three pitch. Who else? Lawyers. I wrote an article on how to help lawyers win against the final two law firms and executive search firms. My niche is any industry that has to compete against competition and an in-person presentation.

CSP 125 | Selling Through Telling Stories

You’re going after multiple industries and different companies. How did you both then and now manage your pipeline? You’ve sent Tim and Jane an email. How are you staying on top of following up with people, checking in and looking at ways to add value for them? What kind of tools or approaches are you using to manage that process? Has it been changed or has it been always the same?

One of the keys to my success in my sales career before I became someone working for myself as a speaker and a consultant is the follow-up. A big takeaway for your audience would be if you send something to somebody, don’t always be a pitch. If you see something that they posted on social media, comment on it, share it, retweet it. If you see that they had their stock earnings come up and things are good, compliment them on that. If you see something that’s related to what their industry is doing, “I thought you’d find this, here’s what I thought about this article. What do you think?” You start becoming a strategic advisor. “In case you haven’t seen this yet, isn’t this amazing what they’re doing over at Domino’s with their new app and technology? I know that you’re looking at new ways to explore your technology to improve the use of technology to improve customer services. Here’s how Domino’s is doing it with their app that tracks how much time it’s going to be before your pizza arrives.” If someone says, “We’re exploring ways to use artificial intelligence.” “I talked to the CMO of Domino’s and he told me that they’re using it to anticipate. If you order the same pizza every night on Friday at 7:00, the same ingredients, the minute you get on the app or call, the AI starts the order to try and save a minute of delivery time.”

That makes a lot of sense. That contextual conversation and building relationship are so valuable. You’re right, a lot of people think that every touch-point needs to be a sales touchpoint and that’s uncomfortable for people. People don’t want to respond to you. How are you tracking that? Are you using a specific CRM tool? What’s your approach to technology with that?

My email list is on Mailchimp. It’s nothing fancy. My big way of tracking is, who are my top five accounts currently? What could I do to be nurturing that, get referrals not to take rejection and grow? Who are my top five prospects? I spend 80% of my time looking at that list and trying to figure out something I can do to add value to those ten people.

The riches are in the niches. Click To Tweet

Are you keeping track of that on pen and paper, ten people top of mind or are you using a tool for that?

I keep it in a Word Doc or Google Doc. I’ll track it that way.

What I love seeing is that people can have success with a lot of different approaches. Some people are specific to their CRM. It’s extremely detailed. They have every little note in there. What you’re saying is simple. It’s like a Word Doc or a Google Doc. The key thing there is your focus on the people of highest priority and keeping them at the forefront.

I had to use Salesforce when I was at Condé Nast. I’m very aware of those in-depth CRMs. That’s typically when a lot of other people have to be updated all at the same time. There’s management involved. I’m able to keep a lot of that in my own personal Google Doc on that client.

CSP 125 | Selling Through Telling Stories

You’re several years into building your business. At a glance at your website or LinkedIn profile, people would go, “John’s got a lot of good things happen here, lots of success.” Take us behind the curtain. What has been a challenge or a lesson learned that looking back on it in hindsight, you would go, “That was a tough time and here’s what I learned from that experience?”

I would say the biggest transition from corporate to a consulting situation is you think if I make $100,000 as a consultant and I was making $100,000 as an employee, I’ll be good. You don’t realize how much money is involved in creating your website, having someone edit your videos, hiring a publicist for your book, paying for your own insurance, all of the expenses. It’s like, “This business isn’t breaking even yet.” All the money I’m getting for speaking and consulting is going right back into the business. There’s no profit yet to live on. You have to have a substantial cashflow situation managed or savings or whatever it’s going to be to get you through those times. There’s a little bit of a roller coaster in terms of frequency. Sometimes I give multiple talks in a month and sometimes it’s a little slower.

The revenue is not a steady paycheck. Those a-ha moments of, “Will this work?” I remember interviewing another speaker who on paper it looked like, “Of course, you are successful.” She told me she struggled for a long time of not hearing for six months from her speaking agent until at the last minute, she got a call that she could fill in for somebody. I thought to myself, “I wonder if I’m in that six-month period.” They call it the trough of despair in Silicon Valley with startups where you get depressed. You don’t know how long before things pick up and what the tipping point is. You’re like, “How many more things do I have to do before I have a steady flow of clients referring me and requesting me?” A lot of it is your mindset.

How did you get through that because you’re several years into this? What kept you going? What helped to propel you forward when you had those feelings creeping up because they are very common?

Don't underestimate the power of your social media posts. Your network of people could then end up wanting to help you launch your business. Click To Tweet

A lot of it is what my purpose is. Is my purpose just to make money? Maybe I could go back to corporate America even though I don’t want to if I just need to make money. My purpose is to help people get off the stuff that seems roller coaster. I remember what it feels like when people say, “That talk inspired me.” I’m telling stories of my success to remind yourself of why you’re doing it and keep checking back in with the clients that have hired you in the past, then you go, “This is more than me trying to make myself famous or independently wealthy. I’ve got a bigger purpose that gets me up in the morning.” People feel that. The irony is I’m helping clients win those final three things. Ironically, 9 times out of 10 in some cases, it’s between you and two other speakers. You’d have to sell yourself as a speaker on a phone call or a Zoom call on why they should pick you.

I did that with Redfin. In that particular case, I pretended I was selling my condo. I called Redfin to see how they treated me. I called a competitor and I did that before the interview. I was passionate about what their topic was and they said, “We’re curious to see what you did.” I said, “If I did that much preparation for the interview, imagine how much I’m going to do if you pick me to be the speaker.” They went, “Got it.” When my speaking agent calls, he said, “Congrats, they picked you. They liked your energy.” Many of us speakers and consultants forget that’s what people are buying. It’s not your book or how many talks you’ve made, whatever their background. It’s like, “Did I feel inspired talking to you? Yes. I think you’ll probably inspire my team. We’ll hire you to come here.”

This is a note for everyone reading. That’s one of the reasons why having somebody in different touchpoints, whether you’re publishing articles on your website, LinkedIn or some other channel or doing videos, podcasts or speaking. The more that you put out, the more that people are going to feel like they know you and connect with you. That makes the decision-making process around engaging or investing with you a lot easier for them. John, I want to ask you, you talk about being one of the last 2 or 3 pitching situations. I think one of the other strategies that you talk about is how to win clients back. How does a consultant go about restoring and rebuilding a relationship with a client and being able to win them back?

The first thing you said there is it is about restoring and rebuilding the relationship. I’m not going in with a bunch of information, because if you’ve lost a client because you made a mistake or the team before you made a mistake if you’re a big company. Someone feels like you didn’t listen to them or they’re mad, or the competition came in with a lower price, whatever it is that caused you to lose that client, you need to be the one to reach out to them. Many times, people say, “You dropped the ball, we’re going to somebody else.” They go to somebody else and they’re not any happier or they’re even less happy. They have to save face. They’re not going to call you back and say, “We made a mistake.” You need to keep reaching out to them. It’s trickling out little information. How do I repair and rebuild this? “I’m still thinking about you. I hope that went well. Even if you didn’t hire me as the speaker, I hope that event was successful for you.” Not many people do that. The key is to own the problem and then work on figuring out what you did wrong and that there’s a system in place to make sure it won’t happen again.

CSP 125 | Selling Through Telling Stories

That honesty, transparency and lowering the guard so that people actually feel like you’re trying to understand. The empathy side of it is important, yet many of us are hiding behind the email or social media. We don’t want to put out the appearance that we made a mistake or that we’re unprofessional but as you hit on, we’re humans. We need to connect with each other. The best way to do that is to be honest. That’s Radical Candor, it’s a book of the same title. It’s important to do that and many people don’t. I’m glad that you shared that. You have a book that you publish called Better Selling Through Storytelling.

You’ve shared a little bit here about why storytelling is so much more powerful than the typical selling. Maybe we could connect this to the book. You can maybe pull an insight out of the book, but for everyone reading this, how can they take the idea of telling stories? Especially for those maybe who feel a bit uncomfortable around sales. They feel it’s too promotional or they have to twist arms and it’s like an icky feeling for them. How can they use storytelling to make that process of sales more effective but also easier for them to succeed?

I’ve got a two-part answer to that. The best way to use storytelling is you’re solving two problems. One, you’re seen as a commodity and two, you’re not memorable. The better you tell a story of how you help somebody else turn that case study into a case story and someone sees themselves in the story, they want to go on that journey with you. Literally, the closing question is not, “Do you want to hire me or buy from me?” It’s, “Does that sound like the kind of journey you’d like to go on with me?” It’s much less pushy. It’s a new tool in your toolbox. The other thing is whoever tells the best story is memorable. It doesn’t matter if you’re first or last. You’re solving many problems of being seen as a commodity and not being memorable. Storytelling does all of that. There are some tips in the book on what makes a good story and how to become a storyteller. Once you start feeling comfortable with this as the new skill, you’re going to be doing it all the time because stories pull people in. The old way of selling is pushing out a bunch of information.

For everyone reading who goes, “That makes a lot of sense, but how do I tell a story?” What’s one example of a way to open? Do you recommend people say, “We were working with one company in this space and this is how things proceeded?” Is there a better way or a more effective way to weave a story into that conversation?

A lot of your success is in your mindset. Click To Tweet

A good story has four elements. The exposition, the who, what, where, when, the problem, the solution and then the secret to it is the resolution. What’s life like after?

What’s the exposition? Let’s start with number one.

In the case of Gensler, this is the story that helped them win the billion-dollar renovation of the Pittsburgh Airport when they had their chance to present. They were saying, “A few years ago, JetBlue at JFK came to us and they needed us to renovate the airport.” You instantly know how long ago that was and where. That’s who and what. It’s very specific. It’s JFK, it’s JetBlue. Now we know the exposition. “The problem was we had to rip up all the floors during this renovation in the middle of the night and get it done by 9:00 AM so that the stores could open and not lose any revenue. One of the things we had to do was we had all our vendors on call and sure enough, at 2:00 in the morning, a few are blue. We had the vendor that takes it 2:00 in the morning and at 8:59 the last tile went down and all the stores opened on time.” That’s the solution. The resolution is, “A year after the design, sales are up 15% in the retail stores because we’ve designed a place that people love spending time shopping.” Without that resolution, you don’t get the, “Oh.” Instead of saying, “We use critical thinking to anticipate problems,” I showed it in a story.

It’s much more powerful. I love that example.

A good story has four elements – the exposition, the problem, the solution, and the resolution. Click To Tweet

There’s a little bit of drama. “At 8:59, the last tile goes down,” and all that.

We’ve seen this ourselves in our business when we weave a story into conversations, it resonates much better. Of course, the story needs to be true. It’s not something that you make up. When you bring the story in, we’re all from a young age. We all love stories. We remember stories a lot better. I love this idea of bringing into the sales process. John, I want to make sure that people can learn more about you, about your work and your book as well. Tell us where the best website or place for people to go to learn more about all that is?

I’ll send them a free sneak peek of my book. You can buy it on Amazon or wherever else you’d like to buy books. It’s also on my website, If you’re not ready to buy the book and you want a sneak peek, text PITCH to 66866.

John, thank you so much for coming on here and sharing a bit of your story. It’s great to have you here. I enjoyed the conversation and I appreciate you for sharing all these tips with all of us here.

It’s my pleasure, Michael. Thanks for having me on.

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