Why Your Backstory Matters: The case of the boring accountant

Have you ever listened to a boring accountant?

Not to be dismissive of entire professions, but some groups have a reputation for being less than stellar storytellers.  Full disclosure, my husband is a former finance guy.

Now for the tough question, when you describe your own job, do people lean in and want to know more?  Or do they nod their heads saying, “That’s nice.” as they quickly search for the bar.

If you find yourself on the giving or receiving end of a boring job description, it’s probably because the conversation focused on the front story instead of the backstory.

Positioning expert Mark Levy illustrates the importance of a compelling backstory, by describing one of his clients, a financial planner, who was struggling to get business.

Like many personal finance experts, this planner, we’ll call him Milt, gave free seminars to drum up business.

Milt had fairly decent attendance for his seminars.  People would show up, listen to Milt’s advice, then thank him and leave.  Milt always offered a free personal assessment at the end, but very few people took him up on it.

Then Mark Levy – the positioning guru  taught Milt about the value of the backstory.  Levy asked Milt, “Why did you choose to

Mark Levy
Mark Levy

become a financial planner?”  Milt said, “When I was very young my parents passed away and I went to live with my grandparents.  They were great people and I loved them dearly.  They both worked at blue-collar jobs for the gas company, but they had always dreamed of owning their own business.  One day my grandmother saw an ad in the paper, a local butcher shop was up for sale.  When my grandfather came home, she showed it to him, saying “I think this is it, this is the business we’ve always dreamed about.’’  My grandfather agreed.  They took their life savings and purchased the butcher shop.   The first year, they didn’t make any money.  The second year, they lost a little money.   The third year, they lost all their money, and went out of business.

Their life savings was gone.  They went back to their jobs at the gas company, where they both worked until they died.  They never got to retire.  They made a horrible mistake that cost them their golden years simply because they didn’t have good financial advice.  I decided that I didn’t want that to happen to other people.  So I became a financial planner.”

Levy, told Milt, “The next time you give a seminar, I want you to tell that story before you start.  Don’t change any of your other content; just start the seminar by telling your backstory.”

Milt began his next seminar saying, “I want to tell you why I became a financial planner.”   He spent 3 minutes telling the story about his grandparents, then ran the seminar the same way he always did.   At the end he made his usual offer for a free personal assessment.  Every single person in the room signed up.

Most of them wound up becoming clients.

So what was the difference?  How did Milt go staid financial planner with a pathetic win rate to a compelling rock star that everyone in the room wants to do business with?

Simple, once people knew the backstory about why he was in the profession, the front story about how he did it became much more interesting.

Intent is always more interesting than implementation.  If you want to be more compelling, start sharing your backstory.