Why Storytellers Make Better Negotiators
We humans love a good story. We love hearing them, and we love telling them. We tell tales about our adventures, wins, and failures to entertain, inspire, brag, teach, and caution our audiences.
And when it comes to negotiation—whether you’re interviewing for a new role, or asking for a promotion—stories induce the listener to feel something, and to make a decision about you with their heads and their hearts.
When I coach people on their negotiation strategy for a new career opportunity or a promotion and raise, we spend focused time identifying and quantifying the major contributions or accomplishments to discover the strengths that align with the needs and goals of their organization or future employer.
The purpose of that work has three legs:
First, for new roles, the process supports the “why should we hire you” question. Second, for raise/promo situations, the process helps people anchor “why I’m the right fit and worth what I’m asking for.” And third, the process helps us cobble together persuasive stories that must be told in the interview phase and at the negotiation table to demonstrate your strengths in action, and thereby bring your undeniable value to life.
Think about this typical interview question:
“Tell me about a time when you faced resistance and objection to your ideas, and how you handled it.” Answering this question powerfully requires knowing the difference between telling and showing.
Here’s the tell version:
“In my role as Team Manager for Super Amazing Tech Company, we had a disagreement about the marketing strategy for Product X, but once everyone became more educated about the product, we were able to come to agreement.”
Here’s the show version:
“In my role as Team Manager for Super Amazing Tech Company, we had a disagreement about the marketing strategy for Product X and it was costing us time and money. People were coming into my office and pointing fingers and yelling at each other. So I decided to sit down with each member on the team and ask them about their thoughts, fears, and ideas. What I learned was that people had very little understanding about how the product actually functioned. And that lack of information was fueling a lot half-baked ideas not to mention frustration and upset. So I invited a couple of the product engineers who were really great teachers with tons of patience to give us a deep dive on Product X. And that enabled everyone to settle back down, do what they all do best, and we designed the rollout within days. What that experience taught me was that every upset is an opportunity to lift up the hood and get to the source of the breakdown, rather than getting trapped in the upset and taking sides.”
The tell version is just the facts. It’s a logical and kind of transactional answer. The show version is more visceral and definitely more relational. It has facts andfeels, or logic and emotion. It also uses classic story arc elements—crisis, drama, and resolution—that humans have come to expect out of a good story.
While the show version also communicates lessons learned, the listener is making her own meaning about the storyteller’s character and strengths, and how they might map to the needs of the organization.
As powerful as stories are, we sometimes need to test our conversation partner’s receptivity before we launch into one. They may be pressed for time, or maybe they’re really a just-the-facts, gimme-the-data kinda human.
So let’s say you’re that marketing team lead person from the story above, and your prospective boss asks that lovely yet dreaded question, “Tell me about yourself…” And you, being the consummate professional, answer with what I call your Superpower Statement.
“What I bring to the party is a talent for growing people and revenue and the same time. And when I think about the primary leadership responsibilities of this position and the goals I’d be poised to deliver on, both of those strengths are imperative.”
The purpose of a great Superpower Statement is to satisfy the question for the facts-only person, and to inspire a follow-up question for the story-oriented folks. The story folks will say things like, “Tell me more,” or “Can you give me an example of how you’ve deployed those strengths?”
Now you’re off and running with a story that invests them in the value of your leadership in their hands.