Earlier this year, I attended Citrix Summit with my team. One of the sessions on the last day was about story telling; specifically, how to tell a story. This was only my second Summit, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this session, and I was blown away.
The speaker was a story creator from Pixar – Matthew Luhn. Excuse me, not ‘a’ story creator, THE story creator – he was one of the originals. Yes, I had the opportunity to learn from the guy who wrote one of my favorite childhood movies: Toy Story.
His message was simple, yet powerful: a story follows a pattern – there are ups, and there are downs; then there are more ups, and, thus, more downs. To demonstrate, he utilized the movie Up, a movie about a couple that spends their life together, through the good times and the bad, with a shared dream to go on their ‘perfect’ vacation. Spoiler alert! They don’t make it… but the story goes on.
During his talk, he introduced what is called the “story pine” – the basic concept that a story begins at a point, continues along in time until there is a change that leads to a series of changes and/or effects, until there is a point of equilibrium that leads to a moral of the story. We paired off into teams and practiced telling our story. I paired up with my colleague, Kim (check out her blog here!), and we put together quite an amazing story in a matter of seconds.
See, Kim thinks all cats are aliens, and, we’re both have pretty active imaginations, so this was quite simple for us:“Once upon a time, there was a cat alien race that each cat lived on a different cheese planet, separated by great distance. And every day, the cats would meow at each other. Until one day, when one of the cats used his determination to find a way to reach the cute cat he’s had his eye on. And because of his determination to get to the other cat’s planet, he started brainstorming ideas and experimenting. Until one day, the cat found a way to reach another planet: string cheese! The cats could pull strings of cheese from their planet to tie them together and be one. And since that day, the cats have been living happily amongst their conglomerate of cheese planets. And the moral of the story is that one should never give up on their aspirations – perseverance perseveres.”
The details are a little fuzzy as this was two months ago now, but they were there day-of… I’m not doing it enough justice here, but that’s beside the point. The point here is that in a matter of seconds, we were able to take Mr. Luhn’s “story spine” and put together an impactful story.
Again, simple, yet effective. Clearly, we don’t start every story with ‘once upon a time’ in our day to day, but as a salesperson or sales engineer, story telling is a huge part of what we do. Our job is to tell the customer our story and the stories of our customers – what they were doing, what they did to change it, how we fit in and helped and how everything is happily ever after…. Being able to tell a story, your story, is an essential skill in sales – this is our first secret weapon.
Let’s give it a try:
I remember back in high school, when we were constructing projects/presentations, group or otherwise, there was a heavy emphasis on slide shows. Perhaps that was because there was a heavy emphasis on teaching students how to use the MS Office products in order to prepare for the ‘real world.’ (Funny enough, almost every class I had where we discussed how to create documents in an Office product, the students knew more than most teachers.)
We learned how to make slide shows in PowerPoint and worked on skills to present (i.e. don’t read off the slide, face your audience, etc.). Just as the majority of my classmates and I got to the point where we were doing more fine-tuning than skill development, we get hit with the proposal of a ‘senior project,’ in which we must present in a form other than slide show. Luckily, there wasn’t enough thought put into this proposal to get it off the ground in time for my senior year – bullet dodged. Phew!
Then comes freshman year of college, where the focus shifts from slide shows – we had to create presentations with ‘alternative’ forms of media. All those years of learning how to present slides, only to throw it all away (well, some) and start learning new things: Prezi, making a video to portray your message, improv, etc. I’m not complaining – these new forms of presenting were a new challenge, and they helped us learn presentation skills, regardless of media. Just when the creativity peaks, here comes graduation!!
Enter workplace – I started at Citrix straight out of school, on the ShareFile sales team. At first, I was mainly doing lead generation and not demonstrating the product. As I moved up into a closing role, I picked up on the presentation style that was promoted in the company: PowerPoint. Okay, so, I know this; I learned this earlier in my schooling; I’ve got this. Unfortunately, presenting, in general, isn’t a skill that many people pick up – so they craft slides or use ones given to them, and they simply read off the slide; ugh.
I got back into the habit of using slides and following it up with, what can essentially be called, a demo in a box. I was put on a team that focused on a single industry when I began on the sales team; things got pretty boring. I moved to a new team that was less industry focused – every day there was something new. I started dropping the slides and began solely focusing on the product demos as I found most customers disengaged when we brought up slideshows. This helped with keeping them engaged, but there were still areas that were difficult to explain to customers through demonstration (i.e. traffic flows).
A few months after I started on the sales team, one of my friends moved into a sales engineering role. This is when I began learning about the SE career path – I was sold, instantly. After a few successful years on the sales team, I apply for an SE position; I don’t get it. Dammit.
I talk with the hiring manager (my former manager), a few of his team members and my manager to figure out what I can do to improve so that I can make that leap. I get my shit together and start reading all kinds of technical material to gain some knowledge in order to better position myself for the next opportunity. Lo and behold, one comes around… another spoiler – I got the job. The first week is all about introductions; the second was QBRs.
This is where I learn about the second secret weapon: a whiteboard.
I’ve heard of whiteboarding before, but at this point in my career, I hadn’t whiteboarded myself (at least not in a business sense). I was excited to see a whiteboarding session on our QBR schedule; and to see who was going to be whiteboarding for us. Two of my now teammates: one, the previous friend who introduced me to sales engineering, the other, a friend of his that is one of the tenured senior SEs on our team – great!
The first of the two got up to whiteboard for our entire team – he stuck to the basics of whiteboarding architecture and traffic flows. We work with a SaaS solution, so it’s important that we can clearly convey our architecture to customers. What better way than with a blank canvas – your whiteboard.
Needless to say, he crushed it – and our team actually learned something! See, the presenter used the canvas to tell us a story – our product’s story. He knew the story and took us down a road so that we could understand the story. This story, was architecture – how does our product work in a customer’s environment?
I’ve always been told that if you are a good presenter, you shouldn’t need visuals – one should be able to listen to you and visualize the story on their own. If I were to close my eyes during this presentation, I would still have a high-level understanding of our architecture, because the presenter was extremely detailed in his explanations.
This is the whiteboarding I was familiar with – network diagrams, server configurations, etc.… What happened next blew my mind. After we got a first dose of whiteboarding with the traditional style, a second colleague got up to present to the room. This is where most of us learned something new: whiteboarding is story-telling, not just drawing architecture.
He approached the whiteboard, asked if he could erase it to start fresh (one of the cardinal rules!), did so (after getting permission) and started drawing. Unlike most of the whiteboarding I’ve seen in the past, he didn’t draw firewalls or machines. No, he made this much simpler. He drew a folder with a ‘sync’ icon, a file icon and wrote down three pieces to where our product focuses: “Security, Data Sovereignty, Productivity Tools.”
The concept was simple, everyone in our space (EFSS) was achieving the same thing (hint: it’s in the name) – file sync and sharing. The market was crowded with players who were looking to capitalize on these two simple needs: how do I share a file and how do I keep my files up to date?
Enter ShareFile – a storage agnostic SaaS application that allows businesses to securely share files both internally and to external third parties/clients. He went on to explain the benefits of security: encryption algorithms we use, granular permission settings, file retention policies etc. Then we moved into data sovereignty: where does the customer’s data live? ShareFile is innately hybrid – we don’t care where you store your data, that’s your choice. The application allows customers to host their data in a Citrix managed storage space (cloud), on-premises in their own data center or they could use their own cloud storage (S3 buckets on Amazon/Azure). Lastly, productivity tools: focusing our product development around tools that help increase employee productivity (think Outlook integrations). To hammer this point home, he noted a few of our competitors that still have a vast consumer base (i.e. Dropbox) are acquiring companies and tools, but they aren’t helping businesses (i.e. Carousel from Dropbox).
Sure, these are great differentiators, and our sales team probably just learned a TON… but he wasn’t done. There’s one more piece of ShareFile that differentiates us from our competition – Connectors!
ShareFile’s Connector technology helps enterprises with a key hardship that they face when evaluating solutions – data migration. While not all vendors require that data be migrated to their cloud or their siloed repository on-premises, most do (at least to a degree). With Connectors, ShareFile responded to these concerns by giving customers the ability to leverage their legacy data in network shares or team SharePoint sites. Could you imagine migrating 20 years’ worth of company data into a product that your firm only signed a one-year agreement with? Or worse, a product that may falter its way out of business in the near future. Remember, this market is packed… it’s also an ever-changing market. There are constantly players entering and exiting the space, with few remaining through the long haul. Connectors give customers a path to their legacy data without a VPN, through ShareFile’s applications – users can access their home drive from a smartphone in seconds, rather than waiting lengthily periods for a VPN connection to establish.
In a matter of 45 minutes, our team was given an awesome opportunity to visualize the story of our product in a real-world application – twice – without seeing the product at all. Two different sales engineers took two different approaches to whiteboarding to tell our team the same story. They used the same blank canvas to deliver two totally different stories, yet, at the same time, they were the same story. Our team was blown away – I know I keep saying that, but the emphasis needs to be there. Many of us have adopted these techniques and still use them today to much success, adding updates and our own personal twists.
[So, if we take the above story and apply the ‘story spine’ to it: we start off with a team that does things regularly and has their own ideas of telling stories and understands the basic concepts of whiteboarding. Because we felt we understood these items, we became complacent in our delivery; until the day where we received these presentations. Because of these whiteboarding examples, our team is lead to the moral: they realized there is more than one way to tell our story to customers and, in turn, were better off and more successful because for it.
Let’s circle back and break this inception of stories within stories within stories so that we can get to the point: what’s the second secret weapon? For those who read, it should come as no surprise that the second of the ‘secret weapons’ is whiteboarding. While simple, the art (yes, it is an art form – just without legible hand writing and/or artistic ability) or whiteboarding can be the most effective tool in your box. Personally, it has gotten me out a few sticky situations, as well as helped drive a clearer message to the customers. People are visual – we learned to read with picture books, associating words to objects and pictures; why not leverage a basic learning tactic to teach your story?
Next time you’re at your customer’s office for an onsite, I’d like to challenge you: leave the slides at home and bring a dry erase marker. The impact you have on your customer will be much greater if you can interact with them while whiteboarding, rather than reading them slides :).
Tips & Tricks:
I attended a few sessions at conferences that covered whiteboarding and how to be effective in your message, much of it tying into the story telling piece. There are a few ground rules that you need to know before you start:
- Bring your own pens
- Leave one with a logo behind for your competition to use in their next meeting J
- Always ask to use the whiteboard
- If there is anything on the whiteboard, ask if you can erase it
- Always ask before erasing anything you whiteboard
- Take a picture of your whiteboard when it is complete
- Always ask if they would like you to erase the board after the meeting adjourns
- Don’t forget to send it out to the attendees!!