Financial advisory and story telling

Akansha Singh, Associate Director Investment Product Management at Morningstar Investment Adviser India, on how stories compel investors to question their assumptions and understand consequences.
By Morningstar |  27-09-21 | 

Let me start with a small anecdote: Lucy Hawking, the daughter of Stephen Hawking, was asked to explain gravity to a group of 9-year-old students (boys), since the school that they went to was worried that the students were losing interest in science. Being the daughter of Stephen Hawking and an educator herself, she was expected to dazzle students with facts and figures and explain to them the truths that science has discovered about the universe. She however used a very simple story:

“The boys who played football on Mars”

For an absolute understanding of the story, one would need to know few facts about Mars. For example, to know why the boys who were playing football on Mars kept bouncing off the surface, one would need to know that gravity on Mars is only 38% of the gravity on Earth and if you jumped on Mars you take two and a half times longer to come back to the surface than what you would take to come back to the surface on Earth.

By associating these facts with an activity that the audience could associate with (football) she got the entire room to be engaged in a conversation which by themselves many of them would have found boring. Children started imagining themselves playing football on Mars and she could easily include all the above-mentioned facts and figures into a story which was actually enjoyed by most of the audience present there.

We can draw a strong parallel to the way financial concepts and advice can be explained to investors when we consider the above-mentioned anecdote. Like space science, finance is also made up of several essential but difficult to comprehend concepts. Like space science, many financial concepts have been derived by deep analysis of complex data which may not be very easy for an investor to grasp or retain. But when we spin the concepts into a story, we can utilise the power of a story to enable an investor to dig out something in his life story to associate with the concept and therefore retain it, making it a “sticky” memory. Stories compel the investor to question his assumptions and understand the consequences of certain behaviour.

Authors Rosemary Smyth and Aaron Hoos, with their vast experience in the field of coaching financial advisors and sales managers in financial services sector recommend story telling to financial advisors. As per them, “Stories have a beginning, a middle and a highly anticipated conclusion and investors ( or people  more generally)  are hard-wired to want to hear the whole thing, which gives enough time to the advisor to clearly make his point and communicate his ideas and recommendations.” And that means advisors who can create and share good stories have a powerful advantage over others.

Stories work in a two-pronged manner. They explain concepts as well as engage our emotions simultaneously, which leads our brain to believe that that story is a part of our own personal experience and this motivates us to action in a way that logic based arguments (no matter how well substantiated by facts and numbers) can’t. Interestingly, in doing so, stories can actually make us benefit from that emotional part of ourselves which leads us to making bad decisions while investing (such as panic selling or following the herd).

How to tell a great story

  • The point of the story: It would be best to initiate the exercise of storytelling by knowing one’s audience and being clear on the message that one wants the story to deliver. Once that is clear, it would be easier to determine the best method of illustrating it. It helps if the message can be squeezed into a single emphatic statement. 
  • Keep it simple and brief: Stories don’t need to be long and detailed. We need to remember that the point of the story is not the quality or length of the story itself. Instead, the effort should be to communicate one’s message and recommendations in a narrative which is just interesting enough to get one’s client to focus on the point under discussion. Whatever is irrelevant to the story must be removed. Anton Chekhov, the famous Russian playwright and short storyteller said “'If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.” 
  • Best stories come from one’s own experiences: The essential question to ask here is “What event happened in one’s own life, which made one trust in the idea that one is trying to convey through the story?” 
  • Build the tension, highlight the issue and then the solution: A story without a central issue or challenge isn’t interesting at all. Good story tellers understand that a story needs a conflict. The classic story structure of establishing the desired objective, building tension where the outcome is uncertain and then resolving the story as close to the end as possible is familiar and gratifying to the audience.
  • Make the connection: An advisor must ensure that the parallel drawn between the story and the concept he is trying to explain is clear to the investor. One may know the point of one’s own story, but it might not be immediately clear to an investor.
  • Practice, practice, practice: Story telling is an art which will be perfected over repeated renditions. Even when one has a clear crisp story which brilliantly highlights the point he is trying to make, the effect of the story gets significantly enhanced if it is told in the right way. And that requires practice.

This article originally appeared in The Economic Times

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ninan joseph
Oct 3 2021 04:42 PM
 You made me remember Professor Aswath Damodaran, who always say, that you can never value a company without knowing its story. So true.
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