As thought leadership marketers we’ve trained ourselves to believe that the best idea wins. The problem is that’s generally not true.
When The Challenger Sale was published in 2011 it quickly changed the conversation on how B2B selling was done. Relationship building, long seen as the apex of selling, was deemed less effective than previously thought. New data told us that a different set of skills were more effective. The idea and the book took hold quickly. CEB, the firm that did the research, catapulted to nearly $1B in sales, doubled its share price, and eventually sold out to Gartner.
I read every page of that book. I took notes. I snapped images of the various charts and graphs that interested me and tucked them away in an Evernote file for future reference. Despite all that, I can’t readily recall all five of the seller personas identified in the research. I cannot tell you the specific characteristics of a challenger seller. Nor, can I recall any of the specific data that backs up the contention that they’re the highest performing B2B sales professionals.
But, I do recall the specific details of how and why the research was commissioned. I don’t need any reference for that. That story is vivid in my mind. The story, as described by the authors, goes like this — during the Great Recession, they found in talking with their clients that every organization had a star sales performer. While most of the sales team was struggling, a single seller was blowing their quotas out of the water. And, they were doing it in the most difficult economic period in over three generations. CEB conducted the research to understand why. The consultants literally described themselves as going on a voyage of discovery. And, what they found brought them a whole new way of looking at the world when they returned.
Why We Remember Stories
So, why is it that I can vividly recall the story that described what was done yet can scarcely remember the details of what was found?
First and foremost, the story brings coherence to the research. It literally follows a classic story archetype that I’m highly familiar with — The Voyage and Return. The story enables me to take the complex ideas that are presented in the research, simplify them, and categorize them in my mind. This frees my brain to literally erase all the underlying details when I sleep (if you don’t know, that’s one of the critical things that happens during a REM cycle; your brain pushes aside memories that aren’t deemed critical to survival).
Second, the notion that a seller who challenges a client’s pre-conceived assumptions is the most successful B2B salesperson closely matches my world view. It aligns directly with the mindsets and behaviors I’ve trained myself to apply in the sales process. The underlying data simply confirms the life assumptions I’ve already made. Hence, I’ve no reason to retain it.
Once we’ve established some foundational beliefs that shape our behavior it becomes very difficult to change them. This is true even when we’re presented with new information implying that our underlying beliefs might be wrong. In fact, our foundational beliefs are so strong that they generally encourage us to systematically ignore data that stands in the face of what we hold to be true.
Prioritize the Story Over the Data
As marketers, we invest in thought leadership research to find new ground. We pore over the resulting data to uncover new insights. We break those findings into benchmarking studies, best practices reports, and leader/laggard studies. We publish our findings with detailed charts, graphs, videos and interactive content. Often, the data represents whole new ways of looking at the world — nuggets of insight that could entirely change the way clients think about critical business issues. But, none of that matters if we’re not clear on the story we’re trying to tell.
As it turns out, our brains are hard wired to systematically ignore data. Yes, we understand data when it’s shown to us. But, we don’t necessarily believe it. And, it rarely changes our behavior. This is because we routinely fall victim to the availability heuristic. Wait, the what?
The availability heuristic describes how we interpret facts and data. Essentially, our minds are always looking for shortcuts — easier ways to understand the world around us. In so doing, we routinely rely on our ability to mentally retrieve an example that supports the facts as we see them even in lieu of a wealth of data that’s telling us something to the contrary. In essence, we value coherence over evidence. Our brains jump to conclusions based on little evidence and we often don’t even realize how far they’ve jumped. As a result, we retain stories better than data. Sometimes even when those stories contradict the facts. You can probably relate to this if you’ve ever gone to a partner with analytics to prove a point about a marketing strategy or tactic only to be met with this response — “I can’t think of one instance where a client said or did that.”
Don’t misunderstand me. Data is important. As thought leadership marketers we have a responsibility to seek truth through data and to shed new light on our clients’ most critical business issues.
But what we do with the data is even more important. First we have to analyze the data to determine what story we’re trying to tell. Then we have to bring it to life with real world examples and a big dose of creativity in hopes that the concepts we hope to impart on the market will actually stick.
In summary, as thought leadership marketers we’ve trained ourselves to believe that the best idea wins. It’s time to embrace that it’s the idea best told that actually does.
Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, February 2009
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, April 2013
The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, November 2011