FTC 225 | Better Storytelling

225: How To Pitch More Successfully Through Better Storytelling With John Livesay

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Everybody has a story and that story can be the best revenue-driver for your business. The better your storytelling is, the better your sales will be. Renowned keynote speaker, author and sales expert, John Livesay cannot overemphasize this point. Known as the “Pitch Whisperer,” John discovered at some point in his career that weaving stories into the sales process changed his performance dramatically. He since catapulted himself to success and prominence using his storytelling magic. Join in as Mitch Russo picks his brain on the selling power of a good story. John speaks in stories, so if a good story is what you came in here for, you’re not going to be disappointed.

How To Pitch More Successfully Through Better Storytelling With John Livesay

Welcome to this moment in time when you get to chill out, tune in, and extract wisdom that you can use to grow your business with your first thousand clients. We are here to support you by making sure you know what is working in business and in life. If you are reading and have a business that needs a little love, some support, revenue, and profits then I want you to grab my latest new product. It’s called Profit Stacking Secrets. It started many years ago as a new client assessment, but it became more and more detailed as the years rolled forward. Hundreds of clients later, I refined it to be what you need to grow quickly with very little investment using strategy instead of cash. Go to ProfitStackingSecrets.com and get your copy.

Onto my guest and his incredible story. He started a lot like I did in the computer business, but from a different perspective. He was selling mainframes for IBM. His education was some of the best sales training in the world. He discovered that by weaving stories into the sales process, it changed his performance dramatically. He had this realization, “This is my edge.” With that, he moved to the next phase of his career to a small ad agency where his skills would be tested to the limit. There, he tried and failed several times until finally, he cracked the code and Disney signed on to be a client. Studio after studio followed kind and he catapulted that agency into prominence using his storytelling magic. When the time was right, he decided it was time to go out on his own. He’s been serving 7 and 8 figure companies ever since. He’s here to show us how we can use storytelling to skyrocket your results. Welcome, John Livesay, to the show.

Thanks, Mitch. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

I love your story. I love where you’re coming from and how you got there. Let’s go back to the beginning and tell us how this all got started for you.

I majored in Advertising at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Urbana. I took a year off, traveled, and saw the world. I wanted to be where the action was. In the ‘80s, this was where Apple was starting. I moved to San Francisco and I remember a Dick Cavett commercial encouraging people to buy a computer to put your recipes on it because there was no internet. I thought, “Who would do that?” I did get into the industry. You could be in your twenties and have some credibility back then in that industry because everybody was new. These multimillion-dollar computers that I was selling were plug-compatible to IBM, TRW that keeps track of everyone’s credit scores, and things like that would typically buy all the IBM. I said, “This will be great because my product is less expensive and it’s more reliable.”

Having the best product for the best price is not enough. You have to find a way to the door by offering something of value. Click To Tweet

I realized as you alluded to the FUD factor, Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. IBM would say to clients, “If you buy anything that’s not IBM and this breaks, we’re going to point the finger at that other vendor for the reason and you’ll get fired. However, if something breaks and it’s all IBM, we’ll take on the responsibility. You don’t have to worry about your job.” That was my first a-ha, that having the best product for the best price is not enough. There are a lot of psychological reasons. They trained us everything from when to hand a business card to someone back in the day when people did that to roleplaying objections and getting their financial people to talk to our financial people. Everybody had to get on board. It was a multi decision, multi-year sometime project.

You had to find a way in the door by offering something of value. What we did was we would say, “We have these amazing software experts that can come in and analyze some suggestions for free on how your system that’s currently running could run faster.” We’d start developing that relationship. I do not have an Engineering degree, but I am a good listener. When I was watching the person from my computer company, the engineer talked to the potential client engineer, I could see when the potential client got confused. A slight movement in their face, but most people will not tell you when they’re confused. Their ego is at stake, especially tech people.

I would take the fall. I say, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you said.” I would say this to my own coworker, “Would you mind rephrasing that again? The confused mind always says no.” It was like listening to people speak a foreign language sometimes. You could still tell when it was going well and when it wasn’t. That’s what allowed me to get experience selling high-end products that sometimes they had a big sales cycle and the patience that was required to make that happen. From there, I got transferred down to Southern California and I happened to meet the founder of a small ad agency. I thought, “That’s funny.” I went into tech instead of advertising. He said, “I’m looking for somebody who likes to sell and doesn’t want to do the creative.” It was movies coming out on video.

That intrigued me. I said, “I love the movie business.” When you find something that’s a perfect fit, everything locks. You’re like, “I instinctively know how to pull and tell the editor what 30 seconds should reflect this movie,” and get feedback from the client. At the time we had Warner Home Video. My job was to get other studios like Disney. I got to work with voiceover artists and get the whole picture of what you tell to intrigue people enough to want to go see that movie or rent that movie is the secret. I went on and had a fifteen-year sales career at Condé Nast, which is everything from GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired to W. There was Architectural Digest, 23 different brands. I would call on brands like Lexus. They would have a media day.

They’d say, “We looked at 50 magazines. We’ve narrowed it down to ten. We’re going to run ads in three. All ten of you get to come in back to back and pitch us. Do not tell us about the numbers. We’ve already researched that. Come in with a story or marketing idea of what we could do together.” I thought, “This is where the creativity comes in.” A lot of other people did not feel comfortable talking about something that wasn’t numbers-oriented, how many readers, and the demographics. It was my job to come up with creative concepts that would pull them in and make them want to present this idea of how this magazine is going to co-partner with us.

FTC 225 | Better Storytelling
Better Storytelling: “What if?” is a great phrase to get people out of the left brain analytical stuff and into the right side of their brains where storytelling lives.


One of my favorite examples of that was I had Speedo as a client. I had said to them, “You have a line of sportswear coming out. Would you ever consider advertising this in a fashion magazine?” They said, “No, we’re going to be in a fitness magazine.” I said, “What if?” For your readers, that’s a great phrase to get people out of the left brain tech stuff, analytical, and into the imagination, the right side of our brain where storytelling lives and people buy emotionally. I said to Speedo, “What if we treated your sportswear like it was in fact fashion, had a fashion show around a hotel swimming pool, you could invite Michael Phelps since he’s on your payroll, and get some publicity that normally wouldn’t happen?” They liked the idea. As a former lifeguard, I got to meet Michael Phelps.

I went up to him and I said, “Michael, everyone says you’re successful because your feet are like fins. Your lung capacity is bigger than the average person, but I’m guessing there’s something else.” He said, “Yes, John. When I was very young, my coach said to me, ‘Michael, are you willing to work out on Sundays?’ I said, ‘Yes coach.’ ‘We got 52 more workouts in a year than your competition.’” That has stuck with me. When I give keynote talks, I tell that story. I ask everyone, “What are you willing to do that your competition isn’t willing to do to get to that Olympic level in your own business?”

That’s the Wayne Dyer quote, “It’s never lonely at the extra mile,” which is the key to almost anything. Adding the fact that you’re willing to work hard and if you can be persistent and if you understand that the path to success is littered with failures and you’re unwilling to stop, then most people, no matter what it is they’re doing, ultimately they will succeed. You can become an overnight sensation in ten years if you’re willing to stay the course.

Now that I’m out of my own as a speaker and a sales consultant, one of the things I had as a goal was to create a TEDx Talk. You applied to different places and it took me over a year, fifteen different noes. They’re like, “You’re a good speaker, but you don’t fit our theme.” I had to learn to not take that rejection personally, which is what I teach salespeople and myself. The speaker before me was Bonnie St. John. She lost the lower half of her left leg when she was about twelve. She’s standing on stage with a prosthetic leg, a skirt on, and Paralympic medals around her neck for winning downhill skiing. She tells the story of when she would go downhill, they had to compete on two hills to get the time. The first mountain, she was the fastest. The second mountain was icier, everybody was falling, and she also fell. They took the average of the two times and said, “You came in second place. While you were the fastest to go down, you weren’t the fastest to get back up.” I loved her story so much that I incorporate it into my own life and everyone I work with. I’m like, “We’re all going to get knocked down. The key is how fast do we get back up?”

That’s a great quote. With only one leg, it does make it a little more difficult to get back up.

What are you willing to do that your competition isn't willing to do to get to that Olympic level in your own business? Click To Tweet

Everyone had some kind of disability and that is Paralympics. Resilience is not just giving up, it’s how fast you get back up. I’ve done all kinds of research around real estate agents that get a no, the ones that stay at the top of the percentage of productivity, they let it go. The other people still are talking about it a month or two later. “The deal that got away.” You can’t hold on to that resentment.

When I built the sales organization for Tony Robbins and Chet for BBI, what we noticed on a regular basis was that as we bring in new salespeople, they would start strong. They would do well. After three weeks roughly, their performance would start to drop. By around the six-week mark, the average salesperson was dismissed because their sales had dropped to the point where they no longer fit our mold and they weren’t making their numbers. I went to Chet and said, “I’m going to start a new group where I’m going to try and prevent that slump from happening.” What we did is we did visualization. We used The Sedona Method Program out of Arizona. Hale Dwoskin runs that great program.

I used to work for the company as their vice president of sales. I learned a lot about how the mind works and how expectations can be changed instantly if you know what to do. I worked with this group and what started to happen was right around the time of the slump, we started to see the numbers drop. We bring these people in. We do our exercise. It was only 30 minutes per session. We were doing the first two sessions a week, then we went to three sessions a week as the weeks go on. What we noticed is that the sales did not drop, in fact, the sales went up. The reason was, it comes down to how you internalize rejection. I’m sure everybody reading this already knows this.

The greatest salespeople in the world do not internalize the word ‘no.’ Some people don’t even hear the word ‘no.’ They hear the word ‘next.’ Using that as a basic premise for how to be in sales, they will be successful. As a side note, what we did in those sessions is we also weeded out those people who didn’t have a desperately strong belief in both themselves and the product. You have to believe with all of your heart in yourself and in the product you’re selling. If you don’t, then we could fix that, but we can’t go forward until that’s fixed.

Even launching something new, like working for myself after working for companies for many years, you realize there’s a lot of fear of the unknown. There’s lots of fear of rejection and fear of failure. What I did is I put faces on those fears as opposed to having all those fear thoughts in my head at once. I said, “What am I afraid of? Is it rejection?” I’ve been in sales long enough to never reject myself and not realize that, “No now doesn’t mean no forever.” When I would pitch somebody and they say, “We’re going with a different company.” I’d be like, “Maybe somebody else could have gotten the answer. Maybe they’re right. Maybe there are other products.” You can’t do that to yourself. You can’t reject yourself. That’s a big one for most people. They go, “I’m not agreeing with the no. I’m not rejecting myself. I’m not taking it personally.”

FTC 225 | Better Storytelling
Better Storytelling: Craft your story of origin first. You have to sell yourself first. After that, you sell the company story and then you sell what your product or service is.


The next one is the fear of failure. When I was launching my podcast, for example, I’m like, “What if I don’t have anybody listen to it?” Then you’re like, “It’s just feedback.” Jay Samit who wrote Disrupt You!, said, “Keep going until you get a great idea. It’s a zombie idea that won’t die.” If it fails, speak to them like, “That didn’t work. What else?” Next is the fear of the unknown and we’ve all experienced that with this pandemic. In the podcast situation, when I launched it a hundred episodes ago, I was like, “I don’t know how to interview somebody. I’ve been a guest, but not a host. What mic do I buy? How do I edit all these things?” My solution to not go is don’t go it alone. I have somebody who produces the show for me. If you can put some faces on those fears, don’t reject yourself, look at failure as feedback, and don’t go it alone, it will help you not get stuck.

Quick shout out to the guy who produces our shows. I know your show and my show are both produced by Tom Hazzard over Podetize. Readers, if you have a show and you want to see what a professional production looks like, go either to John’s show page or mine and you will see exactly what we’re talking about. John, I told you before we started that this is a masterclass for my readers. I’m going to give you the floor here. What I want is for you to disclose your best stuff, the stuff that people pay you for normally. I want you to share it for free with my readers and teach them what storytelling is, how storytelling can help them, and also not just how it can help them, but what they’re going to do in the process.

I’m going to tell a story as an example of teaching. A big architecture firm was told by an airport company, a city that they were going to hire the architecture firm that they liked the best out of the top three. They said, “You could all do the work. We’re going to hire the people we like the most because we’ve got to work with you for six years.” They got a little nervous. They might as well be tech people. They like to show designs and talk about square footage. They said, “Likeability, we don’t even know where to start.” Here’s the first tip when you’re up against competitors. They’re called all kinds of things. Interviews, shootouts, bakeoffs, whatever you want to call it. We’ve all had that situation where you have a shot virtually or in-person to come in and explain why you should be the one that’s been picked.

My sweet spot is helping people win that. Even interviewing for a job is the same situation. You get called back. You’re in the final 2 or 3 candidates. It’s like, “What are you saying?” On the team slide, which they said, “If we don’t have a lot of time, we might skip that slide, or we run out of time.” They’re given an hour. I said, “That’s the most important slide given the criteria is likeability.” It’s a light-bulb moment for them. I said, “Let me hear what you’re going to say.” I pull the story of origin out. Here’s the masterclass part. Craft your story of origin first. You have to sell yourself first. That’s your personal story of origin. You sell the company story and then you sell what your product or service is.

Most people jump right into the product or service and there’s no story. That’s your big takeaway. Yourself, buy your story of origin, sell the company story of origin, even if it’s your one-person company, you still have a name for your company. There’s a story behind that. I said, “Tom, what made you become an architect?” He said, “When I was eleven, I played with Lego. Now, I have a son who’s eleven and I still play with Legos. I bring that same passion.” “Sue, how about you? Where were you before here?” “I was in the Israeli army.” “I bet you learned a lot about focus and discipline.” You’re going to take that and apply it here to make sure this thing comes on time and under budget.

Resilience is not just not giving up; it's how fast you get back up. Click To Tweet

That increases their likeability and their memorability. After the other people pitch, it doesn’t matter what order you go in. That’s what everybody gets nervous about. They’re like, “We want to go last so we’re memorable.” I’m like, “You can’t control that.” What you can control is the story you tell. Whoever tells the best story is the one that’s memorable. Even if you’re first. You set the bar. If the other people are telling boring resume stuff and no personal story, you’re forgettable. That was the first tip on helping them win that. The next part was the traditional case study of another airport we did. Even the word study sounds like homework.

The process that you described first is the same exact process I use when I write direct mail. When I write a landing page, I write using exactly the process that you were talking about. Readers, go back and read that because this is super important. The idea here is that nobody’s going to buy from you If they don’t know who you are and they don’t like you.

Let’s jump into that likeability factor because the biggest myth is that you’ve got to get people to know, like, and trust you. We’ve heard it for decades. The problem with that belief is it causes the behavior of, “You’ve got to know me first before you like or trust me? Therefore, let me throw out a bunch of information about me, my company, and my product.” I tell everyone, “We’ve got to flip the order.” We have to get people to trust us first, which is a gut thing. Remember when we used to do handshakes?

I remember that.

First came about to show that we didn’t have weapons in our hands. It’s a fight or flight response, so trust. You and I have a rapport, your readers trust you. You have been kind enough to transfer that trust to me, that’s why warm introductions are important. We start from the gut then we go to the heart, that’s the likeability factor. Doctors spend more time with patients they like and teachers spend more time with students they like. The best way we can increase our likability is to show empathy. The better you can describe the problem, the better people think you have their solution, and then it moves from the heart to the head. Even then it’s still not about information. The unspoken question everybody has is, “Will this work for me?” If they can’t see themselves in the case stories that you’re telling, they won’t buy.

FTC 225 | Better Storytelling
Better Storytelling: We say things to ourselves that we would never say to someone else. Before we can give that out, we have to start inside.


Let’s jump back to our other story which is now Gensler’s opened with that team slide. People have some nice sense of who they are from their personal stories. Then of course they tell the story of origin of the company, and then they go into their case study. They had some beautiful before and after pictures with a lot of data, but no story. Here are the four elements of what makes a great case story. Exposition, you paint that picture, who, what, where, when like a journalist. Then you describe the problem in detail and then the solution. Here’s the secret sauce, the resolution. Most people do not have that in their stories. What is life like after someone has worked with you?

I’m going to give you that case story that helped them win $1 billion airport renovation. We’ll break it down and you can see the four parts. A few years ago, JetBlue at JFK hired us to renovate their terminal. One of the challenges we faced during that period was we had to rip off all the flooring in the middle of the night from 9:00 at night util 9:00 in the morning. Rewire everything and make sure that it opened on time so the stores didn’t lose revenue at 9:00 AM. We had all of our vendors on call in case anything went wrong. At 2:00 in the morning, a fuse blew. We had that vendor there in twenty minutes and fixed it. At 8:59, the last tile went down and all the stores opened on time. A year later, sales are up 15% because we’ve designed a place that pulls more people in and keeps them there longer shopping.

Exposition, we know where it is and how long ago it is. We’re in the story. The problem. Imagine if they got up there and said, “We use critical thinking to anticipate problems versus showing it in a story by having all their vendors on call,” a little bit of drama. At 8:59 AM, the last tile went down. The solution is the store is open on time. That’s a good story. Where pulls you in is that resolution, a year later sales are up 15%. Storytelling is giving you a new tool in your toolbox. You remember that Maslow, the famous psychologist quote “The only tool in your toolbox is a hammer. You tend to go around looking for nails to hit.” Unfortunately, a lot of salespeople have one tool, “I want to buy, hammer.” Storytelling gives you a whole new tool. That tool is after you described that case story, they could say, “Does that sound like the journey you’d like to go on with us?”

I love the way you explained that. That makes a lot of sense. The way I heard that quote is that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Either way, it means the same thing. What we have here is if somebody would follow these four steps, which is exposition, who, what, when, where, problem, describe it, use drama in how you do so, solution, what it is you do, but most importantly the resolution and what the results of that are, bring home why they should work with you.

It goes back to the head thing. They see themselves. “Will this work for me?” Yes. I see myself in this story. I have another example of that because I think it’s so valuable to everyone. Working with Olympus Medical, I was saying, “What are you saying to get doctors and hospitals to buy your equipment?” “Our equipment makes the surgeries go 30% faster.” I said, “That’s a left-brain logical numbers-oriented thing. There’s no story.” The salesperson describes, “Several months ago, Dr. Higgins down at Long beach Memorial started using our equipment. You can imagine how happy he was when he could go out to the patient’s family in the waiting room, where if you’ve ever been in that situation, every minute feels like an hour. He came out an hour earlier than expected to tell them that their loved one did not have any cancer. The doctor turned to me and said, ‘I live for those moments that’s why I became a doctor.’” As that salesperson describes that story to another doctor, the doctor says, “That’s why I became a doctor, I want your equipment.” He saw himself in that story.

Look at failure as a feedback. Click To Tweet

The bottom line is that doctor came out and told me that I’ll say, “What’s wrong with you, moron? Why didn’t you figure that out before you had to cut my uncle open?”

In this case, it’s an endoscopic scope. They put them under. Usually, it’s 2.5 hours, but with this particular equipment, it’s an hour and a half. Certain things can all be found from a scope.

John, you’ve shared some incredible stuff with us. I want to thank you a lot. We always move on to the next segment of the show which is to get to know you a little bit better. The way we do that is by asking a couple of powerful, sometimes silly questions, but they’re always the same. Everyone knows what they are, but the answers are never the same. That’s what makes this so much fun for me. John, who in all of space and time would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch, or an intense conversation with?

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, so I am a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln. Going to see his log cabin as a child in Springfield, Illinois. He was always my childhood hero and still is to this day. I’ve watched every biography, Daniel Day-Lewis playing him and I read a lot about him. As a child, I knew that he was poor and had to overcome some problems, but I didn’t know he fought depression and all the issues of losing a child and many other things. How difficult it was to make the impact that he did. I probably would ask him more personal questions about resilience and less questions about politics.

He’s a fascinating character and he is one of those people who I did study as well, but for me, my guy was Thomas Edison. He was my boyhood hero. I read every book in the library. My mom went to the head of the library, she said, “I’ll get more books for my son because he’s read it all of them already.” The thing that I love most about Thomas Edison and that inspired me about him was the thing you were talking about. It was his persistence. When he reached 2,000 failures and was interviewed by a reporter as to how does he feel having failed 2,000 times, he was bewildered by the question. “What do you mean failed? I figured out what 2,000 things are not going to become a light bulb filament. I’m sure the right one will come along quite soon.”

Abraham Lincoln was very much the same way. Many successful people do. He had that persistence in the way he approached everything. When he wanted to become president, how many times did he fail at politics? He failed every time practically. It’s a great choice. The next question is what we call the grand finale, the change the world question. What is it that you were doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to change the world?

Whoever tells the best story becomes the most memorable. Click To Tweet

What I’m doing that I believe has the potential to change the world is helping as many people as possible to get off the self-esteem roller coaster. I was on it for many years where I only felt good about myself if my numbers were up and bad about myself if things were not going well. I get hired to come in and help people tell better stories to win new business, break down silos, and all that good stuff. Once I’m in there, we start talking about how storytelling can impact people’s personal relationships. Even being a better parent by asking your child to tell you a story about the best part of their day, instead of yes or no answers that you get when you say, “How was school?” I came up with a new acronym instead of ABC, which is from the sales training as Always Be Closing. I shifted it to ABK, which is Always Be Kind. I invite people to put that on a Post-it note, by their phone or in their car. We have to start being kind to ourselves, and the self-talk. We say things to ourselves that we would never say to someone else. Before we can give that out, we have to start inside. That’s my big impact.

I’m not a tattoo guy. My daughter has tattoos and her first tattoo on her right forearm is Be Kind. She is in that same place and it makes a lot of sense. I also love the parenting tip you gave about how to get a kid to open up a little bit instead of asking, “How was school today?” I know I can apply that in many different areas of my life. I get on the phone in the evening sometimes with a loved one and say, “How was your day?” Now, using the idea you gave me, I would say, “Why don’t you tell me the best part of your day?” Thank you, John. Readers, I know this is your favorite part of the show. It’s the part where John is going to provide something free and something valuable. John, why don’t you tell us what you have for my readers?

I’ve created a little eBook PDF of my top storytelling tips on how to go from invisible to irresistible in both of your dating and your career. All you have to do is text the word PITCH to 66866, and you’ll get that PDF right away.

John, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your knowledge with all of us. We will all benefit from it. I can’t wait until we get a chance to talk again soon.

I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for having me, Mitch.

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