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Why Storytelling Makes For Better Sales With John Livesay

Did you know that when you’re doing a sales pitch, people don't remember anything you said ten minutes after you walk out? If that’s the case, how do you make yourself more magnetic and memorable? John Livesay, aka The Pitch Whisperer, shares interesting insights about how storytelling can pave the way to having better sales. John is a sales keynote speaker whose specialty is showing sales teams how to become irresistible to their ideal clients. Part of John’s message is saying that even those who don’t consider themselves a salesperson sells themselves all of the time. In this episode, he discusses why he uses the alliteration of a ladder that he used in his book, Better Selling Through Storytelling. He says that anyone who wants to sell needs to sell themselves first before attempting to sell their company or product. If you want to hear more of John’s wisdom, he is also the host of The Successful Pitch podcast.


Listen to the podcast here:

Why Storytelling Makes For Better Sales With John Livesay

I have a great guest. I can't tell you enough about this gentleman. He's a top-rated sales keynote speaker. They call him The Pitch Whisper. John Livesay, thanks for coming on the show. It's a pleasure to have you.

Nice to be with you, Rob.

There are a lot of things to go over in your bio and everything that you talk about. You have a great book, Better Selling Through Storytelling. I can't tell you how powerful storytelling is for myself. Tell me more about that book and how powerful storytelling is to a sales professional.

You need to realize that even if you're not in sales, you are selling yourself all the time. You sell yourself to get hired, to get promoted, to get a new job and to get a date. Our kids typically are selling us all the time like, “I don't want it. I need this.” This concept of selling only for a specific group of people is changing big time. Even lawyers, who I work with a lot of law firms, they didn't even use to be allowed to sell their services. They would write papers, speak and hope they get referrals, but they can sell. The concept that why many people resist the term and even people who call themselves salespeople, they go, “Can you call me an account executive or in charge of business development or anything but a salesperson?” The first thing I want to do is to get people to let go of some of that negative perception of what selling is. I tell people, “Start thinking of yourself as a storyteller because the old way of selling is to push a bunch of information out and hope some of it sticks.” The new way is to tell stories that make you magnetic and memorable because when you're selling and telling a bunch of information, people don't remember anything you said ten minutes after you walk out.

Realistically, I love that idea of you're selling yourself every day. You're a brand yourself, whether you're going for a job or you're working for a company in selling a product, it is who you are that is helping to sell that. Your book is amazing. I love the utilization of a ladder. Being a fireman, it's a great depiction. When you're talking about this ladder, you have the I’s that go through the ladder.

It's in the alliteration. It took me a while to figure out how they all would start with the letter I. It helps make it memorable, hopefully.

Can you go over some of those?

I also compare it to dating. It gives people a frame of reference. At the bottom is when you're invisible. You look like a movie star, so you've never had this happen to you. Some of us have been in the dating world and we see someone who is attracted to me, might as well I’ll be invisible. In the business world, someone's never heard of you or your product or your brand, unless you're maybe Coca-Cola. Everyone's heard of that. For the most part, there are some people that don't know you exist. Then the next rung up is insignificant. Rob, I don't know what's worse in the dating world, invisible or insignificant.

I would have to say both might be.

Both are painful. Let's say somebody says, “I sell life insurance.” That's insignificant to me because I'm not in the market for that. We then move up to interesting. Maybe you say something at a party and someone says, “I'm interested. Maybe I wrote you off too fast. I'm not going out with you yet, but I'm at least interested to hear more.” In the sales world, you can say something that people say, “I'm interested. Send me the information or whatever.” I've called this being stuck at the friendzone at work because you have these endless conversations. You can never get somebody to commit to you. The next rung up is intriguing. In the dating world, that's when you paint a picture of, “If you were to go out with me, a town car would pick us up. We'd go watch the sunset at Griffith Park.” You're like, “Tell me more. I'm intrigued.”

In the business world, when you say something that grabs their attention and they're intrigued by, “How would that work if we were to do this project together and you do something new?” you then get to the top where it's irresistible. In dating, that's when you can't stop thinking about the other person. You're constantly texting them. In the business world, these are our brand ambassadors. These are the clients that love us. The challenge here is we can take it for granted, like any relationship and not pay attention to it and a competitor can come along. There's something to be said if figuring out where do clients see you on this ladder from invisible to irresistible.

The old way of selling is, “Break your clients and prospects into A, B and C categories. What percentages do you think they're going to come in?” Clients don't think of themselves as percentages. The whole goal is to get you to flip your perception and say, “How do they see me on this ladder? Am I interesting to them and they're never going to buy? What can I do to get at least two intriguing and much like dating?” Nobody asked somebody to get married typically on the first coffee date, yet some salespeople walk in going, “Fireman Rob wants to buy everything I have to sell.”

Maybe not. I love that you know where people see you and where you are. One of the clients that you had with our architectural firm, they didn't understand that and there are $1 billion in revenues. You went in there and helped them to understand why maybe people weren't seeing them. Is that correct?

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Almost. The company is Gensler. It's the world's largest architecture firm. I believe they are a $5 billion company already, but they were up for a $1 billion project to renovate the Pittsburgh Airport. The client said to them, “We're going to hire the firm we liked the most because we have to work with you for five years.” That's what they didn't grasp. How do we go in an hour and make us likable? Most people think of us as we show the designs and hope that's enough. That's where the a-ha moment was for them. I said, “Storytelling makes you likable and memorable. Tell me a story about what you are going to say on the team slide?”

“My name is Bob. I've been here for years. I do this and this.” “That's not interesting. Bob, what made you become an architect?” “I played with Legos when I was eleven. Now, I have a son that's eleven and I still play with Legos. I still have that same passion that I'd bring to the project.” “That’s great. How about you, Sue? Where did you work before here?” “I was in the Israeli Army.” “That’s great. You're going to bring that same discipline and focus you learned there into making sure this project comes on time and under budget.” That's what started to make this team likable because they started to get a sense of who they are as people.

I love that storytelling of understanding the different capabilities of individuals because that speaks to the power of a team and the power of each story multiplying to make something bigger. I think you hit it on the head with that architectural firm. When you're talking about the dating scene, I love the way that you put that analogy in there. When you say remember, invisible isn't bad. It's just bottom. No one accepted it, but I think that's a great principle to talk about.

Everybody has to start somewhere, but don't act like you're irresistible when they don't even know anything about you. It's the process of realizing there is a process.

That is a good statement. The salesforce, you said you wanted it. A lot of people that don't want to be called salespeople in essence because they want to have different titles. The storytelling component of the communication, what are some little things that you could help with individuals that are looking to be able to tell their story, to help themselves in their lines of work, whether it be from firefighting dealing with critical situations to somebody who is in the pharmaceutical industry? What are some little things that they can take away to learn daily habits?

Are you asking me to say how do I take storytelling and use it in my everyday life?

That would be it. To make it a part of who you are.

I think the first thing you have to realize is that you sell yourself first and then you sell your company. Even if it's your own firm and you're a one-person company, then you get into what the product or service you do and tell that story. The second was being aware. Most people skip the first two and jump right into the features with no story. If you have your own story of origin, how did you become a fireman? Did you know it from a kid? What did you love most about it? What would the biggest challenges be? Have a little something there that grabs people's attention. People are always fascinated. Let's play with this a little bit. When did you know you wanted to be a fireman, Rob?

It would have been later in life after I figured that college wasn't the greatest thing for me. I needed something that was dynamic.

I remember reading that you had a military background.

That's correct.

You were in the military and then of all the things you could do after that, you decided all the training you had with the Air Force that there'd be some transferable skills. What was the number one skill you learned in the Air Force that made you a good fireman?

I would say integrity first would be one of the skills.

When you say you're going to show up for your shift, you show up for your shift. That's the minimum requirement. Let's start there as basic. What would you say is the story of firemen in general? There's been such a history. There are even people who volunteer to be firemen, but what is it about firemen? What's the story that people have? Is it that they're fearless? Is it that they are kind? Are they saving cats off trees? What's the story that people think of when they hear, “I'm a fireman,” or someone that says, “That’s my career?”

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It goes to the level of courageous. I think a lot of people think of courageous and dependable. When they call, you're there.

Finally, you are a keynote speaker. You go and you speak to all kinds of companies around leadership. Your story would then be, “From the time I was in the Air Force. One of the number one things I took away from that experience was integrity, which allowed me to become an excellent fireman. One of the things that's important about being a fireman is you must have courage and dependability. When people need you, you show up. If we look at those three qualities of integrity, courage and dependability, that is what defines a good leader. That's what I'm here to talk to you about. The lessons I've learned in my own career can be something that you're going to be able to take into your own life so that you can become better leaders at home and at work.”

This is why you are who you are because you broke it down simply to be able to put it in a beautiful, eloquent manner and in a great pitch way. I love it. That's why you're successful. It's a great way to break it down. For anybody who's reading, if you want to find out more, you can go to John's website He has a lot. He has his book on there, Better Selling Through Storytelling. Also, if you want to have John come out and speak to your company, to your group, as you've heard on this show, he's one of the best about giving you the ability to use storytelling, not only in your life but also in your business. John, going on here, TED Talk, I loved it. We've talked about this before, Be The Lifeguard Of Your Own Life. Tell me more about that story that you told in the TED Talk. You said it was many years ago that you did that, not the TED Talk.

When I was a teenager, the name of the TEDx Talk was Be The Lifeguard Of Your Own Life. I realized that unlike in a hurricane, no one's going to come to rescue you and send it in a helicopter if you don't evacuate. When I was lifeguarding, especially when you're a teenager, you're like, “I look cool. I've got zinc oxide on my nose and mirror sunglasses and I'm walking around with a tan.” You're 17 or 18 and you're like, “I'm hot stuff.” Mentally, your job is to keep people in the pool safe, but 99% of the time, it was blowing your whistle and telling kids not to run on wet cement.

At one moment from the training, there's a little girl on the diving board that had a lot of fear and she dived and I was like, “She's underwater too long. She comes up flailing and I had to dive in and pull her to the side.” I remembered I didn't panic. I stayed calm. My training paid off. I'm sure you, Rob, know that more than anybody, that's what the training is for, in those moments that you don't panic. That life lesson of not panicking and staying calm has served me my whole career, including many years later after working at Condé Nast for several years and getting laid off. Other people were mad and storming out. I said, “Don't you need a status report of where things are supposed to go?” They said, “That would be great, but everyone else is leaving.” That one decision to not panic and stay calm and do the right thing benefited me because two years later, they ended up hiring me back. I ended up winning The Salesperson of the Year. That whole journey attributes to the skills that I learned all those years ago as a lifeguard.

A lot of the things we do in our lives translate and provides great stories and you use them as TEDx Talk. What is one of the greatest accomplishments that you felt that you had in your life? You said getting people off the self-esteem roller coaster.

I was on this self-esteem roller coaster, Rob, where I would only feel good about myself if my numbers were up and batting myself if my numbers were down. I feel good if I was winning an award and bad about myself if I was being laid off. I realized, “I'm the same person and my identity is more than what my job is or any one particular outcome is.” That's the insight and the ability to give talks and help other salespeople get off of that self-esteem roller coaster. In the retail world at Christmas time, they're measuring, “Last year of December 20th at 12:00 to 1:00, you sold this much. This year, you've only sold that much.” You could be up and down hourly if you are only looking on your outside results to give yourself a sense of who you are being worth anything. I would say that's one of the biggest accomplishments of helping people get a sense of who they are is bigger than any one thing happening.

If anybody wants to get a sneak peek at your book, they can text the word, PITCH to 66866. Is that correct?

Yes, you have to emphasize the P in pitch, which you did. Otherwise, people think you said it's a different word and I get a lot of confused looks.

They’ll get a much different book than yours. It is a whole different thing that you don’t want to get. John, I can't thank you enough. You're such a humble individual as well as an individual that is giving. I saw that you contribute a lot to a charity that you're close out there in LA.

It's called Project Angel Food.

Tell us more about Project Angel Food.

It delivers food to people who are ill, with homebound illnesses, anything from breast cancer, HIV or AIDS. It helps those people not just get a healthy meal, but also get some contact with somebody who cares about them. It's that personal connection. Sometimes that's the only person that person sees all day.

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Better Selling Through Storytelling

When we're going back to your speaking, the things that people can take away when they have you come on stage and they have you talked to their employees. It's not only about the storytelling part. What are some of the things that the companies will feel that their employees will take away from your speeches?

In addition, we turn case studies into case stories. That's a big a-ha moment for most people because this case study by themselves are boring. When I tell them turning it into a story, and I can give you a quick example if you want to hear it. Back to Gensler again, they were pitching that Pittsburgh Airport and they had some great before and after pictures of another airport they had done, but there was no story. I worked with them and helped in the story that caused them to win this $1 billion project. In addition to the stories they told about themselves was that years ago, JetBlue at JFK had hired them to renovate that airport.

One of the challenges they had during the project was they had to rip up all the floors in the middle of the night and do it between 9:00 PM and 9:00 AM, so that the stores could open on time. They knew what could possibly go wrong. Having done this many times and they had all their vendors on call. Sure enough, at 2:00 in the morning, a fuse blew and they had somebody there in twenty minutes to fix it. At 8: 59, the last tile went down. All the stores opened on time. After that renovation, sales are up to 15% because they've designed such a beautiful place. People are spending more time shopping. That's different than saying, “We use critical thinking to anticipate problems.” That's negative and we showed it in a story.

That sounds much better. It sounds more impactful. At the same time, stories are so much that people take away more from stories than they do from statistics. That's for sure.

You know you’ve told a good story when people repeat your story to other people. They remembered enough that they can tell other people and that's how you create brand ambassadors and all the good stuff.

John, I can't thank you enough for coming on this show, your information, your kindness and everything that you put out there as far as being able to tell the story and I love storytelling. That's how I go about and tell my story through speaking. It's such a powerful thing because it comes from the heart. At the same time, it is such an impact. I end all my episodes with the same things. I would ask three different questions for you. I didn't give them to you ahead of time. This could be interesting.

It’s a hot seat, no pun intended, about being a fireman.

With no extinguishers in sight. The first question is what is one thing you haven't done but is outside your comfort zone?

I would say there are a lot of things I haven't done. I agreed to go on this weekend trip with some friends golfing and that may not sound like a big deal. I've tried to play golf a few times, but I'm no good at it. The hand-eye coordination is something that's not my thing. They said, “That's part of the weekend.” I said, “I'll just ride around the cart, whatever.” For me, that's out of my comfort zone to go on a golf course, especially with professional people. I can play all the time, but I'm doing it because I want to get to know people better and spend time with them and push myself out of my comfort zone a little bit of like, “You don't have to be the best at everything they do, John. It's okay not to be good at something and still show up.”

The second question is what is your favorite quote and why?

That would be Arthur Ashe, the former famous tennis player who said, “The key to success is confidence. The key to confidence is preparation.” The reason I love it is that's been the key to my success is preparation. I take the time to understand my clients, especially if I'm giving a talk to the audience. I understand their pain points. I remember giving a talk to Anthem Insurance and afterward, people came up to me and they said, “How long have you worked in healthcare?” I was like, “I don't. I learned about your acronyms and your structure.” That's the best advice anybody can ever do is the more prepared you are, the more confident you are and you will be more successful as an athlete.

Here's your last question. This is always the hardest one and it may take some thought here. If you could pick to have coffee with three people, they can be deceased or alive, at a firehouse coffee table, in other words, no questions are off the table and you can ask whatever conversation you want to have, who would it be and why?

Abraham Lincoln because I'm from Illinois. That was a childhood idol. I've seen and read many books about him and saw the Daniel Day-Lewis movie. I would be fascinated to hear his struggles and how he stayed committed to ending slavery when he's fighting with his own depression and his wife's challenges and all. It's not like he had an easy life. That's the first person I would enjoy having coffee with. Let me think the second person.

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You have to pick a short person because you picked a tall person.

I think I'd like to put Elon Musk on that list. To hear anybody who's created an electric car company and wants to go to the moon would be somebody that I would find interesting. The last one would be Audrey Hepburn. I was completely fascinated by her life as an actress, but more interesting to me is her commitment to UNICEF towards the end of her career and using her fame for good like that. Also, surviving the war and barely having enough money to eat, she's the ultimate rags to riches.

That is a collective coffee group right there. I like it. This is not a psychology test. It is rapid round questions. Everybody from one of the directors in the ATF that I've interviewed to Ironman people do it, to yourself. They can get an idea of this disparaging differences or similarities. I'm going to give you two things and you’ve got to say which one of them. Here's the first one. Paper or plastic?


Soup or salad?


McDonald's or Taco Bell?


That's the toughest one of everybody. Camping or hotel?


Fly or drive?


Sleeping late or wake up early?

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Sleeping late.

I knew you were that guy. I love it. Run or walk?


Partly sunny or partly cloudy?

Partly sunny.

Fire or water?


Here's the question that stumps everybody. Use a porta-potty or continue to the next physical bathroom?

Continue to the next physical bathroom.

Coke or Pepsi?


Go big or go home?

Go big.

John Livesay, thank you for coming on the show. If you want to learn more about John Livesay, go to He has his books on there. You can also hire him to be the next speaker at your event. John, thanks for all the advice.

Thanks for all the fun questions. It was a blast.

Thanks for reading.

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