Jeff Bloomfield: An interview by Bob Morris

BloomfieldAs a founder of BrainTrust, a successful organization that trains and develops sales and marketing professionals, Jeff Bloomfield has given a lot of thought to why customers say yes. In Story-Based Selling: Create, Connect, and Close, Bloomfield says it’s really no mystery. People buy from people they trust. They trust people they like, and they like people they connect to with. And he believes that storytelling is the best way for salespeople-and all of us-to immediately connect to a customer’s feelings of trust and liking. He thinks teaching sales professionals to close a deal by presenting their product, probing its mutual benefits, and overcoming the customer’s objections and skepticism, is a waste of time. Instead, he urges them to tell a great story to create a personal connection. Bloomfield calls upon the latest research in neuroscience to explain the process of communication.

The truth is that during the salesperson’s engagement with clients, people quickly base their decisions on how they feel, not the way they think, so trying to persuade someone by first imparting lifeless facts and figures is self-defeating. In fact, this information goes right to an area of the listener’s brain (the left brain neocortex) that drives doubt and skepticism. To make a deal we need to connect with the parts of the customer’s brain that inspire emotions of trust and empathy. By telling a story, we can immediately connect to these good gut feelings and drive away the client’s fear of being sold. Bloomfield tells his own engaging stories while teaching step-by-step techniques of intentional storytelling to create a fast connection with the listener, no matter who is buying or what a person wants to sell.

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Morris: Before discussing Story-Based Selling, a few general questions. Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Bloomfield: Yes. Growing up on a farm, my Papaw was my mentor. He was an amazing storyteller and communicator. Unfortunately, he died of lung cancer when I was entering junior high. Through his example, I learned how to positively influence others through the power of story. I went on to get a degree and work in the field of bio-tech where I was fortunate enough to help launch a therapy for brain cancer. During that time, I poured over neuroscience articles and became absolutely fascinated with two things. One, my Papaw, with just an eight grade education, was a genius. He had an intuitive sense of how the human brain worked well before we had research to back it up.

Secondly, no one that I knew in corporate America really knew, let alone understood neuroscience as it pertains to sales and marketing. If we did, we wouldn’t be communicating with customers the way we do. It was that clear, summer day overlooking the San Francisco bay from my office that I knew I had to do something about the gap in the market. It was at that moment that I knew I would start a company that focused on teaching business professionals the neuroscience behind things like connection, trust and how we make buying decisions.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Bloomfield: I would say that the biggest thing my formal education taught me was the discipline of learning. I’m a fast thinking, day dreaming, idea guy and it’s hard for me to be pinned down to one idea, one subject. The education process taught me how to stay focused on learning one step at a time.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Bloomfield: I know that it’s not just about what you know and it’s not just about who you know…it’s about unique ideas, presented in creative ways that move people emotionally. It doesn’t matter if your selling tires or working in a factory. People are drawn to creative thinkers who can motivate and inspire. I believe all of us have that divine spark but the typical grind of a “job” and the distraction of simply doing task oriented work tends to prevent or at least inhibit that creative expression. If I had to do it all over again, I would have started my own company before I was thirty. I might have been broke for a few more years, but I would have loved every minute of it.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Bloomfield: This may not be your typical answer but to me Braveheart. Think about it. It’s about leadership, inspiration, motivation, teamwork, having a common goal and banning together to overcome the odds. Nearly every scene is chock full of metaphorical business application. Try watching it again through that lens and see if it doesn’t surprise you. On a lighter note, I highly recommend to all of our sales clients that they watch the movie Tommy Boy. Yes, it’s a bit slapstick and over the top but the sales principles around making a genuine connection, building trust and being an authentic communicator are everywhere in this hilarious comedy.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Bloomfield: Without question the Bible. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the Bible is literally written as a book of stories to instruct one on how to live. The principles contained within from how to treat one another, to leadership to mobilizing large groups of people around a common cause of directly applicable to any company. In fact, most, if not all culture problems a company has today can be solved by simply following this timeless instruction book.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Bloomfield: This quote is all about “leading from behind.” Great leaders help inspire greatness in others and don’t need or desire the credit for success. It also touches on how leaders who understand this philosophy also learn the most from their team. They know they don’t have all the answers and understand that even if they did, giving the team the answers doesn’t help anyone grow and develop plus it robs the team from the feeling of accomplishment when they feel they’ve contributed.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Bloomfield: Great ideas are often met with stern resistance because they typically force people to change. Whether it’s changing your actual actions or simply your way of thinking, great ideas challenge us. I know I’ve come up with a great idea when my business partner tilts his head slightly to the right and says, “I’m not sure I understand that, let alone if it will work.”

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Bloomfield: This is basically the fulfillment of the ida from the Aiken quote. Once you’ve come up with a radical, crazy idea and you finally force feed it to the public, eventually it will be adopted and become almost passé. Take today’s automobile. To paraphrase Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.” But once they get over the shock of not riding horses anymore and realize just how incredible this new “idea” is, it becomes old hat…yesterday’s news. We are a “what’s next” type of world.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Bloomfield: There’s something invigorating and seemingly imprinted on our DNA that causes us to get more enjoyment out of pursuing that which we don’t understand versus what we think we’ve figured out. Eureka is fleeting. It’s a momentary pleasure but inevitably leads us to boredom with the very discovery. It goes right back to my previous comment. “What’s next.”

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Bloomfield: Yes, as human beings, we can certainly be extremely busy without actually being productive. For many of us, we flop into bed after a long day and lay there, staring up at the ceiling and wondering to ourselves, “what did I actually accomplish today?” The hamster and the wheel syndrome. It’s all about prioritizing the right things to work on both personally and professionally.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Bloomfield: To me, this speaks directly to the importance of teamwork. So many companies have silos these days and unfortunately, those silos don’t have bridges that connect to one another. The company’s that seem to be hitting it out of the park are the ones that understand how to develop processes around decision making that involves the best ideas from the brightest people and allows the accountability of the “team” to force greater and greater communication between stakeholder groups.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Bloomfield: I concur wholeheartedly. In business as well as life, you will make mistakes. Make them strategically and continue to “fail forward.” The greatest lessons in life are learned from the moments we realize we should have turned left instead of right. The key is to realize that mistake within the next mile and course correct. Those are great mistakes. It’s when you make a wrong turn and continue to travel in the incorrect direction due to either blind stupidity or stubbornness that sink companies and careers.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Bloomfield: For many of us, we became known for our ability to “do” something extremely well. We get promoted through the ranks known for our ability to take action and get things done. Unfortunately, the old adage, “if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.” starts to become a leadership habit that many of us fail to recognize and correct. Ultimately, it comes down to fear. Whether it’s fear of losing control, fear of failure, fear of fill in the blank, it still comes down to fear. Great leaders delegate not because they necessarily want to, but because they know they need to.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Bloomfield: Storytelling is simply in our DNA. Great leaders have an intuitive sense that storytelling influences others more effectively than ordering folks around. Leadership is simply about the ability to influence. The best way to influence is through trust. The quickest way to trust is through building a connection and the easiest way to connect with another human being is through a story. Period. End of “story.”
Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Bloomfield: People seldom change until the pain of staying where they are becomes greater than the perceived pain of where they have been unwilling to go. This resistance is all about understanding what one can gain should they make the change. That gain has to be perceived as great enough for them to put forth the effort to change or they will not. If you are seventy five pounds overweight and don’t really care, you will never lose weight. However, after your first heart attack, the pain of staying overweight has now become greater than the pain of going to the gym. Hence, you change. It’s the same with any change we are faced with…personally or professionally.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Bloomfield: Maintaining a relational connected culture in an ever increasing transactional social media world. The advice I have is to remember that the next generation of workers is growing up in a very different world than we did, however, that doesn’t make them any different when it comes to the desire for connection. The entire rise of social media was simply born out of our desire to use technology to help us stay better connected. The problem is, without real human interaction and relationships, it will eventually lead to isolation, even if one has 5,000 Facebook friends or 10,000 twitter followers. You must continue to create a culture that fosters and encourages direct human contact. Without it, your workplace will become transactional and your customer base will become even more transactional leading to a death spiral of innovation and commoditization of nearly everything.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Story-Based Selling. When and why did you decide to write it?

Bloomfield: When I started my first consulting company, I used most of the principles you read in Story-Based Selling to help my clients improve sales results. I had clients continually ask me why I didn’t have them in a book and my response was always, “I don’t have time to write a book while I’m helping you grow your company!” It was really just a case of procrastination. Finally, I sat down in 2012 and decided to put my thoughts to paper. I wrote it for two reasons. First, I wanted to leave behind something that my kids and their kids could look back on and be proud of. Secondly, I wanted to have the information in a place where current clients could access it and future clients would be able to better understand what I’m all about prior to engaging with me.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Bloomfield: Yes. As I took inventory of my life, I was humbled and thankful to have had so many great storytellers around me when I was growing up. I believe I received the gift of storytelling partially through genetics but in large part through osmosis.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Bloomfield: There’s so much more we teach to our clients that isn’t in the book. I wanted something easy to read and understand and the more I tried to include, the more complicated the book became. It’s a double edged sword. I have enough content for three more books but this one is a great foundational read.

Morris: I have been eager to address an issue with you, given the passion we both have had since childhood. I view books as “magic carpets” and so one of my favorite storytellers in childhood was Aesop. I also had favorites in each of the later phases of my life. So, let’s begin with your childhood. Favorite storyteller? Why?

Bloomfield: C.S. Lewis and of course, my Papaw. The Chronicles of Narnia is still one of my favorite books series. It was really the first time I can remember bing so enthralled by reading that I couldn’t stop.

Morris: High school?

Bloomfield: Mark Twain. As a country boy growing up on a farm, I really related to his characters and their stories. I also loved Twain’s engaging writing style in general.

Morris: College?

Bloomfield: Back to C.S. Lewis. Sorry. Not a cop out. I graduated from the Lion, the With and the Wardrobe to books like the Screwtape Letters. C.S. Lewis is a literary genius in my humble opinion.

Morris: In recent years?

Bloomfield: John Maxwell. John’s ability to paint leadership principles into compelling narratives is second to none. He breaks down concepts into easy to understand and apply steps and really leads his reader into a place of encouragement that they can accomplish anything they set their mind to accomplish. His mantra around the concept that there’s a leader within all of us is very inspirational but he always leaves you with a roadmap to implement. Great stuff.

Morris: Now?

Bloomfield: I don’t know if I have just one right now but I do enjoy authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Pink.

Morris: Please explain the connections and relationships you see between recent research in neuroscience and the art of storytelling.

Bloomfield: Recent research is starting to prove what many have known intuitively their entire lives; that storytelling triggers areas in the brain that influence our emotions and decision making. You used the word “connections” in your question and it is very apropos. What we know today is that the brain is literally hard wired for connection. As humans, we are continually seeking confirmation that we matter. That we have a purpose. In order to get affirmation of those feelings, it must come from other human being. Connection. When humans communicate in stories, it helps break down defenses and reduces anxiety. It actually reduces our stress level and helps us have a much quicker understanding of concepts and of others. Stories are the number one vehicle by which we can communicate for positive influence.

Morris: The title of your book is misleading because the essence of selling combines explaining and persuading. All people do that all day, every day of their lives. Your own thoughts about this?

Bloomfield: Ahhh, here’s the misconception. I can’t persuade you to do anything. You must come to that realization of your own accord. I can explain something, a product or service to you until I’m blue in the face but until you’ve made the conscious choice that it is the right solution to solve your problem, you will not buy it. Story Based communicators don’t persuade rather they influence through narrative to help you reach a conclusion that you must reach on your own. If I try to “convince” you to do something, your brain is hard-wired to resist that influence. The harder I convince, the more you resist. The more I influence through familiar things like illustrations, analogies etc…, the quicker you will come to the realization of your need and subsequent benefit. It’s really an inside out approach to selling vs. the outside in approach that many have been trained in. Unfortunately.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these passages.

First, How Great Leaders Communicate (Pages 8-12)

Bloomfield: Great leaders are storytellers. They understand that to influence and motivate others, they must “plan” on how they communicate and be prepared for the movement. Great leaders don’t just “wing it.” Understanding that leadership is not a title or a position, rather a true responsibility, great leaders know how to connect and the power that connection has on accomplishing mutual goals.

Morris: The Secrets of the “Buying” Brain (18-22)

Bloomfield: In a nutshell, the brain is essentially built to make decisions emotionally and instinctively and then back those decisions up with the data and facts, not the other way around. Our neocortex processes facts and data. Our limbic system houses our memories and emotions. Most companies and sales people communicate with facts and data. That hits the listener in the neocortex with no emotional connection or narrative to anchor said facts to and the result is disconnection and skepticism.

Morris: The Anxiety Highway (32-34)

Bloomfield: Our fears trigger anxiety. Anxiety triggers stress. Cortisol gets produced via the adrenal glands after being promoted by the thalamus. Once this cascade takes place, it causes the person to draw inward and take on a protectionistic mindset subconsciously. It essentially short circuits our ability to connect and trust. This process kicks our egocentric brain into high gear and doesn’t allow us to fully empathize with another.

Morris: The Synchronization of Two Brains Communicating (39-48)

Bloomfield: When two people communicate, if the speaker talks in a “narrative” or story based approach, research shows that not only does the listeners brain light up in the areas of trust, connection and theory of understanding, it actually lights up in the exact place the speaker’s brain lights up. This is further proof that stories create a neuo-biological connection!

Morris: Using Visual Aids or a Prop (52-59)

Bloomfield: When using a visual aid or prop, it should ideally engage the “experiential” nature of the listener. If it’s a visual aid full or facts and bullet points, it will have the same impact as if you spoke in facts and we now understand how disconnecting that can be. Visual aids and props can be a powerful ally in your ability to connect if you allow the story or narrative to be the star and the visual aid to be supportive as opposed to the other way around.

Morris: Of all the great storytellers throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Bloomfield: This is a very tough question. The first person that comes to mind would be my Papaw. Over thirty years have gone by since I last heard a story from him and I miss his influence in my life terribly. Since your readers didn’t know him and likely don’t care, I will give you a second choice. Mark Twain. I grew up on his stories and I think it would be incredible to sit and listen to his approach and perspective about life.

Morris: If you were asked to speak at an [begin italics] elementary school graduation ceremony [end italics] and explain why innovative thinking is important to personal growth as well as one’s career (no matter what it turns out to be), that would be your key points?

Bloomfield: It has now been proven that the brain has what we call “neuro plasticity.” The more you think creatively, the more your brain essentially “wires’ and re-wires it self to be more creative. The more you think divergently, the more innovative ideas you can produce as a human being. In my opinion, the greatest human beings are innovators and problem solvers. It is no coincidence that they two go hand in hand. I would also mumble under my breath as I left the stage at how miserable our educational system is today at encouraging creatively and innovation. We have a “one size” fits every brain approach and it’s killing our generational creativity. It’s a shame, really.

Morris: In your opinion, what specifically can new parents do to encourage and nourish a child’s imagination during the pre-K years?

Bloomfield: Read to them every day. Make up stories with them as well. Allow them to create the characters. Explore with them every day…preferable outside. Allow them to try nearly anything that won’t kill them and let them make as many mistakes as humanly possible. Don’t do everything for them.

Morris: Long ago, Thomas Edison observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Your response?

Bloomfield: This is true. I could sit for weeks and dream up the iPad but without the skills and resources to bring it to life, it was merely a dream. I have often wondered what the world would be like if every great idea actually had a chance to see the light of day. It takes extreme discipline to see vision turned into execution. It also takes a team of people usually smarter than you. Trust me on this one. 🙂

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Story-Based Selling and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Bloomfield: Step 1: Sit down and write out why you do what you do. It must contain elements of what you believe. Next, write out why your company does what it does. If either end up involving making money or profit, you did it wrong. Once complete, communicate it to the entire organization with passion and emotion and then invite the entire company to come up with their own “why” story. You’ll be absolutely amazed at what this simple exercise does for the culture in a matter of weeks.

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Jeff cordially invites you to check out the resources at this website:

TAGs: Jeff Bloomfield: An interview by Bob Morris, Lao-tse, Tao Te Ching, Voltaire, Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein, Peter Drucker, Tom Davenport, Judgment Calls, Brooke Manville, Paul Schoemaker, Brilliant Mistakes, James O’Toole, “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom, BrainTrust, Story-Based Selling: Create [comma] Connect [comma] and Close

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