During the Future Proof conference, Shaping Wealth founder Brian Portnoy had a workshop on the science and craft of storytelling and how it can be used as a superpower for the modern advisor.
Like many skills often derided as “soft,” storytelling can be a potent tool for advisors and lead to stronger advisor-client engagement. When we think of stories, we frequently think of books or scripts and forget that most of what we do when we engage with other people is tell stories. Storytelling is a critical skill not just outside the office – but also inside. Understanding narrative structures and how to tell the story you need to know about your investment ideas can make or break a practice.
“We are not born as calculators; we are born as storytellers. Numbers confound us; stories define us,” Portnoy said. As humans, we are hard-wired for story, according to Portnoy. “Story is a decoder ring for the infinite amount of data and information around us.”
Behavior finance is gaining more and more importance for CFP curriculums. Once, it was 0% of the curriculum. Today is roughly 7%. Portnoy said that being a financial advisor is “part of what you do is help people share, understand, and edit their life stories.”
Portnoy thinks advisors can think of themselves as being ghostwriters for the story of their lives clients are trying to tell. According to Portnoy, the skills in being a ghostwriter are three-fold: read, write, and edit. “One of the themes I want to pursue in this workshop is that our stories are not written in pen, but pencil.”
Story is essential because humans, on their evolutionary path, have used narrative to make sense of the world. In Portnoy’s view, stories aren’t merely things watched on television but define us on a deep, intrinsic level.
Stories are driven forward by how the protagonist makes sense of what’s happening around her, struggling with hard decisions, figuring out what matters, and making decisions to go forward. He sees a parallel to financial planning here. “The best stories involve two things – struggles and transformation,” he said. Narratives typically push toward growth and change in the main character.
Financial advisors need to understand how money fits into their client’s life. “Generally speaking, we want to listen in a way where we hear their life story.” He thinks it is also important for financial advisors to understand and write their own money stories.
Leading the attendees on an exercise around mad libs, Portnoy noted that only six types of stories have ever been told. The hero’s journey is the most prominent. Of the 25 highest-grossing movies, 18 are a hero’s journey. He connected the Devil Wears Prada to Star Wars, saying that, scene by scene, it is the same structure. Financial advisors, he said, need to move from being heroes of their own story to guides in another. “You are no longer Andy; you’re Nigel,” Portnoy said, referring to the main character and her guide in Devil Wears Prada. But before you are the guide, you must be the hero and think about your relationships around money and with it. Portnoy asked, “What are your earliest money memories? How did your money story impact your decision to be in financial services?”
Portnoy doesn’t think we can ask our clients to be open and vulnerable with their money stories if we can’t be open with our own. Clients need to trust their advisors, raising the issue of what he calls “narrative trust.”
He urged advisors to question the conditions they create for their clients. Are these conditions where clients feel comfortable opening up about their stories? Financial advice can be a theater where everyone is playing a part they don’t want to play. He sees two significant issues: narrative tap out and narrative takeover.
Narrative tap-out occurs when an advisor is exhausted to the point where they cease caring about their client’s story. Narrative takeover comes from engaging in the financial advice theater. When advisors start seeing clients as having problems they have solutions for, they risk taking over the client’s sense of their own narrative. This is where thinking about how to be a good editor becomes crucial for Portnoy. A good editor gives writers space to write “sh*tty first drafts.” Skilled editors know when to listen and when to ask good questions that don’t make a writer feel diminished but instead help them get to a good place in their thinking and the composition of their story.
He sees advisors as having a duty to inspire clients with agency and hope, concluding the workshop with a quote from one of his favorite stories, The Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
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