For as long as mankind can recollect, story-telling has played a significant role in history and society. Plato, famously said, “Those who tell the stories rule society.” They rule society because through stories they gain power by being able to persuade, compel and elicit emotional responses from the audience.
In business, story-telling is referred to as, storytelling, which is the act of selling your product or service by telling a story. Storytelling in the digital era is even more powerful with the amplification of the message brought about by social media and new technologies. Today, those who are great storytellers have boundless opportunity to generate revenue for themselves and their companies. Even with artificial intelligence, it will never replicate intuition and storytelling the way people do it. That is why top salespeople will always be in high demand in any company. Imagine the power of a company with a whole team full of these highly skilled story-sellers.
This is exactly what Best Selling Author and Sales Keynote Speaker, John Livesay builds when he delivers presentations to companies and works with their sales teams. John Livesay specializes in sales, marketing, negotiation, and persuasion. As a keynote speaker and storyteller John shares lessons, he learned from his sales career at Conde Nast where he won 2012 Salesperson of the Year for Conde Nast’s 22 brands & 400 salespeople.
He has been interviewed by legendary, Larry King, he writes for Forbes, his TEDx talk, “Be the Lifeguard of Your Own Life” that has over 1,000,000 views and he has a new book out now called “Better Selling Through Storytelling.”
In this interview, John sat down with Clarence Paller, Director of Public Relations and Corporate Partnerships for LGFG Fashion House.
Find out why John is referred to as the “Pitch Whisperer” and how he helps people go from invisible to irresistible, creating revenue rock stars.
When did you start your career in sales and how did you get on board with Conde Nast?
I started my career in sales when I graduated out of The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I moved to San Francisco to sell multimillion-dollar mainframe computers to big companies. I had to sell against IBM, who at the time was selling with FUD, fear, uncertainty, and doubt. In other words, if you bought anything that wasn’t IBM, and I was selling for a competitor, IBM would point fingers at the other vendor and say that’s why the computer went down. The person who was running the computer for the company could get fired because IBM would blame the other vendor. Then they would say to people, if you buy all IBM and it goes down then we will take the heat from your boss. Even though I had a product that was faster and less expensive, I realized there was a lot more to sales than just numbers and information. I had to learn how to overcome fear, uncertainty, doubt and the psychological issues around selling.
Later, I moved down to Southern California, did a complete career shift and went into advertising. I worked for an ad agency and my job was to convince movie studios to hire us to create commercials for their movies when they were coming out on home video. That’s where I honed my storytelling skills, taking two-hour movies and cutting them down to 30 seconds.
From there, I went to sell advertising for Conde Nast publications, which publishes brands like Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, and W Magazine. During my time at Conde Nast, I was able to grow ad revenue from $2 million to $5.5 million by breaking into new categories of advertisers, including automotive, travel, electronics, and liquor, while expanding existing categories of accounts, including fashion, beauty, and jewelry. This is back in the early 2000s when life was great and people were taking money out of their house like it was an ATM. The luxury ad market was going up because people were suddenly buying luxury products more than they ever had before. Then in 2008, housing-market crashed and with-it luxury advertising. Sales plummeted. The company ended up laying off all of the salespeople in the outside offices.
Comment on the chapter of your life when you went through the lay-off, what lessons did you learn and how did you overcome adversity?
When I was being laid off from Conde Nast in 2009 after 15 years of being with the company, even though I thought it might happen, it still felt like a kick to the gut. That’s when my lifeguard training kicked in, where we learned not to panic and stay calm when someone is drowning. When I was being laid off all those years later, that instinct kicked in, to not panic and stay calm. Hence, I made that decision to leave on a good note, while all the other people being laid off were angry and storming out.
I asked the publisher if she wanted a status report and instead of leaving angrily as she told me others were. I told her that I wasn’t going to do that to the clients. I’ve known them for 15 years, watched them get married, and have kids. Instead of storming out I wrapped up the loose ends and was able to leave on a positive note. Little did I know that that one decision would serve me two years later when they decided to rehire me because I had not burned that bridge.
This is also why my TEDx Talk is called the “Be the Lifeguard of Your Own Life. In your life when there is a hurricane, no one’s going to send a helicopter to rescue you, so you have to be able to rescue yourself.
When you got laid off you flew yourself to New York to go for interviews. You invested in yourself, even when you didn’t have the income coming in. Comment on the importance of investing in yourself first.
My big advice for people would be to think of yourself as a stock that you’re investing in. If you’re buying into stock it is because you believe and hope that those people will make something of the business and grow it. When I got laid off, I realized that on paper, I may not have been the most experienced person to sell digital ads for The Daily Beast. I figured that I had to get myself in front of them in person. When you’re spending money on yourself to fly yourself to an interview, as opposed to asking the company to fly you there, that’s when you start believing in yourself. This is when you start thinking of yourself as a brand. What a person stands for as a brand determines what they’ll bring to the workplace.
How did adversity and challenges grow you as a person? Would you say people grow more through challenges or do they grow more through success?
You know, that’s a fascinating question to me because, when I was younger, I did not understand the concept of growth through failure. Why would anybody want to fail is what I would have said back then.
Now my perspective has changed. I think you grow from challenges or failures. You learn more about yourself and your character. I had never been laid off before in my life and when it happened, I didn’t know how resilient I would need to be until I needed to be. It tests you. You either sink or swim. I was resilient and I figured out a way to reinvent myself and get hired to sell digital advertising. The irony was because I reinvented myself, two years later I got rehired back by Conde Nast. Had I not gotten this new skill; I wouldn’t even be qualified for my old job. That’s how fast things change. I went from being laid off to two years later winning salesperson of the year, not just for the magazine, but for the whole company.
Then it became my mission to help as many people as possible to get off the self-esteem roller coaster of only feeling good about yourself when you have success and down in the dumps when faced with adversity. Regardless of whether you learn more from success or failure, the real lesson for me is that who you are as a person is not based on any of that.
When you came back to Conde Nast you won 2012 salesperson of the year out of 22 brands and hundreds of the company’s salespeople. How did you do this?
One of the things that allowed me to do that was my mindset. I told myself if I’m coming back, I’m not coming back with any fear. That shift in mindset allowed me to come up with a creative concept. I noticed that it was the brand Guess was having their 30th anniversary at the same time as W magazine’s 40th anniversary. I pitched the idea that we celebrated it together. If we had an event, we would put those photos together with some celebrities, such as Drew Barrymore who had been a Guess model before and on the cover of W magazine.
This idea became a reality and received enormous publicity for both of our anniversaries. They had loved the idea so much that they created an exclusive supplement that every page in W Magazine featured a different model from the 30 years, and this was inserted into W’s 40th-anniversary edition magazine. I got some exclusive advertising gold brands as well. That’s what allowed me to win salesperson of the year. In a time when print was going down, I was able to get a huge amount of money to come in.
Comment further on mindset, specifically your mindset plus preparation plus resilience equals success formula.
You have to start with your mindset. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whatever we believe, that’s what we see. If you think the world is a safe, friendly place, then you start looking for that. That’s why the mindset is so important. The resilience part is really important in sales as well. Resilience isn’t just about getting back up, it’s also about how fast you get back up.
I believe business and sport are very similar. For instance, one time I got to meet Michael Phelps through the brand Speedo who was one of my clients in my time with W magazine. I approached Speedo about treating their sportswear as if it were in high fashion. They could have a fashion show and invited Michael Phelps given he was on their payroll. They went with it and I got exclusive advertising for W Magazine.
On top of that, I got to meet Michael Phelps and because I had been a lifeguard and a competitive swimmer, it was quite a thrill. I asked Michael what it was about him that made him so successful. He told me that years ago his coach had asked him if he would work out on Sundays. He answered his coach yes, to which his coach said, great now you have 52 more training sessions a year that your competitors don’t. The rest, as they say, is history. The takeaway of this example for me is always asking myself, what am I willing to do that my competitors not willing to do?
How do you train your brain to see differently and obtain this mindset?
The concept of training our brain to see differently actually came to me when I decided to get LASIK surgery. There’s something called model vision, where you have to train your brain to see differently without glasses after the surgery. So how do we train our brain to see differently in the business world in our lives?
I realized that what we’re focusing on is always a choice. I tell people to let go of being a perfectionist and start thinking of yourself as a “progressionist”. For example, if you’re climbing Mount Everest, and you’re halfway up, you have a choice to train your brain to see differently. You can either think about how much progress you’ve made, that you’re halfway there, or you can think about how much further you have to go. Ultimately, we decide what we’re focusing on.
What are some of the most notable campaigns that you’ve worked on with Conde Nast?
I worked on the Lexus car account, as well as the Jaguar account. I remember when I was working with Jaguar to convince them to advertise in W Magazine, I had to use my creativity. They wanted to set themselves apart from the car industry, and they told me that they see their cars as moving sculpture and they were not sure how to get that message across. I brought up how W Magazine covers art and has a relationship with the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles. I fostered a plan to get Jaguar tied to both the art world and the W Magazine Golden Globes party by having 10 subscriber couples picked up in a Jaguar and taken to our event. Then after they were taken to a private dinner where a Jaguar representative and an art expert were hosting the evening. Jaguar became part of the conversation around art which achieved their goal.
You have to see all of the connections to be able to create, and this is part of storytelling, but it also takes a very creative mind to see solutions like these.
How did you get the nickname the Pitch Whisperer?
I got the nickname, ‘The Pitch Whisperer’ when I was being interviewed by Inc Magazine. I had shared the story about how I got hired by Anthem Insurance, who were looking for ways to get their nurses and MBA’s to sell their data and convince the doctors to do certain protocols to keep the insurance rates down. The staff didn’t see themselves as salespeople and that’s when I offered to tell them how to see themselves as storytellers. After speaking, I also offered to hang around during the role-playing exercise and help out the staff if they get stuck. I would be the whisperer in their ear. They loved it because when they got stuck in a situation they had never been in before while in front of their peers, I would whisper something to them and it would help them find the solution.
Inc Magazine loved that story, comparing my whispering to a horse whisperer who can calm people down and help them with their confidence.
How did you continue to grow your keynote speaking career?
As mentioned earlier, once I flew myself out to New York and got the ad selling job with The Daily Beast, I continued to invest in myself as a speaker. I realized there are certain steps that you need in terms of credibility. One is, do a TEDx talk. Someone I knew at the time gave me the name of someone who did training for that. I went and did the training. Then upon completion of training, it took me a year and a half to get a yes to speak at TEDx. At first, I was rejected given my talk didn’t fit their theme of artificial intelligence, but eventually, I found an event that was about amazement. And they felt that my message, how to be the lifeguard of your own life, worked well. It went on to have a million views.
At the time I also heard that being an author is very important. So, my new book ‘Better Selling Through Storytelling’ was also an important step in developing my speaking career. It comes right from the word ‘authority’, as being an author gives you authority.
The next few steps were getting footage of myself in front of hundreds of people, and then getting myself on TV as an expert on how to ask for what you want. Then I could put together a video reel of me on TV being interviewed by Larry King, having a book, being in front of a big crowd, and getting testimonials from brands. All of that requires focus, time and money to get to the place where I am at in my career now.
Recently, I was going for a speaking job with Redfin, a real estate technology company. I was up against two other speakers, and before my interview, I took the initiative to call up Redfin and pretend that I was selling my place. I did this to see how I was treated by the company staff. Then I called the competitor to compare how I was being treated between Redfin and their competitors. When Redfin interviewed me, I mentioned to them that I had done that. They were excited to hear what I had found out as no other speaker had ever done that. I connected the dots for them. I told them, if I’ve done this much preparation for the interview, imagine how much I’ll do if you hire me as a speaker. They ended up hiring me as a speaker. I was told that they had liked my energy and my preparation made me the best speaker that they had ever had. People need to understand that this is exactly what sales is; people buying from people they trust.
How did it come about that you were interviewed by Larry King?
When I first decided I wanted to get on television, I was talking to a TV producer. He told me that to get on television you have to be young or famous and, unfortunately, I was neither. However, I knew that other people have gotten on TV before, so I told him to just get me in the room and I’ll sell myself.
I realize that you don’t just get to be on Larry King, so let’s start at the beginning. I did media training. I had a great publicist that took my book on selling and played up the storytelling angle. With this, I made several televised appearances doing segments on topics like storytelling or confidence, but being introduced to a man named Cal Fussman is what got me on the path to Larry King.
Cal was a journalist for Esquire magazine who was reinventing himself at the time, going from a journalist to a keynote speaker. He had invited me to be on his podcast. He interviewed me, asking good questions about storytelling and selling himself, and he liked my answers a lot. He also happened to be a co-host on a show called Breakfast with Larry King, and he offered me a spot on the show to talk about my book. That’s how I got to be interviewed by Larry King.
Once again, I did my research before the interview. I personalized storytelling through doing my research on Larry King’s big break because he wasn’t always famous. People tend to forget that.
How do companies stay competitive in this new world of sales? What do they have to do to stay above the trends?
Staying competitive means going above and beyond. Giving people something before they even know they need it. For example, my client Banana Republic wanted a way to elevate their brand. Another creative solution came to mind, and I said what if we allowed, at least at the flagship stores at Union Square or Rockefeller Center, a place for people to charge their phones when they shopped. Sales went up from there because people kept shopping waiting for their phone to completely charge. Keeping a brand at the top of the game is all about surprises.
How do you work with the executive clients, like CEOs, as they’re already at the top, and they can be set in their ways? How do you help them see things differently?
As a CEO you’re asking your team to try new things, and not stay stuck in the comfort zone. You have to model that for them, that’s how you inspire them.
As for getting them to the next stage, I use the Blockbuster versus Netflix example. You just can’t be set in your same old mindset nowadays; you have to innovate.
What advice do you have for CEOs?
My advice for CEOs is to make sure that your team not just understands what the culture is, but lives and feels it. That’s how you’re going to stay competitive.
Comment on the importance of dressing sharp in business.
Your appearance is your first impression. As keynote speakers, suits are important. You need to feel confident. One of the best ways to feel confident is to have a suit that has great fabric and a great fit.
When it comes to sales, I used to go as far as buying everything, from my shoes to my suit to my belt, from the stores in the shopping center that I was recruiting to advertise in W Magazine. This is just one more example of how preparing for a job can make or break you.
After reading this article what is something you want the readers to reflect on?
Figure out what makes you unique. You have to stop dismissing your genius saying that everyone can do that. They can’t. Figure out what’s unique to your story. Who do you want to help? What problem do you want to solve? I speak mostly to sales audiences on how to win more business using storytelling. That’s my niche, and riches are in the niches.
A good story has to be three things; clear, concise, and compelling. Most people think I’m going to tell you a story and it’s going to go on and on for 10 minutes. That’s not clear or concise, and it’s certainly not compelling. Why are you listening to it? I ask them, does your story do all of those things?
What is the key to crafting your story and going from invisible to irresistible? How do you create this confidence in yourself?
Going from invisible to irresistible is a ladder. The rungs of the ladder are steps that go from invisible up to irresistible. I help people figure out where they are on that ladder with different clients. For example, some clients are very interested, but they still haven’t pulled the trigger. Then you have your favorite clients that love you and think you’re irresistible, but are you getting as much business from them as possible?
Do you think that sales are still a good profession to choose these days? What kind of advice do you have for young professionals who are wondering if they should pursue such a career?
The one thing that I can tell you, is that artificial intelligence is never going to be able to understand intuition and storytelling the way people do. There’s always going to be a need for a human connection.
Storytelling has been around since the days of Plato and I think that if you learn storytelling as a skill, whether you apply it for selling or not, you will benefit from it.
What is something you learned about life from your profession?
I’ve learned that we’re all the same. I’m fortunate to have the privilege of meeting people in all kinds of industries. The one thing that comes through as consistent across all of the industries I connect with, from Coca Cola to Redfin, is that people resonate with stories. When you tell a good story, you pull people in and emotionally connect with them.
What is the legacy you want to create for yourself?
If I leave a legacy that I’ve helped people get off the self-esteem roller coaster and realize that who they are is bigger than what they do. My whole mindset is always kind. Be kind in the way you talk to yourself, to the people you work with, and then be kind to the people that you’re selling to. That would be a great legacy.
Interview with special thanks to Contributor, Genevieve Cheng