Stories not only teach us how to act – they inspire us to act.”
— Marshall Ganz

I’ll set the scene:

Your agency is a finalist in an important pitch. You’ve got a presentation filled with ideas- In fact, it’s overflowing. You’ve got too much you want to say and not enough time to say it.

Of greater concern, you’re not sure how compelling it is at all. Your team worked like dogs getting their sections ready, and the work is good, but when woven together, the presentation feels a little Frankenstein-esque.

You take a break, leave the war room, and go for a walk to ruminate. Before you know it, you’re thinking about why you got into this business in the first place. You were planning on writing that novel and then… 

You think, "Whatever. I can still write that novel someday. But for now, there’s nothing better than witnessing how a germ of a creative idea can transform a business."

Each day, you embrace the joys and sorrows of running an agency.

Yes, joys and sorrows, because every single challenge you’ve met on the way has taught you something. Each frustrating problem you overcame shaped your values!

Then you think about the client whose business you want to win. You think about the challenges they’re facing.

You recognize their anxiety. They’ve got some big choices to make. Some are safe; others are riskier. That’s where you come in.

And you realize that at the heart of the disjointed pitch deck pinned up on the war room wall is an idea so bold it could transform this client’s business.

It’s not without its risks, of course. You’ve done the work dozens of times before—and often with stunning results. It’s why you’re in this business. It’s why you built this agency in the first place. This client will be in good hands.

You start to head back to the office to rejoin your team and you realize you’re fully committed to building the presentation around this transformative idea.

You think about why it’s important your client takes these steps now. There’s too much at stake if they don’t move swiftly. Your research shows the competitive forces are marshaling at the perimeter to snatch this opportunity from their hands.

Your pace quickens. You’re eager to get back and share your thoughts with the team. Time is precious—there’s more work to do to be fully prepared for pitch day.

There’s only one big question looming: How are you going to tell this story?

The Story of Self, Us & Now

On her walk, this theoretical agency owner zeroed-in on the power of personal narrative. Had I accompanied her, I would have encouraged her to frame her thoughts in a storytelling device called “Self, Us, Now”, developed by Marshall Ganz, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School and an expert on the power of personal narrative is.

I spend a lot of time showing agencies how they can improve their new business success rate through better storytelling.

“Stories are specific—and visual. The more you can communicate [this], the more power your story will have to engage others." --Marshall Ganz

Stories are a perfect pitching device. Yet, despite the many agencies that declare themselves “brand storytellers,” they don’t always deploy that same skill on their behalf.

They get swallowed up by their own jargon or blindly grasp for the right words to describe the intangible qualities that make them different from their peers—with the ironic result that they end up sounding exactly the same.

If this applies to you, then try this method on your next pitch. As the name implies, it has three parts, each one building on the other. Here’s how it works.

Story of Self

The Story of Self describes why you are being called to lead in this moment and asks you to explore the sources of your motivation.

In our theoretical situation, the agency is called to lead the client towards the right marketing solution and the CEO’s motivation probably has something to do with her belief in the potential of an idea to transform a business. That’s the reason she shows up to work each day.

To write your own story of self, consider the many influences that have shaped you throughout your career. Go back in time—all the way back to your education and childhood. What were the challenges and obstacles you faced? What events in the past shaped your philosophy and values today?

Don’t confuse this with a self-centered diatribe. Its purpose is to invite the audience to identify with your story. If you’re pitching the right client, they should recognize similar values and sense of purpose. It’s at this point you draw them in with The Story of Us.

The Story of Us

In The Story of Us, you call your audience to join you on this journey by drawing on your shared values and experiences.

Stories hold great power over us. Our brains are hardwired to connect with any human being that’s relating information in the form of a story. What’s more, we subconsciously seek to relate that story to events in our own life.

The Story of Us simply enables that natural tendency and invests the audience further in the story’s outcome.

In our agency owner’s case, these shared experiences could be described through her knowledge of the category, the operations or structure of the client’s business, the marketing imperatives, or even that sense of anxiety she’s recognized in others and helped to alleviate.

If finding shared experiences is too elusive, then you may be pitching the wrong client.

Story of Now

Here you insert a note of urgency. What’s at stake if you don’t pair your fortunes in pursuit of the shared mission? What’s your vision of success? What are the choices you exhort your audience to make if they are to meet their goals?

As Ganz explains it, The Story of Now “is rooted in the values you celebrate in your story of self and us” while also contrasting “a vision of the world as it will be if we fail to act.”

Want to see this Story of Self, Us, Now in action?

Go back and re-read the first part of this post. I used the Personal Narrative framework as I put myself in the agency owner’s shoes.

Or, watch Barack Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Politics aside, you’ll see how Obama uses the technique to draw the audience in and carry them along.

And if you’d like a more detailed field guide, here’s a free one available for anyone to download.

It’s easy to stay focused on the facts (usually with a healthy amount of hyperbole thrown in the mix) or the specifics of the client RFP, but people respond to a pitch on a deeper and more personal level. As I’ve written and spoken about countless times before, storytelling is the best way to do that. Your audience wants to be transfixed by a narrative.

Don’t wait – use it on that pitch you are working on right now. Be vulnerable. Describe how you and your agency have been shaped by your experiences–and how that has made you an ideal partner to join this client on their journey of transformation.