Stories (Issue 714)

In which we are encouraged to take the stories we hear as a starting point, not the last word.

As soon as we got to the car, some in our group were on their phones, looking for articles and commentary about the movie we had just seen.

The movie, The Imitation Game, portrays the story of Alan Turing. During World War II, Turing and a small team developed the computing device that enabled the Allies to decode German Luftwaffe and, later, naval messages encrypted by the German Enigma machine. Sir Winston Churchill said at the time that Turing’s work was the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany, estimated to have shortened the war by two years and saved millions of lives.

The movie portrays Turing’s work in the early war years as he single-mindedly pursued design and construction of the machine he called Christopher. It was a machine no one else could conceive. Many doubted the work. While thousands died and hundreds of ships sank during the early war years, Turing labored on, developing his machine.

Never mind we know how things turned out: The movie is fraught with tension as Turing battles his supervisors, his team mates, and himself to pursue his vision of the machine, ultimately successful.[Turing is considered one of the creators of the digital computer and the father of artificial intelligence.]

The hiccup is: What makes good movie making or story telling doesn’t necessarily portray what actually happened in real life. The screenwriters portrayed many elements of Turing’s story incorrectly. In the words of one commentator, “… The Imitation Game takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park” to create the tension we felt during the film.

Almost as if in response, Lisa Kennedy, commenting on The Imitation Game in the Denver Post, wrote that “’inspired-by’ films should only ever be our entryway into stories — never our final destination. Truth is too vital for that.”

Our prospects and clients, too, tell us stories. We, like millions of moviegoers around the world, can accept their stories as complete and accurate representations of facts, at face value.

The trouble with accepting their stories at face value is that all prospect or client story tellers, like screen writers, intentionally leave bits out. They emphasize some elements at the expense of others. They get their chronologies wrong. They represent or misrepresent things, in accordance with their tastes and perceptions.

It’s our job as sales people to view the stories we hear as the story tellers’ “first offers,” places to begin investigation rather than stories to accept at face value. If we accept prospects’ and clients’ stories at face value, if we ask questions to identify needs and create value propositions based on the face value stories we’ve accepted, we can suffer the same fate as incurious viewers of ‘inspired by’ films. We get it wrong.

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