By Susan Turnbull

Getting to the Heart of What Matters to Your Clients

You occupy an extraordinary position for those you advise, at the intersection of practical and profound. Your clients trust you to deliver technical solutions to serve ends that are ultimately very personal, but attached to general concepts like values and legacy.

Limited face to face time increases the challenge of reaching clients. How can you encourage clients to talk easily about what’s most important to them? How do you identify the values that define and motivate them? How might you help them articulate a down-to-earth, actionable vision for legacy?

I have found that story can help you greatly. Get a client to tell a story from their own lives voluntarily, and you’ve opened a door to a conversation that can help them find words for what seems ineffable. Let’s consider what asking for – and listening to – a story can do.

Stories are treasure houses. 

A story is a window into the life of a client. No intake form yields the color and character and details of history and circumstances that help explain who they are and what they need and want. Stories remind them of those things and tell you at the same time.

It’s in stories where a client’s values are revealed and understood in the context of personal history, experiences, and defining actions. A value or set of values always undergirds a story.

A story can be a bridge to subjects that are hard to talk about, like legacy. A story can inspire fresh thinking about the kind of enduring difference a client wants to make in the lives of others and guide a level of planning that defines and reflects their noblest sense of purpose.

Brain research proves that a story connects people on a cellular level. What the teller feels, the listener feels, too. That may help explain why telling and listening to a story can be so interesting and pleasurable and produce increased trust, empathy, and ease.

You can draw out and use a story in almost any interaction. National story expert Lani Peterson and I developed a 3-step conversational process to help you engage anyone. It is laid out in our Legacy Conversations Toolkit (see side bar), 12 large prompt cards with follow-up questions on the back to initiate story-based conversations quickly and naturally. Understand the principles that guide the flow, and you’ll find opportunities everywhere to deepen conversations instantly.

Follow the three-step flow. 

The three-step flow we follow moves from story to values to action.

1. Uncover a story.

A story does not have to be dramatic to initiate the flow. To initiate the telling, ask for something specific. “What was the highlight of your weekend?” Teaching my grandson how to canoe at our house at the lake. That’s the start of a story, one that begs for interesting follow-up questions, effortlessly engages the client, and may contain information that is new to you.

2. Explore meaning and values.

Let the story be a lever to explore the broader context of the experience. “How did you learn to love canoeing?” Well, I got a scholarship to a camp. That experience changed my life. There’s another story! It’s also a natural opportunity to invite a reflection about values and motivations.

See if they can name the values associated with the stories. “What do these stories say about what’s is most important to you?” Relationships with my grandchildren, work ethic, appreciation of nature, family, appreciation for the opportunities I was given were all vitally important to me.

3. Put vision into action.

You now have a natural bridge to come back to the work at hand. “To what degree is it important to you that the planning reflect these values?” You’ve given them an interesting new lens to consider the direction they ultimately want the planning to take.

Engage their imagination on the topic of legacy. “Are these the same values you hope others will remember you for?”

“How might those values live on in ways that would make a lasting difference in the lives of other people?” I need to develop a succession plan for the lake house; maybe I should consider setting up a scholarship fund to send local kids to summer camp.

It’s up to you! 

You have the ability in your hands to develop extraordinary conversations with clients by employing your genuine curiosity and skills in listening to draw on what is always and easily at hand – a story you invite them to tell. You’ll find that it doesn’t take long at all to create a rewarding, insightful, and helpful experience for them and for you.

The Toolkit

Susan Turnbull StoriesLegacy Conversations Cards Facilitator Set: 12 large prompt cards with follow up questions on the back.

Life Legacy Cards: Smaller version of the facilitator set, blank on the back

60-minute downloadable tutorial giving helpful suggestions

Available on and



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Susan Turnbull is founder and principal of Personal Legacy Advisors. A professional writer and speaker, her presentations, tools, and services are known for a uniquely personal and practical focus on the qualitative aspects of estate, financial, and philanthropic planning. She the author of The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will and Across Generations: A Five Step Guide for Creating an Expression of Donor Intent, as well as creator of LifeLegacy Cards and the Life Legacy Conversations Tool, all designed for those who agree that wealth transferred to future generations has both tangible and intangible dimensions. Susan lives in greater Boston.