How storytelling can increase your donations by 400% with Bala McAlinn

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Bala McAlinn, founder of Complete Works.

“Experience leads to confidence and confidence leads to good practice.
So whatever it is, whether it’s public speaking, whether it’s small interactions with a visitor, whatever it is, whatever task it is, you need to build experience.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • How to teach anyone to be a good storyteller
  • Bala’s tips for improving visitor experience through performance
  • A campaign for The National Gallery that increased donations by between 300% and 400%!

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

Bala McAlinn Blog large

The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Bala McAlinn



Kelly Molson: Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today. It’s lovely to have you on.

Bala McAlinn: Very welcome, Kelly. Nice to be here.

Kelly Molson: I am going to ask you a few icebreaker questions, because this is how we start every interview. We’ve met before though, I don’t feel like we need to break the ice, but everyone loves these, so let’s go ahead.

We’re going to talk about storytelling and we’re going to talk about visitor experience. I want to know what your favourite story is?

Bala McAlinn: I’m going to go with, I think my favourite story of all time is The Diamond as Big as the Ritz by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is a short story that he wrote about, it’s slightly science fiction, but within the real world.

And there’s a family who for generations live on a mountain and the mountain is a diamond, but they have to control the flow of diamonds into society otherwise the price of diamonds would plummet and they wouldn’t be as rich.

So they’re like a secret Bond villain family who live on this diamond mountain and have servants who speak their own language.

And one of the children goes off to college and meets the protagonist of the story and invites him to come to the mountain. I won’t give away what happens next, but it’s bonkers and fascinating and exciting, innovative.

Kelly Molson: Great. Sure. I’ve never read that either. So I’m going to add that to my list. All right. In terms of customer service, what has been your best ever customer service experience?

Bala McAlinn: So I think in recent times, the one that instantly pops into my mind, is a client. So I will share that but I’ll also potentially try to think of another one as well. So it doesn’t just seem like I’m doing that.

So some of the greatest customer experience I’ve received in recent times is at the Macallan Distillery up in Speyside, which is just second to none, it.

When you talk about a five star customer experience, that phrase is used a lot, and people talk about world class customer, visitor, guest, whichever word you want to use, experiences and they are truly nailing it across the board in so many different ways.

So their team are fantastic, they’ve done a great job of investing in them, making them feel important, supporting them and you can just tell because it’s so authentically good.

All the people you interact with truly want to be there, are truly passionate about Macallan and its history and there’s so many good stories.

Bala McAlinn: I think one of the last times I was up there, I was given a tour by one of the tour guides and they’re in a unique position that not every organisation could do this, but when she was given us the tour, we’re in a section that had, it wasn’t a museum, but had a case that’s like a museum case.

And there was an old hip flask in there. It was lady called Lindsay and she’s, I would imagine, 25. So quite young in the world of whiskey. And then that was her grandfather’s hip flask.

And she started telling us about how she’s third generation on the estate and all this, and you’re just pulled in and it was just such a powerful emotive story and such a connection with her.

And she’s not unique. When you spend time there and meet other people, there’s so many people who have a family connection to the place.

But it isn’t just that. There’s so many people who have immigrated from other parts of the world to come and work there and are equally as passionate. The whiskey is delicious and their food is sublime.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Bala McAlinn: They do a incredible tasting meal that the chef Pavel creates and it certainly doesn’t stay the same, it’s all local ingredients.

A lot of it’s come from the Spey on their estate and you’ll have fascinating adaptations of trout and salmon and local beef and things all paired with wines and whiskeys and it’s truly magnificent.

Kelly Molson: You’ve sold it. If that isn’t the power of storytelling I don’t know what is. There’s the example that we’ve all been listening for today. All right. Final icebreaker. I want to know, what is your guilty food pleasure?

Bala McAlinn: Turkish Delight. There you go.

Kelly Molson: Oh, okay.

Bala McAlinn: Yeah, no, I love Turkish Delight. My palette, I’ve got quite a Victorian palette or something, because I don’t like a lot of modern sweets, but I love Turkish Delight. I love marzipan.

So it’s really convenient if there’s a box of chocolates, because everybody goes in for certain truffles or different ones and the Turkish Delight or the marzipan one is often left till last.

But I’ll definitely go for those or in a box of Celebrations, which I don’t particularly like, but if I’m going to have one of those, I want the Bounty. I don’t want the others.

Kelly Molson: Why has Bounty got such a bad name? It is such a superior chocolate when it comes to Celebrations. I don’t understand this. It’s delicious.

Bala McAlinn: Coconut’s delicious. So I like those ones. But yeah, my real guilty pleasure is burgers. I had a burger last night. I eat too many burgers. It’s just the perfect meal.

Kelly Molson: So compact, all in one.

Bala McAlinn: Picking up just a big meat sandwich with lots of cheese, lots of pickles, lots of things in it. Yeah, I’m happy with one of those.

Kelly Molson: Okay. All right. And we’re at unpopular opinion time. So what have you got for us?

Bala McAlinn: I suppose my unpopular opinion, I don’t really like technology. And a lot of people say that, but I think I genuinely don’t.

And obviously I’m aware of how much technology has helped the world in so many ways and why we live longer and we can communicate with people who we wouldn’t be able to have connections with if we didn’t have technology.

But yeah, I find it annoying. So I don’t like computers, I don’t like phones. I keep a paper diary and a paper notebook, which everybody who works with me finds incredibly frustrating.

Because I can’t share. I can tell them what I’m doing next Tuesday if they ask. But I can’t let the counselors see it on a calendar invite.

I struggled getting on this Zoom call today. When you asked me to be on this, I said, “Yeah, but can we do it in person?”

Kelly Molson: I said, “No, that’s a real pain in the arse.”

Bala McAlinn: There’s a huge insult and an indicator that you didn’t really want to chat to me. And I was like, “Yeah, there’s a lovely sunny day where we could be strolling through some woodland having a chat or doing something,” and you could have invited your listeners to come as well, we could have had a picnic.

Kelly Molson: So this will come. I just needed more time to organise it. Oh, it will happen. All right. Okay. Look, we all need technology in our lives but I know that this is quite stressful for you.

But thank you. I appreciate that you’ve you’ve given this a go today for me. Do you think, now I want to talk about your background a little bit, because we’ve talked about this before and it is super fascinating how you’ve gone from being a classically trained actor to working with visitor attractions.

So tell us about your background. So tell us how you’ve gone from being a classically trained actor to running Complete Works?

Bala McAlinn: So yes, so I was an actor, not particularly successfully, but successful enough to do it for five years and pay the bills. Not Hollywood or Royal Shakespeare Company, which is where I wanted to be.

Lots of pantomime and theatre  and education. And I did a couple of little bits on TV, which was fun, but nothing significant. So I enjoyed the lifestyle of being an actor and the fun and experience of it.

And then the reality is I met my now wife and she became more important to me than the lifestyle of basically not having to work that much, doing some shows, and getting to lie in the morning, which was great fun in my 20s.

But yes, so decided I needed something with a bit more stability, a bit more of a stable future progression. So yeah, started looking and thinking about what else I might do.

So I decided to become a cartoonist because that’s really stable as well and the obvious progression from being an actor. So that was fun. That didn’t work out.

But actually it did give me some really good experience because I started a greeting cards company.

Kelly Molson: Oh, wow.

Bala McAlinn: It was called Of Mice and Mice. And it was this mouse in human situations but what it did is it talked to me about sales and starting a business.

Designed the cards and had them made and website and branding and everything, and then sold them on Portobello Market in West London. So had a stall and sold them there, and they sold.

So I was like, “Great, that works.” And then had to get them in shops. So I had to go through the process, which was really good for confidence building in terms of being a business person and sales, just having to book appointments, try and convince them to see you then come in and pitch your portfolio and get them to stock and supply you.

And so I did that for a year or so. I got 10 London stockists, which for ages I’d really wanted. It was like 10 London stockists, that’s like a landmark.

So I got there and did it and then realised my cards, because they were printed on recyclable material with vegetable ink and recyclable and everything, costs like 50p to make and I could sell them for a pound to a shop. I have 10 shops selling me and I make about £30.

Kelly Molson: Wow. Back to the drawing board.

Bala McAlinn: Didn’t give me the lifestyle I crave. But it was a good experience. So then I went back to thinking really about my skill set and what I’d done as an actor and the training I’d had to be an actor.

So I worked freelance for a number of years for a number of companies. So doing shows again and writing shows, but then working with visitor attractions.

So I did projects with the Science Museum and London Zoo, writing shows for them or tweaking the scripts of The Bubble Show and Rocket to Bullet show at science museum and Animal Talks at London Zoo and it was fun and I enjoyed that.

And so started doing more of that and then started a business doing that. My business, which I started in 2012, the original company, which we still do is training.

What we thought that the majority of our training work would be. The animal team, upskilling them to deliver a better gorilla talk or the workshop team, that’s in the education team that museums have.

Bala McAlinn: So we did that and we still do some of that, but quite quickly we saw that people were just asking us, “Oh actually, can you apply those skills to the front of house team? Because you’re making the animal team better communicators. We want our front of house teams to be better communicators. And ultimately we want them to be better communicators to increase commerciality.”

And that’s where our business really took off for obvious reasons. If we’re working to help people make more money, we get more work.

So focusing on using the skills of performance communication, improvisation, stagecraft in the environments of visitor attractions to upsell membership or increase onsite visitor donations or special exhibitions, is a huge benefit to the organisation and we are skilled and suited to do that.

So we started doing that and then the real unplanned success story of our business is then our staffing agency. So we started the business of training and consultancy, but then whilst I was working at Kew Gardens, this must be I think about 2013.

And I was doing communications training for their membership team and I’d mystery shopped them a few times to see the experience through the eyes of their guests.

Bala McAlinn: And they had some membership promoters at the front, like sitting on stools behind a desk, and it said talk to me about membership. And I was looking at it and they’re like, okay. And if people walked up to them, they would tell them about the membership, but there was no proactivity in it at all.

And so I’d put in the report. I was like, “It looks like you’ve got a real opportunity to increase the membership sales there.” Because I was mystery shopping, I presumed, they were Kew staff.

They then told me that actually they were from a promotional agency that they book to promote the membership. And I said, “Well, they don’t promote it. There’s no proactive sales. It’s just reactive. They sell the membership and it’s testament to the strength of Kew Gardens offer that without any proactive sales…”

The results were good that. They were getting a decent return on investment from this company, but there was nothing proactive.

So I was like, “Well, actually I know load of actors. Let us have a go and let’s see what we can do.” So we trialed a summer of doing it and increased the sales exponentially and Kew were really happy.

Bala McAlinn: And we were really happy and said, “Well, great, let us now do that for you.” And, yeah, so our staffing agency is actors between roles predominantly working at visitor attractions and predominantly doing commercial tasks like membership sales or visitor donations.

And it’s such a great model. Obviously it was my idea, but I didn’t really take credit for it. It was like one of these lovely, accidental things where we saw it, we tried it, but the model worked so well.

And we love in the company, myself and my employers, supporting actors because a bunch of us are ex actors in my company so we like having that connection and supporting them.

And then the actors, we also like that we support actors and we do it by supporting the arts, which is a lovely little circle of artists supporting the arts in their job to pay the bills.

And because we’re ex actors, we’ve managed to create an agency that works really well for our actors. We are only as good as our people on the staff and business.

Bala McAlinn: And there are lots of promotional agencies and staffing agencies out there but we are quite niche and we are very good for our people, which makes them very good for us.

Because know the trials and tribulations of being an actor, whether it’s London, Edinburgh, wherever, it’s a tough job and you need to pay your rent and you need flexibility.

So we give our staff 100% flexibility so they aren’t committed to a job if they get an audition or acting. Whereas if they’re working in a bar or working somewhere else, regularly they say, “Oh, I’ve got an audition tomorrow.” And regularly they’re told, “Well, if you don’t come tomorrow, you’re going to lose your job.”

So then they either turn up to work because they need that job, but then they’re in a bad mood so they’re not going to deliver great experiences or service for whatever they’re doing or they just don’t come or mysteriously, their grandmother gets sick or something.

So we know this can happen. Just give us as much notice as you can, but if you’re not working just tell us, which means we have to restaff all the time, but it means that our staff are happy to be there.

Bala McAlinn: And then appreciative that we give them that flexibility and we pay them well. It’s a premium product and rightly so. We don’t do any commission, which lots of our clients always ask, lots of other agencies do.

When I was an actor I did loads of sales jobs, telesales and charity fundraising and all sorts. And it was often commission based. And it’s again, it’s your highs and lows.

So if it’s a sunny day and you are doing charity fundraising or membership at a visitor attraction, which is I didn’t do myself then yeah, you’re going to sell loads and it’s fantastic. But if it’s a rainy day, you are not.

And my experience of seeing people do it in other agencies and businesses when I did it was then on the rainy days nobody tries because everybody knows, “Oh, we’re just going to get our per deal or something. We’re not going to hit commission.”

So everybody just sits back because there’s no point. Whereas for us, we charge fair, we pay fair and our team appreciate that and the attraction can budget accordingly. It’s not in terms of our billing, as can the staff.

Bala McAlinn: And they know I will be able to pay my rent if I do those shifts or it might be that one might and that one not, and that emotional journey, we want them to be happy that they’re there with the flexibility.

We want them to be happy that they’re being paid well and then we pay them quickly as well, which lot of agencies don’t because they’re freelancers and they’re used to being paid six weeks, two months after putting in an invoice.

So we pay our freelancers every other Friday. Used to be every Friday pre pandemic. We dropped it to every other Friday since the pandemic, but that’s still much better than a lot of companies.

It means we are often in effect running a bank for our staff because our clients don’t pay separate, we’re not chasing invoices two months, three months, six months down the line.

But we get the results that we do with our staff because they are happy, well paid, have flexibility and know they’re going to get paid next Friday.

Kelly Molson: This is wonderful. Who have created an organisation or create a business that can deliver so brilliantly for both of the sectors, for both the actors that work for you and the attractions that you work for, that’s a huge achievement. Something to be immensely proud about.

I loved some of the things that you talked about there because I’ve had this conversation before. I think it was actually with Carly Straughan and a mutual friend of ours about visitor experience and attractions.

And about how it does attract a lot of people from the theatrical world because you are on show, aren’t you? When somebody comes to your attraction, you want that experience to be the best it possibly can be for them.

And so essentially you are performing for them to make that happen. So it’s amazing that you can bring people in that have that background to be able to do it.

What I find fascinating is that you would never know either. So if I came along to the attraction, if I spoke to the membership people or I spoke to the donations people, whoever it is, I wouldn’t know that those people didn’t work there. You integrate them so seamlessly in that organisation that you would just think that they were there every single day.

Bala McAlinn: Absolutely. And that’s what we always tell our clients as well with the staffing offer that we do, we want them in the same uniforms as the rest of the team.

We don’t want them to look like a promotional team or this is the special team that does something different because for the visitor experience, and this is something you see regularly where obviously in a large organisation there’s lots of departments, lots of roles and responsibilities, but to the visitor, anyone wearing a badge or a lanyard or a green fleece or whatever it is, represents the organisation.

The visitor will just go to the most convenient person to ask a question or a query. And you do sometimes see in an organisation that isn’t delivering great experiences that people work in silos and, “Oh no, that’s not my department. You need to speak to someone else.”

And people hate getting passed around. They just want to deal with the person there and get whatever service it is that they need at that time.

So for our guys, we want them in the uniforms so that they integrate also because we are doing sales and we want to do it in a somewhat sneaky way.

Because, and it’s not malicious by any means, but it’s that experience of if you’re walking down a high street and you clock someone up ahead with a clipboard or an iPad smiling at you and trying to make eye contact.

Kelly Molson: Run.

Bala McAlinn: Can I cross it? I’m going to brave this fast moving traffic to get to the other side of the street to avoid this person who’s going to either ask me questions on a survey or try and sell me something or get me to sign up something.

nd that’s a natural reaction that we have. So for our teams, we want them integrated and then we always lead with service. We never come straight in with sales because it’s off putting. It can be jarring.

Wherever you are in the attraction, whether it’s entrance, exit or mid experience, if you’re suddenly interrupted with sales, it can take you aback. So our team are always trained and we have different processes at different sites, different organisations.

Kelly Molson: Can we share an example of this? Because this was one of my questions about what we’re talking about, because there’s two very distinct trains here of what you do, but they intertwine, don’t they?

So it’s very much about storytelling for sales, but also visitor experience as well. And this is the bit where they cross over.

You’ve got some absolutely incredible case studies on your website about the results that you delivered. I’ve got here increased donations at the National Gallery by between 300 and 400%. That’s phenomenal.

Bala McAlinn: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: How do you do that? How do you lead with the experience? What do you teach people to do?

Bala McAlinn: Yeah, so that one specifically was all about improving the welcome experience at the National Gallery, which led to those results. So that was a great project.

Yeah. So that started 2016, 2017, something like that. So originally we won a tender to do a research trial and the National Gallery was great.

Because often we’ll do a project like this and we just get given a week or a day even and it’s hard to really work everything out in such a period of time.

But here we had four months and the tender was put out to see if you could increase onsite visitor donations with a team who self-funded themselves through increased donations, made additional income on top and did not affect the visitor experience.

The National Gallery, the director Gabriele, was absolutely resolute that he didn’t want suddenly the experience to be altered. And everybody felt that they’re being shaken down for cash as they came through one of the entrances.

Bala McAlinn: And then in that tender, we won the tender, and then we were given six questions to answer over a four month period. It’ll be, who will donate? Where will they donate? What other commerciality can you connect with donations? Times? Et cetera, et cetera.

 But yeah, so we had four months. So we had four people, seven days a week for four months, with a tablet literally velcro’d to their patent and we’d change the patent every two weeks.

So we’d do something for two weeks, look at the data, record it and then tweak it and change it. So we’d try different scripts, different ask, different locations. And after every interaction they’d record on the tablet.

We split the visitors into I think, six different broad demographics. So they’d click the type of visitor, whether they donated, if they did donate the amount, and where they were and what time.

And we had something like, I can’t remember exactly, 140,000 interactions over the period of time. So it was a huge amount of data. So we had the time and opportunity to get it incredibly slick.

Bala McAlinn: And we found that there were really surprising, subtle changes and differences that would have dramatic effect on income. The positioning of boxes, the relationship of the positioning of boxes to where security is, or ticket desks or experiences again has dramatic effect. Security in particular. So it was fascinating.

So obviously National Gallery’s on Trafalgar Square so you absolutely need security, absolutely need that. But the security does affect the visitor experience.

Because you’re coming into an exquisite, arguably the world’s greatest collection of art, and you’re going through airport style, beepy things, having bags searched, which it’s necessary, but it’s not a pleasant visitor experience to have that.

So if that is happening and then immediately after that you have a welcome led donation ask, you’ll get some, but you won’t get as many as if you don’t have that.

You can still have that, but simply by distancing it from that and distancing it can literally be a few meters and a door. So we moved security from inside the entrance to outside the entrance.

Bala McAlinn: And the security guards, they’re a bit like, “You can wear a coat, it’s all right.” We weren’t always popular with the things that we did.

But yeah, by putting the security outside of the building, at both Portico and Sainsbury entrances that they’re covered. So you could put the security there, people are searched, they then walk through the doors and it’s like-

Kelly Molson: That’s the start, yes.

Bala McAlinn: So they then disassociate. They then walk in and then they see a friendly, welcoming person who welcomes them to the National Gallery.

And, oh, they’ve now forgotten about the bag searching, forgotten that they had to shove their keys back in a bag or whatever it is.

They’re now in the building, there’s an instant release of tension from that and then they meet a friendly, welcoming person and their propensity to donate instantly increases.

And the training for the team there was relatively straightforward. We had 17 frequently asked questions that in such a high percentage can create a great, welcome experience.

Most people it’s the Sunflowers, Whistlejacket, where’s the cafe? Where’s the toilet? What time do you close? That level of information can create a brilliant welcoming experience for most people.

Bala McAlinn: Of course, there’s occasionally somebody looking for a very particular more obscure work of art and that’s different. And the team will then have to go to the very efficient in-house team who has a broader knowledge of the collection,.

But simply by welcoming people, answering a frequently asked question or two, and then informing people that the National Gallery is a charity and if you can donate, please do, donations skyrocketed.

And we kept it consistently between three to 400% for three years. So after the four month tender, we then won a two year contract to do it.

Well, there was an extension up to a year then we won a two year contract after that to do it. We kept it for three years at that level.

Kelly Molson: That is phenomenal, that’s phenomenal, isn’t it? Because now it’s not just about the visitor experience, not just about sales training, it’s about location, it’s about understanding how your guests enter your attraction. There’s so much involved in it. That’s fascinating

Bala McAlinn: It’s core to what we do and our background. And we predominantly look at three things, which are from the world of theatre, and that’s storytelling, stagecraft, and improvisation.

Storytelling being your communications, the words you’re delivering, but not just verbally with your mouth, but with your body and your tone and voice.

And we want whatever you are communicating for it to be articulate and for it to not just be heard, but to be understood.

So we look at the nuances of that, and little changes of script can have big differences in a donation ask or in a membership pitch.

And then, yeah, we look at stagecraft and if you are producing a play, of course, you have a tech rehearsal or several tech rehearsals.

Bala McAlinn: And you block the play so that everybody knows exactly where they’re going to be standing so that the technical team and the lighting designer plans it so that they make sure that if it’s a touchy moment in the play or dramatic point that the lights are just right, and the audience can not only hear the words, but they can see what they’re supposed to see.

And we look at that in the environments of visitor attractions, looking at where donation boxes are placed, membership asked, are they front and centre? Should they be?

And we’ll often see them tucked away in dusty corners and people say, “Oh, nobody really ever donates.” It’s like, “Well, yeah, because so many people don’t notice it or there’s nobody interacting with it.”

So we look at the stagecraft and then we look at improvisation because no two days are the same in a visitor attraction. And the ability to be able to think and adapt quickly on your feet is an incredibly useful skill.

And then match with that improvisation, that there’s a principle, the yes and principle. When you are doing a scene, you don’t block the scene, you don’t simply say no, because if you do, it ends the scene.

Bala McAlinn: So if I was doing the scene with you and you walked in and said, “Oh, hi, I’ve got a delivery. Are you John?” If I just say, “No.” The scene ends.

Where I need to say, “Yes, I’m John. I’ve been waiting for my delivery. Please give it.” So yes and drives the action forward. And we want that mindset within a visitor attraction as well.

We can’t always say yes to every request, but we can offer an alternative. We can improvise. So somebody wants this X, if we know they can’t have it, if we just say, “Oh, I want this.” “No, you can’t have it.” Bad visitor experience.

But if I go, “Oh, wow, it’s great you want that. However, I’ve got Y and I think you’re really going to like this.” Then we’ve driven the action forward, so yeah.

Kelly Molson: I love this. Just going back to what you were talking about with Macallan right at the beginning where you talked about Lindsay and her story.

Obviously she has a personal connection to the site, that was her grandfather’s hip flask. She could talk about it very emotively. But how easy is it to train someone to be a good storyteller?

Bala McAlinn: Everybody within reason and physical and cognitive abilities can improve their storytelling, certainly. And in the vast majority of cases, virtually everybody I meet and work with is a good storyteller.

They are just often not confident at storytelling so can’t necessarily do it in a public environment. But you guarantee that when they are at home with their buddy or their family member, they’ve been telling stories for years.

In the vast majority of cases, there are of course exceptions to every rule, but often it’s a fear of presenting or public speaking or interacting with people.

There was a study in the Washington Post, it was a year or two ago, of the most common fears in the United States and the third most common fear was snakes. The second most common fear was heights. And the number one most common fear in the United States of America was public speaking.

And there will be a correlation with the UK as well there. So I often tell people who aren’t confident public speakers that that’s pretty much the most normal thing to be, the most number one common fear.

Bala McAlinn: So that’s often in terms of delivering a briefing to a team of staff, or delivering a pitch to a board or conference speaking or something like that. Often lots of people have reticence to do that.

But storytelling in the environments of a visitor attraction is the same, this is public speaking and having the confidence to approach a family next to a work of art who are looking slightly confused and tell them the history of that takes confidence.

So to become a good storyteller, there’s lots of tips and tricks. As when you go to drama school and when you become an actor in the rehearsal room, you learn lots of nuances of body, breath and voice, and that’s great. Absolutely.

And that takes you to a higher level of technical ability in storytelling, but by far and above the most important thing is gaining experience more than the technique and it’s gaining experience so that you become confident.

And what I say is experience leads to confidence and confidence leads to good practice. It’s not about being a confident person, the most confident person in the world if you give them a task that they’re inexperienced at, they may confidently give it a go, but they’ll fail at it.

Bala McAlinn: So whatever it is, whether it’s public speaking, whether it’s small interactions with a visitor, whatever it is, whatever task it is, you need to build experience.

And that takes time. So you just have to apply yourself to the task and repeat it and repeat it until there’s a point that, “Oh, I’ve built confidence because of the experience I have.”

Once I’m confident at the task, then that’s when you start adding a bit of vocal technique or body language, more interaction, more humour, because you’re now at a confident place where you can play around with it and get to that point of good practice.

Then that’s fun, that’s fun. It takes a while to get there but being at a place of good practice is joyful. And it’s not just storytelling and public speaking.

We all do it in our jobs. A new job takes a while. A new job on a till, you don’t know how it works, all the buttons, and you might be learnt quite quickly, but you’re inexperienced for a while.

Bala McAlinn: Until click, “Oh, I’m confident at it.” Now I can run the products through the till whilst having a conversation with the visitor. For a while, I’m having to look at the till and do this and I can’t.

Once I’m on the till at the place of good practice, I’m now asking that person how their day is and what did they say, noticing the kid. “Did you see the giraffe? That’s great. He’s called Henry.” So I’m now adding to the experience, but because I’m at a place of good practice.

With storytelling, that place of good practice allows you to adapt and change for your audience. If you’re having to think about your content and your technique, you are not fully in the moment and connected to your words.

If you’ve got to a place with good practice where I can deliver this animal talk, I can deliver this membership pitch, I can deliver whatever it is because I’ve done it so many times that I now don’t need to really think about it like a person on the till.

I can be live, present in the moment, and listen and react. So because I’m not having to think about it, I notice that I start losing the attention of somebody who I’m presenting to.

Bala McAlinn: And if I notice that I can probably get their attention back by changing the pitch of my voice or the volume or becoming very serious if I’m being jovial or becoming very jovial if I’m being serious.

A juxtaposition or a change brings the attention back. Or if I’m engaged in sales and I’m really confident what I’m delivering, I’ll start noticing the bits of the pitch where there’s a little flicker in the eye and I go, “Okay, they’re interested in that benefit.”

So I’ll talk more about that benefit. Because if I’m not live in the moment, I’m just listing benefits and not really noticing what’s good for them or not good for them.

So yeah, so to improve storytelling techniques, first and foremost it’s just building experience. And you do it in safe environments, you do it with your friends, do it with your family, do it at work.

But you have to step out of your comfort zone a bit. You have to push yourself forward to learn and we can all become better storytellers.

Bala McAlinn: I do it for a job and have done for a long time, but I certainly am not the best in the world and I’m certainly not the best that I can be.

And I certainly hope that, may have been doing it for 20 years, but I certainly hope in 20 more years I will be as much better then from where I am now 20 years.

It’s a constant journey. It’s a constant development. And to develop you need to just push yourself a bit further to the point where I am now a bit inexperienced and then do it, do it, do it until, “Oh. Now I’m confident and now I’ve grown and I’m better.”

Kelly Molson: And that’s where the magic happens.

Bala McAlinn: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Brilliant. Thank you. Absolutely excellent tips today that I’m sure our listeners are going to love. Just before we wrap up, I really want to ask you, how would an attraction recognise that they needed to get in touch with you?

What’s the pain points for them? We’ve talked a lot about donations side and driving membership. What’s that trigger where they would need to think about calling you guys in?

Bala McAlinn: So our core products are training and staffing. Some organisations we do one of those things, some we do both. So the training is we come in and deliver storytelling workshops, visitor experience workshops, or sales workshops for the in-house teams to build their confidence, build their experience at those tasks.

The staffing is where we simply come in and do it with our own people. Often we do both. I love combining the two on a project where if somebody wants to increase commerciality and wants their team to improve on it, for us to be the best we can be in the workshop, we need to experience it first.

So before a training workshop, we’ll come and do some benchmarking where somebody will get in touch, say, “We want,” whoever it is, “This department to sell more memberships.”

We go, “Great. Can we come for a week and sell your memberships?” Then we’ll come. We’ll mystery shop it, look at everything, see if we recommend making a few tweaks in the stage craft.

Then we’ll put some of our actors in uniforms in position for a week or two and sell the memberships because then we can say, “Okay, definitively we know on a Saturday you should be targeting X memberships. On a rainy Tuesday you should be targeting Y and it’s achievable because we’ve just done it.”

Bala McAlinn: “And whilst we were doing it, we noticed that this little phrase or this benefit in the offer, that was the tipping point for so many people.”

So then in the training room where we are training their staff then and we’ll be using body language vocal techniques and getting their confidence to interact more with visitors.

But if we can then put in specific lines, specific little bits of script, that this little group of words had a great effect for anyone with kids. Oh, the retired couples mentioned that and then that’s really useful for them.

We like scripts. We don’t like anybody ever appearing to be delivering a script because that is the worst type, well, wouldn’t say the worst side, it’s an awful type of visitor experience.

And we’ve all experienced where you talk to someone and you know they’re just saying something that they’ve been told to say and they’ve said it a thousand times today.

Bala McAlinn: I use the analogy often of a good actor and a bad actor. We’ve all seen both probably. And the bad actor often appears to be not proficient at their work because they’re not in the moment.

They’re not connected to it because they’re thinking about the words they’re saying next or thinking about the action in the performance that’s about to happen.

So suddenly the tone of voice goes a little monotone. Their eyes may come up because I’m not actually thinking about these words, I’m thinking that I need to go open that door because there’s another character and you see them come out.

Whereas the actor who is the good actor can be delivering Shakespeare, 500 year old words that have been said millions of times, but we’ve hopefully all seen Shakespeare where it genuinely appears like these words have been said for the first time.

And it’s emotive and beautiful and powerful and we know they’re not, but because the actor’s living and breathing that character, they’re fully in the moment.

Bala McAlinn: Whereas we want that in a visitor attraction. There will be a most likely route to commerciality, whether it’s an exhibition ticket, a membership sale, a visitor donation, and then that will change for different audience groups.

But okay, you see the family, most likely benefits that appeal to them. You see the overseas visitor, most likely script that appeals to them.

So we want the team to know those, have learnt them. We don’t want to turn a team into robots saying things but we want them to be at that point of good practice, where they’re live in the moment, interacting, having fun.

But then there’s the moment and suddenly they say something scripted. Like, “You must come to the Botanic Gardens in the fall. It’s my favourite time of year. And with the membership, you can come back then too.”

So it’s just suddenly like a scripted line. It doesn’t seem like it’s scripted, but actually they’ve said it a lot. But because they’ve said it so many times and they’ve seen the benefit.

Bala McAlinn: That oh yeah, mention autumn or mention snowfall at Christmas, say something emotive that you use storytelling to put the person you’re selling to in the story, “You must come back in February, it’s orchid season and you can walk through the glass houses and see these flowers in bloom.”

And suddenly that person, because you’ve said, “You must come back,” and you’re using descriptive language, sees themselves walking through orchids in February and suddenly their propensity to buy a membership goes up because it’s not February and they want to come back and they can take the price of their ticket off.

To absolutely improvise every single time for the visitor in front of you is a difficult task. Orchids, that’s probably going to work at Kew Gardens because it’s a growth thing.

Jousting, that’s going to work at Historic Environment Scotland. It was jousting weekend last weekend. So we’ve been telling people about that. That was at Linlithgow Castle.

But we’re telling people about it at Stirling Castle and Edinburgh Castle because they’re there, buy the membership, you can go see the jousting. “Imagine being there and seeing…”

Suddenly you put someone in a store and then they get their propensity to buy whatever the product is.

Kelly Molson: Oh you are good, you’re good. I want to go jousting. I want to walk through the orchids. I want to be there in fall. That’s the story, isn’t it? That’s the power of the story.

Bala McAlinn: Excellent.

Kelly Molson: All right. We’re coming to the end of the podcast. I always ask our guests to recommend a book that they love to our listeners. It might be something professional, it might be something personal. What have you got for us today?

Bala McAlinn: Cool. Okay. I’ve got a couple with an admission as well, which is a sad, sad truth about myself, I used to be an avid reader and used to read lots of books.

 And I started my business 10 years ago and had two more children during that time as well. And for the past eight years or so I’ve become somebody who starts books and then never finishes them.

And George, one of the key guys I work with, George Mclean, always says, “If you talk about tiredness, it becomes a competition.” “Oh, I’m really tired to that.” “Oh yeah, I’m really tired.” “Oh yeah, my kid woke me up at five.” “Yeah, my kid was up at 2:00 AM.”

And it’s just this and the more you talk about tiredness, the more tired you become. But the reality is running a business, having kids, I’ve been exhausted for the last decade.

Try and read a book and just fall asleep. However, I do occasionally manage one. So there was a great book I read recently and actually did manage to finish called Get in Trouble by Kelly Link.

Bala McAlinn: They’re short stories. Maybe they’re novelettes, their length, they’re 100 page stories as opposed to full novels and in a exciting, surreal sci-fi type environment, which I very much enjoyed.

And I’ve bought a new book this week, which I haven’t read, so it could be awful.

Kelly Molson: It could be good. Who knows?

Bala McAlinn: Hopefully. And it’s more connected to visitor attraction industry. So there’s a guy called Nick Gray who had a company called Museum Hack.

I met him at a conference, the Blooloop conference, in Liverpool a number of years ago. Great guy. Museum Hack was awesome. So it still exists, but he sold it.

So Museum Hack is an awesome company who does, primarily in America, tours and museums, but focusing on sex, death, value. So focusing on the idea everybody really wants to know how much that’s worth.

And then things like people only have an attention span of a certain amount of time. And a lot of people I’d imagine will hate the sound of this, but it ticks boxes for me and they get rave reviews.

So they’ll be delivering the tour in The Met or wherever and then after half an hour, they’ll stop and all do a little bit of yoga because it then reconnects you and your attention span can come back. And they are these super fun companies-

Kelly Molson: I love that.

Bala McAlinn: Great guy. Really interesting. And yes, so I met him there. We linked, I don’t really know, but we linked on LinkedIn an occasionally like each other’s post and things like that. He’s just released a book called The 2-Hour Cocktail Party, which has just come out.

Kelly Molson: Ah, I saw this. I saw this. I didn’t know it was him. This looks great.

Bala McAlinn: So I haven’t read it, but I do know quite a lot about it because he’s been talking about this for several years and so he hosts cocktail parties.

So he was in New York for a long time. He’s now been moving around. I think he lives in Austin now. But yeah, so he used cocktail parties as ways to meet people.

And sometimes for business purposes, but also just to make new mates in a new town or a city. And so it’s a easy to follow manual of how to produce a simple, effective cocktail party.

Kelly Molson: Oh, wow.

Bala McAlinn: Simple, lovely idea. So I bought it this week, but I’m looking forward to reading at least the first few chapters before then I fall asleep and it gets put-

Kelly Molson: All right, well look listeners. As ever, you can win these books. So if you go over to our Twitter account and you retweet this episode announcement with the words, “I want Bala’s book,” you could be in with a chance winning that.

I am going to buy this book and then what we can do is have a competition about who’s read the least of it because they’re the tiredest.

Bala McAlinn: And then we can have a cocktail party, which is much more fun.

Kelly Molson: In real life, without any technology.

Bala McAlinn: Exactly.

Kelly Molson: And that’s perfect. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, Bala. It’s been lovely to talk to you. Thank you for all of the tips that you’ve shared.

We will put all of Bala’s contact details in the show note. So if you need some sales training or if you need some help with your visitor experience, you’ll know exactly where to go. Thanks for joining us.

Bala McAlinn: Thanks a lot. Take care.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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