EPISODE 450: Paul Smith Gives 6 Tips for More Impactful Sales Storytelling to Take into 2022

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Creativity in Sales  virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on January  14, 2021. It featured an interview with Paul Smith. Learn more about him, his books, and his services here.]

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Paul’s TIP: “Treat storytelling like any other leadership skill that you want to have, leadership and sales skills. Study it. It’s not the kind of thing that well, if I’m not born with it I’ll just never have it. It’s not. You can learn it. Read a book, watch some YouTube videos, take a class. It is something you can learn, and you should. Treat it that way.”


Fred Diamond: It’s Creativity in Sales and today, we’ve got Paul Smith. For those of you who have attended live programs that we typically do in Washington DC, Paul Smith, the very, very last live program that we did right before the pandemic in February of 2020, we had a good friend Matthew Pollard. We went through a session on storytelling. Storytelling comes up all the time.

We tell people don’t just show up and throw up with your features and benefits. People relate to stories, they want to hear stories. Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling, he’s written five books. He spent some time at Accenture, spent a large part of his career at Procter & Gamble.

I’m sure there’s plenty of stories that you could probably tell us from there. Of course, he’s the author of The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell. Congratulations, that reached number one on Amazon’s business communication category. Paul Smith, thanks for spending some time with us today. I’m excited to talk to you about this.

Whenever we talk about story, people get alive. People sometimes struggle, especially people who are on the early stage of their career, because they don’t think they have any stories to tell. I’m excited to get some of your guidance on how people, especially as they’re beginning to have more real conversations with customers, to help them understand how their solutions can help.

That’s enough about me talking. Paul Smith, it’s great to see you. I’m excited to have you here. I’m actually broadcasting typically from DC. Today I’m just outside of Atlantic City, New Jersey. If you’re watching this live, you see my mother’s Lladró behind me right there. I think that’s one of her Hibel plates or something like that. Typically, you see this beautiful IES banner. You’re down in Cincinnati, good to see you my friend. Let’s get started.

Paul Smith: Yeah. Thanks for having me here, and thanks for distinguishing me from the other Paul Smith. Last week I did a keynote, and one of the attendees said that they were disappointed when they found out I was not Paul Smith, the famous clothing designer from London. Yeah, I’m not that guy.

Fred Diamond: All right, let’s get talking. Storytelling is huge, and like I said, we talk about it a lot. We’ve had a number of speakers. I mentioned Matthew Pollard, who you’re familiar with. Let’s get started here, now we’re going to hit a couple critical topics. The goal here today is to get people more comfortable. It’ll be interesting, because we’ve all created new stories over the last 15 months. It’s going to be interesting to see how much value there is in those stories.

Paul Smith: I thought I’d start with defining my terms, what is a sales story? Because that’s often confused, because people think that just means a sales pitch or something. That’s not what I mean by a sales story at all. I mean a real story, which is a narrative about something that happened to someone.

As such, there’ll be a time, a place, a main character. That main character will have some kind of a goal. There’ll probably be some kind of a barrier or an obstacle getting in the way of that goal. A villain, if you will. There’ll be events that transpire along the way, and hopefully resolve themselves nicely in the end. Classic attributes of a real story. That’s the kind of storytelling that I’m talking about. In fact, let me just give you an example to make it clear.

A few summers ago, my wife and I were at Coney Island in Cincinnati. Not the Coney Island in New York, the much more famous one. We were at the Coney Island in Cincinnati at an art fair, and my wife was looking for a picture for our son’s bathroom at home.

We’re going booth to booth to booth, and we get to this one booth with this guy named Chris Guglielmo. Look this guy up, he’s amazing. Does amazing, mesmerizing underwater photography. Sea anemones and coral reefs and sharks and whales and stuff like that.

She starts flipping through his pictures, and she just gets emotionally attached to this picture that to me looked about as out of place as a pig in the ocean, because it literally was as you can see there, a picture of a pig in the ocean, which didn’t make any sense to me. Pigs aren’t seafaring creatures. They don’t swim.

I eventually had my chance to ask the artist, “Dude, what’s with the pig in the ocean?” That, Fred, is when the magic started. The guy said, “Yeah, that was the craziest thing.” He said that picture was taken off the coast of this uninhabited island in the Bahamas called Big Major Cay.

He said apparently what happened was a few years earlier, some local entrepreneur decided to raise a pig farm for bacon, I guess. He found out there was this uninhabited island where he could keep the pigs for free. He’s no dummy, he’s going to put them on the free Island. Well, he said it turned out the only natural vegetation on the island was cactus. Pigs don’t like cactus.

There was literally nothing for them to eat, so the entrepreneur wasn’t that smart after all. Fortunately for the pigs and the entrepreneur, I guess, a local restaurant owner on a nearby neighboring island was boating his kitchen refuse every night over to Big Major Cay, and dumping it overboard a few dozen yards offshore just to get rid of his kitchen scraps.

Well, these pigs that are basically starving to death on this island, if you get hungry enough you’ll do anything. First one little pig swims or dog paddles, or pig paddles his way out to get this food that’s floating out there. Then it’s two little piggies, and then three little piggies. He said here it is three or four generations later, and all the pigs on Big Major Quay can swim. That’s why.

He said, “In fact, it made it easy for me to get this picture because normally, I got to get my scuba equipment on and go into water, and wait for something interesting to happen. It’s a multi hour ordeal. I got to this island, and these pigs swam up to my boat. They thought I was the guy from the restaurant. I just leaned over the side of my boat with my camera snapped the picture. Easiest picture ever took. One of my best sellers.”

At that moment I’m sold. Take it for cash right now. Now ask yourself why, because two minutes earlier I was not interested in that picture at all. It was just some stupid picture of a pig in the ocean that made no sense to me at all. Two minutes later, after hearing that story I had to have it. I had to have it because I love that story. I love hearing the story, I love telling the story.

If you come to my house and go to the bathroom, you’re going to hear me tell the story again. Here it is, it’s an animal psychology lesson, a geography lesson and a history lesson all rolled into one. That story made me want to buy that picture. Just imagine how he could have sold me that picture in a more traditional way, like you said, show up and throw up our features and benefits.

He would have said something like this. “Paul, there’s three reasons why you should buy this picture. First of all, it’s the right size to fit on the bathroom wall. Your wife has already showed me the picture, where it’s going to go. Secondly, it’s the right color palette to match the decor in your bathroom. Thirdly, it’s in the right price range that you’ve already told me you’re willing to pay for this picture. That’s why you should buy it.”

Fred, those who would have been three very rational, very logical, fairly compelling reasons to buy the picture, but there were probably dozens of pictures at that art fair that met all three criteria. There’s only one that had an interesting story attached to it, and that’s why that’s the one that’s hanging upstairs in my kid’s bathroom at home now.

The story made the product more valuable. So when I say a sales story, I literally mean a story first that helps forward your sales objective. Whether it’s closing the sale or it could be before that. Just getting the first sales call, or it could be moving to the next stage. It could be service after the sale, but that’s what I mean by a sales story. Literally a story first of all.

Fred Diamond: You made a really interesting point. First of all, that was really well told. You said but there are thousands of pictures, and it just looks like a pig in a pond or something along those lines. When we’re out there selling in a lot of cases, a lot of our stuff looks the same, especially if you’re selling tech or professional services or financial services.

You pretty much expect that the delivery is going to be good. Yeah, it’s a cute little picture, but what really you have to figure out, we talk about this a lot, Paul. I’m interested if we can bring this out a little bit over the next 25 somewhat minutes. One of the big challenges that’s happened because of the pandemic, you’ve always had to focus on value in sales.

That is the key way that you really differentiate yourself is by understanding the value that you’re bringing your customer to help them achieve their goals with their customer and their customer. One thing we’ve been talking so much about is because everybody has been consumed with what the pandemic means and the financial side related to the pandemic.

Now it’s coming out, we’ve been talking a lot about mental health. People need to know, how are you going to help me achieve my goals? Get past the pandemic, help my customers who are struggling, whatever it might be. Story’s got to be a critical way to do that. Otherwise, there’s no value for me to even talk to you if I’m a customer or a prospect.

Paul Smith: Right. In fact, there are dozens of reasons why you might want to tell a story as part of your sales process. In just a few minutes, we’re going to get to the whole gamut of those stories, but explaining the value that your product or service adds is absolutely one. It’s actually not just one, it’s multiple of those stories that you should tell.

Before we get there, I wanted to answer a question that your audience probably has, which is why? Why should I be telling stories? Why shouldn’t I just get to my sales pitch? Why use this technique at all? There are a few reasons why. There’s probably dozens of reasons, but let me give you my top six.

First of all, storytelling builds relationships. It’s almost magical. In fact, there was a study done in the New York Times a couple of decades ago, that asked a really interesting question. They asked, what percent of people in the world are trustworthy? The average answer was something like 30%. It was really disappointing.

People think that only 30% of people in the world are trustworthy, but then they asked the question in a slightly different way. They said what percent of people that you know personally are trustworthy? The answer shot up to like 80 or 90%. That really just reflects a piece of human nature, and that is that we naturally trust people that we know until they give us a reason not to, and we naturally distrust people we don’t know.

Just the act of moving from the circle of I don’t know you to the circle of I know you now, immediately earns trust even though you haven’t really earned it yet, but you get it automatically because well now I know you. I know you, so I trust you until you give me a reason not to. A story is the shortest distance between being a stranger and a friend.

You can’t give somebody your resume and have them think that they know you. But you tell them a couple of personal stories about you, you grew up in the Jersey Shore or whatever and okay, now I know you a little bit. Now you’re in the circle of trust, so storytelling, helps builds relationships.

Also, and this is probably the most important one. I should probably move this to number one. Stories help people make decisions and as a salesperson, that’s what you’re in the business of. You’re in the business of getting buyers to make a decision. It turns out that humans don’t make the rational logical decisions that we like to think we do. It turns out more often than not we make subconscious, emotional, sometimes irrational decisions in one place in our brain.

Then we justify those decisions rationally and logically a few nanoseconds later in the more conscious thinking part of the brain. It turns out stories are just uniquely well qualified to talk to that subconscious emotional processing part of the brain, so you need to talk to both and stories help you do that.

Third, stories literally increase the value of the product you’re selling. I just gave you an example of that, that Pig Island story. That story literally made that picture worth more money to me, and it can do for your products as well. Four, stories make things more memorable. There’s a number of studies that show that facts are between 6 and 22 times more likely to be remembered if they’re embedded in a story, than if they’re just given to people in a list.

You don’t have to believe any of the studies because I can prove it to you right now, just by this observation. That is that you and anybody listening to this know that by this time tomorrow, none of you are going to remember this list of six things. It’s just a list of six things, but all of you sitting there right now know that by this time tomorrow, you will remember the story of Pig Island.

Next week, and next month, and a year from now, most of you listening to this will be able to tell that story of the pigs and get most of the facts right, but none of you are going to remember this list of six things. That’s the power of a good story.

Fred Diamond: Danielle actually makes a really good point here. She says that stories are authentic, and connect to you on a deeper level. I agree with you 1,000% as we continue to move on here. You do remember moments, you don’t remember all the features and benefits, and you never do because first of all, they don’t really matter.

The fact that a piece of some type of communications device is at 18 megahertz, whatever. It doesn’t really matter because you’re buying the solution to solve the problem that you need, but you want to know, how have other people used this? What are the big challenges that this has faced? Tell us a little bit about the sales process. I know you got 25 sales stories, we only have like 15 more minutes.

Paul Smith: Let me just mention that what I found when I did the research for the book, and this was for the book Sell with a Story, not The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell. As I was doing the research, of course I’m interviewing professional salespeople and professional buyers.

What I found was that great salespeople are telling stories throughout the entire sales process. From the moment they introduce themselves, all the way through to after they’ve made the sale. The kind of stories they’re telling would be like in the beginning, they’re telling stories to introduce themselves and give the prospect some idea of what it is that they do.

When they’re in the process of building rapport with the buyer they’re telling, again, more stories maybe about themselves personally, but also stories about the company that they work for. Stories to help the buyer understand why it is that they do what they do, how they’re different from their competitors. I’ll give you an example of that one in a minute.

When you get into actual making the sales pitch, and they’ll be stories about the product or service that you sell, they probably tell a story about the problem that your product or service solves. I’ll give an example of that one. Then you get into where you’re handling objections, all sales pitches come with an objection.

They’re stories that you can tell to help resolve those objections, even if that’s negotiating price. Then further, you got to actually close the sale at some point. There are actually stories you can tell to create a sense of urgency, and close the sale now instead of six months later. Then actually, after you’ve made the sale, the great salespeople tell stories to help build loyalty and get people to come back again and again and again.

There are a couple of dozen different types of stories that you would tell. It’s not just, well, you need one good sales story. You probably you need eight, 10, 12, 15, over the course of an entire sales process.

Fred Diamond: Danielle says, “Thank you for that comment.” Actually, Jeremy says, “I believe that 25 is a pretty good number.” I’ve had a couple of guests, typically on Wednesday I interview sales VPs.

The story is basically how are you dealing with your customer, and how are you leading your team? I remember I had one guest on, and she was great. She gave great answers. This is what we’re doing to lead our team, and this is how we’re telling people. She asked me afterwards, she said, “What do you think? How was I?”

I said, “You did a great job. You told the company line, you gave us good information, but you know what? It would have been nice if you would have sparkled in a couple of stories. If I were you, to be a better communicator, have a pocket full of stories.” We also had a guest on the Women in Sales webcast a couple of months ago, her name is Sam Horn.

We talked about having like one-minute pocket full of stories ready to go, same way that classic comedians, the Milton Berles, Joan Rivers of the world, they always had jokes ready to go. Same thing. It’s like you see a scenario and you had 25 possible scenarios. We tell people, have a pocket full.

Have them not so rehearsed that you could tell it’s a story, but know that it’s time to bring in an example when the customer asks an objection. Here we’re going to talk about number 11, how we’re different from our competitors. When that moment arises, you’re ready to go. You have that ready to go in your pocket, now it’s time for me to tell the story. So tell us about number 11, how we’re different from our competitors’ story.

Paul Smith: This is one of the most important stories I think salespeople will ever tell. My favorite example here comes from a guy named Sharad Madison. He’s the CEO of United Building Maintenance, which is a commercial cleaning company. These are folks that come in and clean your offices at night.

When he has a sales call on a new prospect, he’s always got a sales VP with him. They go through a sales pitch, but he almost always finds an opportunity to share what he does when he gets a new client. He said, “There’s always a 30-day transition period between the time I sign the contract and the time I take over.”

He said, “I always do the same thing during that 30 days. I sneak into the building in the middle of the night to see how they’re cleaning it now.” That’s not as nefarious as I just made it sound, because he gets permission to do this, of course. Anyway he says, “I’m looking to see how these people are cleaning the building today, because at the end of the 30 days I’m going to inherit those because they’re the contract employees.”

He said, “For example, we took over the Verizon Building there in New Jersey, where you are here, a few months ago. At two o’clock in the morning, I go into the building. I go to the first floor, I see a guy vacuuming the carpets, and he’s using the same kind of residential quality vacuum cleaner I use at home.”

What you got to know about that building is those corridors are 12 feet wide and a half a mile around. It’s going to take that guy a month just to vacuum the carpets once, plus it’s not going to do a good job. That machine is going to break down every couple of weeks, because it’s not made for that kind of usage.

When we took over, we put them into a triple wide commercial grade vacuuming machine that’ll do a much better job, and that thing will last forever. He said, “Secondly, I went to the next floor, I found a guy shampooing the carpets. That’s kind of the same thing. He’s using the same residential quality squeeze bottle, walk behind shampooer I use at home. Same problem.”

When we took over, I put them into one of those commercial grade riding shampooers. Do a much better job in a fraction of the time. Plus, notice it gets the guy off his feet, so I have fewer workman’s comp issues, which means my client has fewer comp issues. He said, “The last thing I wanted to do, I wanted to see how they’re dusting the offices.

I go up one more floor and I look on top of the file cabinets, and I see the same thing on top of all them. A half a moon swiped out on top.” He said, “I know exactly what that means.” Turns out the people cleaning those offices are too short to reach the top of the five and a half foot tall, three foot deep file cabinets. That leaves that half a moon swipe that on top, that makes it look dirty. When we took over, I gave them these simple little 18-inch plastic extension wands so they could reach all the way to the back. Problem solved.”

Now, he tells that story instead of saying, “Well, the reason why we’re better than our competitors is we use triple wide industrial grade vacuuming machines, and commercial grade riding shampooers and I give all my dusters 18-inch extension wands and that’s why we’re different.”

I mean, that works. Those are the three key differentiators, but the story lets you see in your mind’s eye all those things happening. Fred, you’re probably visualizing right now, the guy riding around in that machine like the Zamboni driver at the ice skating rink. That is a how we’re different from our competitors’ story as opposed to a how we’re different from our competitors’ list.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great example. If you’re going to be buying a office cleaning service, you pretty much expect that the office is going to get cleaned. You don’t care if they’re using 18-inch dusters, or 19-inch dusters, or Canadian imported dusters. All you really care about, you presume it’s going to get clean.

Tying in that little example, a little bit, it’s just like one little thing. A lot of times, Paul Smith, we talk about the fact that it’s a little tiny thing can make the difference. Someone yesterday, we had the great Jamy Bechler on our Optimal Sales Mindset. He said a little differentiator, send personal thank you notes.

We have a question here. The question comes in and says, “I’m a new sales rep. I moved from sales to services. What do you recommend I need to focus on to get the customers’, prospects’ attention?”

That’s actually an interesting question. That comes from Yashwant. Thank you so much. I guess the point here is, how do you prepare to tell the story? I know you have the structure here. How do you get ready to tell the story? Yashwant, thank you so much for the question.

Paul Smith: Well, let me try a different tact to answer the question that was asked, is how do you get their attention? A surprise is a better way to get somebody’s attention, is a good way to get somebody’s attention. Stories are great vehicles for creating a surprise, whether it’s at the beginning of the story or at the end of story, wherever you want to put it.

There’s a great technique to create a surprise in just about any story. I’ll illustrate it for you right now. There’s a young boy named James, nine-year-old kid. He’s in the kitchen with his mom, and his mom’s sister. While mom and auntie are sitting at the kitchen table having a cup of tea, James is standing at the stove watching the tea kettle boil and he’s just fascinated with it.

He’s watching the jet of steam come out of the kettle, and he’s got a spoon. He holds it up there into the jet of steam, watches the water condense on the spoon and drip down into a cup he’s got sitting there so he didn’t make a mess. He’s just watching the cycle go over and over and over again. Just fascinated with it. Well, eventually his mother gets tired of him.

She just barks at him. She’s like, “James, go do your homework. Read a book. Ride your bike. Go do something. Aren’t you ashamed yourself just wasting your time watching the tea kettle boil?” Well, fortunately he was not, because 20 years later at the age of 29, of course, and in the year 1765, young James Watt reinvented the steam engine.

Ushering in the industrial revolution that we of course, all benefit from today and all based on that fascination with steam that he developed at the age of nine in his mother’s kitchen. Now, I can tell by the look on your face that that was a surprise for you. It is to most people. Ask yourself, why was that a surprise? Because I didn’t tell you his last name.

I took one vital piece of information that belonged at the beginning of the story, you’re supposed to introduce the main character at the beginning of the story. All I told you was his name was James, I didn’t say James Watt. You would’ve recognize that. I didn’t give you that until the end of the story. Presto, surprise ending.

When you create a surprise, it literally releases a little bit of adrenaline in the system of the person listening to it, which just happened to you. That adrenaline makes your memory consolidation process, the physiological process where memories are captured in the human brain faster and more efficient. Literally adding a surprise makes your audience not only pay attention more, but remember more.

Telling a story like that, I mean, you wouldn’t tell that story because you’re not telling people about the steam engine. Using that technique to create a surprise is a great way to get your audience’s attention early in the conversation.

Fred Diamond: Danielle makes a point here that a lot of what we’re going back to is showing your prospects and your customers that you care. That’s one of the things we talk about all the time. Of course, telling a relevant story is something that shows a couple of things. One is that you’re listening.

You’re right. If I’m trying to sell a communications protocol solution, I’m not going to tell you the James Watt story that you just told. I’m going to tell a story about how we solved that problem for another customer, or what the customer was challenged with. You got to be in position with, back to Yashwant’s character before.

Yashwant says, “Thank you very much, Paul. That story did tell a surprise.” You have to be in position. You can’t cold call somebody and say, “Hey, I want to tell you the story about this guy, James Watt. You got a minute?” You have to do all the other stuff we talk about on every other Sales Game Changers Podcast.

You got to prepare, you’ve got to understand the challenges the customers face, you’ve got to understand who you’re talking to. You’ve got to know how your solution is going to provide all this value. On the prospecting call you don’t say, “Hey, you got five minutes for me to tell you a story of how we solved a problem?” You got to get the appointment, you got to show some trust.

You got to have marketing that’s going to be able to show that you are providing the solution. As a communicator, as somebody who’s going to be interfacing, you need to have these examples that the great Paul Smith talks about, and has written about in his book so that when you get to the point that you’re able to interface with the customer, you are showing them that you’ve prepared.

You’ve thought about their challenges, you know what they are faced with as it relates to their customers, and you have some examples in the form of story to show them that I get your problem. We know what you’re challenged with. It’s not because we use 18-inch extension wands, it’s because we go in at night.

When you tell that it’s like these guys are going to go the extra mile for me. These guys are going to help me not just clean my office, but they’re going to be a partner, for something that’s almost a commodity. If you think about that too, a lot of people are like, “Well, how do I distinguish myself if I’m a commodity?” This is a great example how.

Paul Smith: A story can do that for you for sure.

Fred Diamond: All right. We got a couple more minutes here. I know you want to bring it back.

Paul Smith: Yeah. One last thing is just what is the structure of these stories? It might be helpful for people. I coach folks, if you’re going to tell these stories, they got to be short. They got to be like one to two minutes long, and the best way to do that is to have a tight structure, so here are the questions I think your story needs to answer and in this order.

First of all, why should I bother listening to the story? If you don’t answer that, well, they’re not going to listen to your story. Once you’ve done that, you’ve earned the right to answer the next five questions. Where and when does it take place? Who is the main character, and what did they want? What was the problem or opportunity they ran into? What did they do about it, and how did it turn out in the end?

That should sound like the natural flow of a story, because it is. If you notice, there’s two questions left. What did you learn from the story, and what do you think I should go do now? That’s your opportunity to draw a conclusion and make a recommendation.

Whether that’s buy my product, or have a sales call with me or whatever the thing it is that you want to do next. If you answer the questions in that order, your story will flow better. It’ll make sense to the audience, and you got a higher likelihood that you’ll get in and out of it in a couple of minutes than if you just have a rambling, run-on mess, which is what most people do when they try and tell stories.

Fred Diamond: Paul Smith, this has been actually a fascinating conversation. Again, this is a critical piece of the sales process that we tell people all about. Lead with a story. It’s such a critical piece. We keep talking that you got to show value, and value isn’t the features, benefits and spec. The value that you’re showing is how are you going to help your prospect, or your customer solve their customer’s or their customers’ customers’ problems or challenges?

If you’re not doing that right now, they don’t need you. Paul, it’s middle of June 2021. We’ve been doing webinars every single day, converting them to Sales Game Changers Podcasts since March of last year. It’s just insane. One of the key things that keeps coming back is they don’t need you unless you’re providing huge value.

Paul Smith, I want to thank you. Just a quick note, you’ve written five books. You’ve become the leader in storytelling for business, storytelling for sales. I want to applaud you, 20-year veteran of Procter & Gamble, for the value you provide so many people with your books and everything else that you do, your speaking of course.

First of all, congratulations. Thanks for all your success. Give us one final action step. We end every Sales Game Changers Webinar and Podcast with an action step. You’ve given us so many great ideas. Give us one final action step to bring it home.

Paul Smith: Treat storytelling like any other leadership skill that you want to have, leadership and sales skills. Study it. It’s not the kind of thing that well, if I’m not born with it I’ll just never have it. It’s not. You can learn it. Read a book, watch some YouTube videos, take a class. It is something you can learn, and you should. Treat it that way.

Fred Diamond: I agree with you, man. You need to because every vendor, even if you’re with the big guys and the well-known guys, a lot of the stuff looks alike. “We offer a software as a service solution to…” it’s like, I know you do. Tell me some examples. Help me understand the heat and the passion of what you do.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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