Storytelling in Selling– Vanishing Skill: Making the Incredible Feel Credible… Power of Stories and Narratives in Selling

To hell with facts! We need stories! ~Ken Kesey … If you don’t feel it, you won’t remember it. ~Bob Dickman

There are three key skills that define a great salesperson: ability to ask great questions, ability to listen actively, and ability to tell great stories. According to Tom Searcy; you’ve probably spent a lot of time thinking about the first two; but– what do you know about storytelling?

Stories have become increasingly important in the world of selling. They can be a powerful tool for getting the attention of prospective customers, because they’re memorable and allow you to easily differentiate yourself; they help people understand and connect with what you do.

According to Michael Bosworth; for most of 190,000 years that humans have been alive on this earth, they’ve learned their most important information, including; survival skills, culture, religion… through stories. The human brain, in fact, is wired specifically; so that stories, and storytelling, have a much stronger emotional impact than information that’s presented quantitatively or according to some other emotionless structure.

Stories appeal immediately to the right side of the brain. As soon as somebody hears ‘once upon a time…’ or, ‘I’d like to tell you a story about the time…’ the listener relaxes and goes along for the ride. The connection during the story can remain between the two people long after the story is over, leaving the top sales reps with a connection that others can’t achieve.

Effective storytelling captures the hearts and minds of the target audience… and is a critical skill in the business world: At Nike, senior executives are called ‘corporate storytellers’. The 3M company banned bullet points and replaced them with writing ‘strategic narratives’. Procter & Gamble hired Hollywood directors to teach their executives storytelling techniques.

Business schools have storytelling courses to their curriculum. According to Paul Smith; the difference in business success is storytelling… great leaders do it well… mediocre ones don’t. Here are few pointers:

  • Keep it real: Concrete ideas are more memorable than abstract  ones. Tell stories that relate to the audience in a way they can ‘wrap their head around it’.
  • Appeal to emotion: Humans make emotional decisions, so your stories need to touch the heart.  
  • Use the element of surprise: Stories that have sudden twist or surprise are memorable.
  • Recast your audience into the story: Put your audience into the plot of the story. Make them ‘walk it’ with you. Their involvement makes it more memorable than just telling them about it. Get them to ‘taste it’.

In the article Selling Isn’t Telling—But, It’s Storytelling by Chris Arlen writes:  The first lesson in sales is that selling ‘isn’t telling’– you can talk at customers– but, that won’t get them to buy. Now, consider the notion that selling is storytelling — but, before you let word prejudices get in the way, think about this: Stories and storytelling are the most effective form of human communication.

Stories increase audience listening and retention. They are tools to transfer knowledge and provide social cues about how knowledge should be applied. Our brains are wired to think in narrative structures and most often remember facts as smaller versions of a larger story. This anthropological reality is the basis for the selling directive: ‘People buy on emotion and justify with facts’.

Research by Daphne Jameson showed: Storytelling plays an important role in the reasoning process and in convincing others… managers preferred stories instead of just abstract arguments or statistical measures. When situations were complex, narrative (stories) allowed them to involve more context.’ In selling, this is exactly the desired outcome; customers listening, engaged, remembering our message, and finally taking action based on our proposed solution.

In a sales context we want customers to be interested in our vision of the future by presenting factual information that’s interesting and persuasive. The most successful reps are those that tell customers the most compelling and persuasive business stories. However, creating great sales stories is more art than science…

In the article How to Use Storytelling in Sales by Wim writes: For storytelling to be effective it must be a good story: A story that’s remarkable, relevant and entertaining. The basic elements of a good sales story are actually very simple: One storyline, one protagonist, and a challenge or obstacle that needs to be overcome.

To make it easier for your prospect or customer to identify with the story and the protagonist; it’s essential to make your characters real people… Also use some actual details like– names, dates or numbers to build the story’s framework and make it more concrete. Of course your story should also be compelling and entertaining, so make sure it has an arc and builds-up to a climax.

The perfect sales story has a good balance between action and drama, and speaks to emotions rather than logic. The rest is up to the storyteller. Share yourself as a human being with flaws and all. True energy and passion often come from our struggles with obstacles and our capability to overcome them. These are the stories that touch people and build trust. You simply become more trustworthy as you show that you understand people. That’s why it’s also important to first listen to the buyer’s story.

Get to know your customer by finding out what drives or motivates them. What are their deepest needs, wants, fears and desires? Are they looking for money, status, prestige, safety, comfort, pleasure, fun or do they just want to belong? What are their objections to buying from you? Next you verify whether you’ve actually got the buyer’s story right. If this is the case, then it’s time to retell the customer’s story with a few tweaks and different outcome so that the prospect can visualize his future, which includes you and your solution.

It’s important to understand which emotions drive your buyer, than craft your story to appeal to them. Tailor both the story and character to the listener. In fact, research has shown that people remember 65 to 70% of information shared through a story, while it’s only 5 to 10% for information conveyed through facts and figures. Instead of presenting some boring stats and graphs, take your listeners on a journey

In the article Selling with Stories–Powerful Sales Tool by Ian Brodie writes: Some people are great natural storytellers. They mentally record their experiences as stories and have no trouble recalling them in an interesting and entertaining way. For the rest of us, it takes a little work. What you need to have in your armory is a set of compelling stories – perhaps 6 or 7 – covering a variety of situations where you, your products or services have added significant value.

Then select from stories, as needed, to fit particular circumstances you think are going to be relevant and interesting to your prospect. To craft stories, first think about typical problems your product or service solves, then using actual examples of specific customers, summarize them in a short paragraph…

A few guidelines should help here: Make the story personal. Don’t just talk about a company, talk about a named individual who ‘owned’ the problem that your product or service solved. Your story will feel much more real… Talk about the challenges the person faced. Again, try to describe them in personal terms so that the prospect builds a connection to your story.

Don’t belittle the person – turn them into the hero of the story – they had a problem which (by working with you) they overcame. Don’t spend a lot of time describing what you or your product actually did. Although this might seem interesting to you– it’s the least interesting aspect to your prospect. They’re much more interested in whether the problem you solved is similar to theirs, and what value or benefits did your solution bring.

Close with benefits that the product provided– but, underplay this. Almost add it as an afterthought– as if the tremendous value you brought was just part of everyday business for you. Avoid boasting or self aggrandizing statements.  Armed with your stories you can begin to put them into action in sales situations. Don’t overuse them, as you risk hogging the conversation when you should be listening. Instead, use them sparingly to spark the curiosity of the prospect, gain credibility, and provoke a reaction or question…

Storytelling is a differentiator… facts and figures, specifications and prices all still matter, for certain. But, it takes stories to connect with customers on an emotional level. The motivation to choose one brand over another– when the choices are endless– is triggered by emotion. To get story right– to bring it to life– you must understand two things: 1. What the customer cares about. 2. That storytelling isn’t just telling– it’s selling and positioning, too. Too much telling is where people go wrong with storytelling… the key is to leverage the power of storytelling to sell more and influence people, and get the desired results. 

According to Due Daniels; storytelling enables you to tap into the customer’s personal interests and unconscious desires. He calls this ‘selling the dream’. By ‘dream’, it not only means plugging into the customer’s fantasies, although that certainly can be part of the process. It also means appealing to the archetypal desires and gratifications that operate below conscious and rational awareness.

According to Rolf Jensen; storytelling is an important part of selling strategy… whoever tells the best story, and whoever tells it best, will win. Master storytellers are able to build characters, scenes, and conflict that keep the audience on the edge of their seat, and they are able to use descriptive words and convey feelings the audience can relate to. In a world with so much noise, this technique could be one that makes the difference in your selling success.

In final analysis, whether a story is based on a true story or not; how well it’s crafted will determine whether your audience will embrace it. Because making a believer out of an audience with sympathetic characters and a compelling; can’t-wait-to-hear-how-it-ends storyline– is the single greatest achievement a storyteller can strive for when trying to sell their goods.

Telling a good story is what will impress the customer, but caution– don’t go over the top with the storytelling… The art of storytelling is dying… We live in an age of sound-bites, special effects, snappy comebacks and the 30-second attention span. It seems that no one is interested in taking the time to listen to, or tell a good story.