The Place of Storytelling in Sales


Early storytelling

Passing on wisdom by telling stories

From the earliest, Man was hardwired to respond to emotion. When Ugg taught his son Ugg how to hunt Woolly Mammoth, he did so by telling him a story. He called on fear, bravery, caution and other visceral feelings to get his point across.

As sophisticated as we think we are these days, let’s not kid ourselves; we still love a good story.

Much is written about the importance of using stories as part of your sales and marketing process but not much about the mechanics.

Why tell stories?

There is a tried and trusted (and over-used) sales technique for overcoming objections called ‘feel, felt, found’. The idea is that you show empathy with your customer (feel), tell them that they are not alone (others have felt like this) and then changing their mind set (others have found these benefits.)

The technique works by appealing to the pack mentality (most people don’t want to stand out from the pack) and creating an objective point of view by the use of ‘other people’.

Storytelling is just a more advanced and subtle version – the key thing you are trying to do is engage with the emotions of your audience, even if it is an audience of one.

What does a story look like?

I’m pretty confident that you watch films and many of you will also read novels. So you will already know (maybe not consciously) that a story has a narrative structure – a beginning, a middle and an end. These can be called the setup, the conflict and the resolution.

In the setup, you are introducing the main characters and setting the scene. Your story should be grounded in a time and/or a location to help your readers or listeners put themselves in the character’s place. This self-visualisation helps to embed your quickly in their psyche.

For example:

In 1993, a colleague and I drove some scientific equipment from UK to Poland and back. Why? We were attending a conference and exhibition in Poznan and then running some customer demonstrations in Krakow and Warsaw.

Has your curiosity been piqued? Where is he going with this, what was the food like and so on. Do you want to know more?

In the conflict, introduce the elements that put the characters ‘in peril’ and drive the story forward.

Looking around the small bar, I realised it was full of ‘working girls’ and we should probably leave. Too late, the drinks had been ordered and my colleague was actually talking to one of the women sat at the bar.

 What are you feeling now? Sympathy? Shock (how could they get themselves into that situation)?

Whenever you are using a story to illustrate a point, start with the end in mind. By that, I mean that you should know what point you want to make before you start and build your story around this.

If you don’t have a suitable story of your own, don’t be afraid to borrow stories from wherever you can find them but don’t forget to personalise them. And try not to use stories that everyone already knows. Firstly; you don’t want customers getting to the punchline before you do and, secondly, it doesn’t help your credibility if your source material is recognised!

If you are speaking your story (or ‘giving a presentation’ as it’s more commonly known) don’t forget to vary your tone of voice and use hand or facial gestures for emphasis. In the example given above, I will turn slowly from side to side and scan my eyes around the room, just as if I’m checking out the clientele in a bar.

At the resolution of the story, our heroes or heroines confront and overcome the peril. In a sales context, this should always be a happy ending!

What do you do for a living”, he asked.

I’m working now”, she replied.

Ah. Then I won’t delay you any further. Uuuhh, Neil, didn’t we have to telephone the office this evening?”

Exeunt two businessmen, one slightly embarrassed, one highly amused, both with dignity more or less intact.

If the ‘moral of your story’ (the reason why you are telling it) isn’t crystal clear then now is the time to make it so.

I’ll use the extended version of this story if I’m in a competitive situation and I want to urge the customer not to rush into a decision and find himself in a place he doesn’t want to be. Oh, and if the audience is not likely to be offended! Always use a story that’s appropriate to the audience.

Well-respected sales strategist, speaker and author Jill Konrath says “Specificity sells. The more specific your value proposition, the more attractive it is. Stories are another way of providing specificity, enabling you to get your message across but without having to make unsubstantiated, across-the-board claims.”

Don’t for a second think that you don’t have any stories to tell. Your whole life and every day of it is full of things you can use. Your story doesn’t have to be a business one it just has to be capable of illustrating a business point. What’s your story?

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