Selling isn’t Telling – but it is Storytelling

by Chris Arlen on April 23, 2012

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Selling isn't Telling - but it is StorytellingThe first lesson in sales is that “selling isn’t telling” – you can talk at customers but that won’t get them to buy.

However, this #1 sales directive doesn’t say what selling is, nor does it say how to sell, it only describes what selling isn’t.

In answer to this dilemma, consider a new sales directive: “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. They are more interesting and compelling because humans live storied lives. Stories increase audience listening and retention.

They are a tool to transfer knowledge, and they provide social cues about how that knowledge is to 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 could be the basis for the #2 sales directive: “People buy on emotion and justify with facts”.

Research by Daphne Jameson in 2001 showed that “Storytelling plays an important role in reasoning processes and in convincing others…managers preferred stories  instead of abstract arguments or statistical measures. When situations were complex, narrative (stories) allowed them to involve more context.”

In selling, this is exactly what we want; Customers listening, engaged, remembering our message and finally taking action based on our proposed solution.

Removing Word Prejudices: “Stories” & “Storytelling”

To some sales reps, “stories” and “storytelling” don’t belong in business because they are fiction, and not based on facts.

The reality is that boundaries have blurred between fiction, which is or can mostly be made up, and non-fiction, which is mostly information.

Now there are categories in between the two, semi-fiction and creative non-fiction.

For our purposes, let’s consider creative non-fiction, which presents ideas and information that already exist, but does it in a more interesting and accessible way than non-fiction alone.

Again, in a sales context we want customers to be interested in our vision of their future by presenting factual information in an interesting and persuasive way.

The Elements of Successful Sales Stories

Successful reps are those that tell customers the most compelling and persuasive business stories.  They tell their stories in written proposals and face-to-face presentations. While the telling is important, the story is the driver.

The following looks at creating a sales story and though there are many theories and opinions on what elements make up a story, we’ll keep it to a simple three; character, conflict, and plot.

Character

Customers only buy what’s in it for them, so the story is about them. They are always the leading character(s) and are always described in positive terms, though you may have  to stretch a little to see their good sides. You, your sales team and your company are the cast of supporting characters.

During the telling of your sales story you’ll describe your characters positively, honestly and as accurately as practical. This doesn’t mean you’re lying about their  failures or overstating your capabilities but that you find a truthful and detailed way to describe them.

The sales story is about how the lead character(s) overcome their conflicts and win the day with your help, should they be wise enough to select you.

Conflict

This is where you describe the lead character being caught between opposing forces. These are the business forces in play based on your understanding and  analysis of your customer’s situation. They’re losing money, shedding market share, in regulatory non-compliance, unsafe and/or unproductive, whatever the first opposing force in the conflict is, usually this is the obvious part of their pain.

After describing one side of the conflict you must tell them about the other side just as forcefully to establish the conflict.

Here you describe what would  happen if the leading character took no action, or made a bad decision (choosing your competitor instead of you – you just can’t say this explicitly). You will  describe concretely what sad tidings would befall them, such as how investors would trash their stock price if they didn’t fix their problems, or customers reject  their offerings.

Plot

This is the sequence of events where the leading character, with the help of their supporting characters (you), take action, resolve the conflict, avoid catastrophe and take home the prize.

The action you describe here is how your solution works, how it will be implemented, and then point to the visible evidence and measurable results they will have with you as their ally. At the end of your plot you’ll also tell them about your past successes to assure them you can deliver the promises made in your sales story.

4 Storytelling Tips

Creating great sales stories is more art than science. So in addition to following your instincts and paying attention to great stories in literature and entertainment, here are four tips that can help in our selling context.

#1 Use 5 Senses

Use as many of the five senses as practical in telling your sales story. More than getting your audience to see what you’re describing, seek to engage their other senses too, get them to feel, hear, smell and taste it as appropriate.

You may think this is a stretch in a business-to-business sales situation but it’s easier than it seems. While you may not work in smell and taste, you’ll be surprised that with a little thought you can easily work in sound and touch.

#2 Capture Attention in the First 8 Seconds

You have eight seconds at the beginning of your story to capture your audience’s attention. Focused attention lasts only eight seconds, after that the attention wanders somewhere else and you can only hope it wanders back to you.

Place an attention-getter in those first eight seconds of your face-to-face presentations, or in the first page of your written proposal. Make it intriguing and relevant but incomplete. This might be the introduction of your customer-specific theme or your radically unique approach. You want to tease your audience’s attention into the sustained attention phase, which lasts for about 20 minutes.

#3 Sustain Attention, Build to 20 Minutes

Develop your story’s plot to build up to its highest point of interest just before the 20 minute mark (or 7 page Executive Summary in a written proposal).

If your available time for storytelling is capped at 30 minutes, hit your plot’s crescendo at 20 minutes, then resolve the details and answer their questions with the remaining time. When they’re talking their attention is back with you.

If your allotted time is more than 30 minutes, develop a second plot crescendo timed for five to seven minutes before your time ends. Then resolve details and get them talking with questions for the remaining time. Why not include the description of the cheers of the service team when the results were announced, or the voice of gratitude from the Area VP whose operations were now in the black?

#4 Wrap Facts in a Story’s Context

When communicating facts and figures include them in a story that presents them in context.  Numbers by themselves are easily forgotten, but when part of a larger story they become memorable.

For example, a brief story in the middle of your presentation that describes what you did to help another client increase their customer retention by 3%, which drove a 15% increase to their bottom line.

Summary

Your storytelling must place customers in the leading roles of their own stories – and you’re there to support them in their journey to slay the business dragons of high cost, or hyper-aggressive competitors, or regulatory  non-compliance.

Your storytelling describes what success looks like for them; how you can help them earn their treasure and ensure their kingdom lives happily ever after.

That’s your sales job. It isn’t “telling” but it is “storytelling”.

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