Using storytelling to sell more products and services
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Why should we use stories to sell? Because it is the best way to capture attention, build trust, and close the sale.
Attributes to a story:
Elements to a great story:
Hook: Why should I listen to this story?
Context: When and where does it take place? Who is the main character and what do they want?
Challenge: What is the problem or opportunity they ran into?
Conflict: What did they do about it?
Resolution: How did it turn out at the end?
Lesson: What did you learn from it?
Action: What do you think I should know?
It is important for a story to have structure, emotion, surprise, dialogue, and details.
Story: A narrative about something interesting that happened
Sales Story: A story used in making a sale or maintaining a customer.
Below is an example of a great sales story.
Pig Island Story Breakdown
Time: Few years ago
Main character: The entrepreneur and pigs
Goal: For the pigs to thrive
Obstacle: Lack of food
Resolution: Pigs swim to food
What would the traditional sales pitch the artist could have used to sell the painting look like? The artist could have expressed how technically correct the painting was by pointing out color pallet elements; he could have expressed the fact that the art style was modern and trending, and finally how the price was reasonable with comparing pieces.
Where does this approach fall flat?
It's not a story. It is a list — a logical set of reasons why they should buy the painting. If your sales pitch follows a logical and technical approach you push the customer into making a rational purchase decision, and truthfully dozens of paintings match the same technical characteristics, but on the flip side only one painting could claim the story of pigs having to swim to an island.
Why are stories a fantastic communication tool
1. Stories help build strong relationships. Stories can build what seems like instant trust. Stories provide a personal, intimate, and vulnerable glimpse into your world. A story is the shortest distance between being a stranger and a friend.
2. Storytelling speaks to the part of the brain where decisions are made. Cognitive science shows that human beings make subconscious, emotional, and irrational decisions in one part of the brain and justify those decisions rationally and logically in another part of the brain. So to influence buyers buying decision using rational facts are not enough; you need to influence them emotionally, and stories are the best vehicle to do that.
3. Stories make it easier for the buyer to remember you, your ideas, and your products or services. Many studies show that facts are easier to remember when embedded within a story. Factual lists are not memorable content lets take this list as an example most of the people reading this list will not remember it by tomorrow, on the contrary, you will remember the story of pig island. That is the power of storytelling.
4. Storytelling increases the value of the product you are selling. In July 2009 journalist Rob Walker and author Josh Glen conducted an experiment which consisted of purchasing 100 everyday items from thrift stores and garage sales. The items consisted of a jar of marbles, small toys, and other low-value items on the average item cost $1.28. Then they asked volunteers to write short fictional stories about each item. Walker and Glen then placed each item for sale on, but instead of using an item description, they used the fictional story that was written for it. Within five months all items were sold for a total of $3,612 the price paid for the toys $128. A 2800% increase in value. The experiment proves that the narrative transforms insignificant objects into significant ones.
5. Stories are contagious. A good sales pitch stays within a room. A good story can travel around the world. You will rarely hear someone raving about a PowerPoint, but good stories are highly shareable.
6. Buyers want more stories from you. Forester research conducted a study in 2013 asking 319 executive-level buyers in North America and Europe how frequently the salespeople who call on them are prepared in specific ways. The buyers responded that 62% of the time the sales people were knowledgeable about the company and sales products they represented. 42% of the time they were knowledgeable about the buyer's industry, but only 21% of the time did they have relevant examples or case studies to share. Only 1 in 5 sales calls included enough stories.
What Makes a Great Story?
Hero: A main character that we care about and can relate to.
Villain: A villain that opposes our main character.
Battle: An epic larger than life battle between them.
You may be thinking to yourself at this point this can only apply to Hollywood film stories. Not true take a look below for an example of how the above great story elements can translate seamlessly to a sales story approach.
Relatable character: someone the audience can identify with meaning they can imagine themselves being the character or working with the character, for example, a customer, a supplier, a boss, or a competitor. For sales, stories avoid the superhero effect because that would not be relatable instead use stories whose main character is similar to your audience.
Relevant challenge: The obstacle, the main character confronts. The obstacle or challenge plays the villain in the story because without a villain; it is hard for the viewer to care about the hero in the story. The villain does not have to be a person. It can be an entire company, for example, a competitor. It can be a thing like a mountain you are trying to climb — a situation like a deadline. The challenge is the motivating thing driving the main character. The goal that moves the story forward. Regardless of what the challenge is, it should be relevant to the audience. It should be a challenge your audience is likely to run into themselves.
Honest struggle: If there's no struggle, there is no story. It cant be easy for the hero to get what he's after because it would be a very short unemotional story. The clash between hero and challenge is what creates drama and the bigger, more glorious the drama. Viewers never really care for the hero until they see them struggle.
The lesson to be learned: The growth that viewers lived through the character as they overcame obstacles on their journey.
How to tell the right stories?
Step 1: Define your objective. The lesson is the most critical element of the story, so it is essential to determine what experience we want our audience to learn. What do you want your audience to think, feel, or do as a result of the story? What is your main message?
Step 2: Look for a relevant success, failure, or moment of clarity surrounding your objective. Consider showing examples of failure as we tend to learn better from our failures. A moment of clarity can be a success or failure because it is essentially something which transpired and taught a meaningful lesson.
Step 3: If you can't think of a story, make one up. You can fabricate the story as long as the audience is aware it is made up.
Step 4: Pick the best story to use. Use the story that best communicates your main message. If all stories are equally good, decide by identifying how the audience identifies with the hero, the obstacle, and the struggle.
How to structure a sales story?
Hook - Transition into story.
Context - Setting of the story, where and when it took place.
Challenge - Obstacle the main character ran into. A problem or opportunity
Conflict - Action of the story. Where the hero goes to battle with the obstacle.
Resolution - How everything turned out.
Lesson - Behavior change and recommended action. Essential for sales stories.
These are the questions that the story needs to answer and the order it needs to answer them in.
Hook - Why should i listen to the story?
Context - When and where does it take place? Who is the character and what do they want?
Challenge - What is the problem or opportunity they ran into?
Conflict - What did they do about it?
Resolution - How did it turn out in the end?
Lesson - What did you learn from it?
Action - What should i do now?
How to open a story?
It is a good idea to open a story with a hook. The hook is a single phrase or sentence that indicates why you’re sharing the story. For the audience, this also answers the question of why should I listen to this story.
These are examples of wrong ways to open a story.
Never apologize or ask permission for telling a story. Asking for permission or tiptoeing at the start of your story tells the audience you don't value the story.
Don't tell your audience you are going to tell them a story. On average people will feel they don't have time to hear stories and want the facts, but if you go straight into the story then you'll have peoples attention because they won't know they are listening to a story.
Don't introduce the story by giving away too many details of the story, ending, or lesson to be learned if you give too much of your story before telling it why even bother mentioning it.
What should the opening hook be?
Kick off the story with a simple phrase that tells the listener why you are sharing the story. For example, if someone asks a question and you want to respond with a story a good response would be “I think the best example of that is…” then tell your story.
If you want to include a story when giving advice, you can say “Let me tell you what I did when…” and tell your story.
The importance of well-established context
There is essential information within the context of a story. It tells the audience where and when it takes place, who the main character is, and what do they want. Why is context important? Because it grabs the viewers attention, establishes relevance, builds on the hook to generate interest, and provides practical understanding so they can apply it to their particular situation.
Where and when? Clearly stating where and when the story took place satisfies a fundamental curiosity humans have when trying to understand something that happened. If you do not answer these question early the audience will feel there is something they don't know and will gnaw at them throughout the whole story. Another benefit of starting a story with a where and when is that it provides instant credibility.
The main character
The more relatable the main character is to the audience, the more compelling the story will be. They should be able to see themselves in that person. Avoid superhero stories because although entertaining, they have little use in a corporate approach. Look for stories that educate, sell, or simply help someone do their jobs easier.
Whenever possible, your main character should be a person, not a company.
An easy way to use people as the main character of your story is to choose a person within the corporation and tell the story from their perspective.
What does the main character want? What do they want to achieve in the story? For example, are they trying to get a raise or simply avoid being fired? Whatever it is, it should be something your audience deems worthy.
Challenge: The problem or opportunity confronting the main character.
The challenge is the catalyst to the story when a monkey wrench is thrown into the hero’s original plan, and his world gets flipped upside down. It sets off an entire series of events in the story. This is usually where the hero meets, and the villain can be a thing or situation.
If you remove the challenge, nothing of interest will happen for the rest of the story.
Conflict: Where the hero does battle with the villain.
Conflict is the heart and soul of storytelling; this is where most of the plot will play out. Within the conflict phase, you answer the question of what did the main character do about the challenge. The audience needs to see the main character struggle; it can't be too easy, or it would make for a very short story. Never summarize a story by skipping the conflict, or you will ruin the story.
Resolution: Explain how everything turned out in the end.
Did the hero win or lose? Did the villain escape? What happened? If after hearing a story, you feel strongly about the story and have clarity, then that's an example of a story with no loose ends.
Once you have crafted the challenge, conflict, and resolution, you can transition out of the story and make use of it by driving some action.
The three most productive things you can do immediately following a story are listening, explain the lesson, and recommend action. You may want to do all three of them.
Listen: Give your listener a chance to respond. So you can find out what they learned from the story and what they plan to do now. The purpose of telling a sales story is to change what people think, feel, or do. Now is the time to listen and find out if it worked. If they received the message clearly and will take the desired action, then great no need to proceed to the remaining two steps, but if that is not the case, we follow with some explanation.
Explain the lesson: Tell your listeners what you personally learned from the story. This allows listeners to draw their conclusion but with your guidance. This also signals that the story is over and now its time to talk about it.
Recommended action: Ties directly with your objective. In many stories, this step does not fit as the stories are intended to answer a question, but in the stories where this step does fit, make sure the action ties directly to your objective.
Emotions play a critical role in decision making — 4 techniques to bring out the emotional component of story.
Tell me: Name the emotion your characters are experiencing.
Show me: Show how your character is feeling physically.
Character development: Let your audience get to know your character before something emotional happens.
Dialogue: Let your audience hear how the character feels directly.
The importance of the plot twist
The unexpected ending or surprise elements keep things interesting for the viewers. They play different roles depending on where this twist is placed.
In the beginning, it gets the audience to pay attention.
At the end, seals lesson in memory.
Memories don't form instantly in the brain like a digital photograph they develop over a period of time after the event happens. This is called memory consolidation - memories that form over some time shortly after the event occurs. Adrenaline has been scientifically proven to enhance the memory consolidation process, so a surprise twist at the end of a story makes it more memorable.
Techniques to create plot surprises within your story
At the beginning: Start with the most unexpected thing that happens. The flashback to the beginning and continue a linear narrative.
At the end: Take something important from the beginning of the story and don't give it to your audience until the end of the story, this creates an unexpected, aha moment.
Creating Buildup through details
Add details that explain the motivations of the main characters. Here's an example that illustrates why the main character behaved the way they did. It was four o'clock in the afternoon and jack had not had any coffee since breakfast, he was a three cup a day guy, but on this particular day the coffee machine was broken, and the staff was in meetings all day, so nobody had time to buy coffee. At about one o'clock, we can see the effects of low caffeine starting to wear on Jack. His red bloodshot eyes gave him away. Anxiety can be seen bouncing through his leg in discomfort. His voice became shrill and his body fidgety and then finally he just snapped.
This is a clear story of somebody about to suffer a mental breakdown, but the details give the listeners essential information as to how he felt and why. Plus it creates a pressure cooker effect which makes for significant Buildup.
Tips and tools for the story building journey
Start your own story wish list.
Start hunting and crafting stories on your list.
Incorporate structure into your story.
Create your own story database