When I was a banker, we faced a problem in our branches. Hoping to boost fee income, our leadership was pressing us hard to sell credit life insurance on our consumer loans, but nothing we could do or say to our loan officers seemed to make a difference. The problem seemed to be that the loan officers, knowing how expensive it was compared to ordinary life insurance, were reluctant to even bring it up with the customer. As we investigated and pondered what to do, we noticed that Rosa in our Kendall branch sold credit life on almost all of her loans, so we asked her how she did it. She told us that she had had a close friend whose husband had passed away, and in addition to her tragedy she had to deal with collectors and eventual loss of her vehicle because she could not keep up the payments.
This story inspired Rosa to believe in the product, and she passed her belief on to her customers as she repeated it to them. After Rosa told her story at a loan officers meeting, credit life sales went through the roof.
That experience opened my eyes to the incredible power that stories have to sell, whether it’s a product or an idea. Since then, through further experience as well as my research into the psychology of stories, I’ve strengthened and refined that belief.
Every successful sale is a story in itself, in which the hero embarks on a quest, faces and overcomes obstacles, and ultimately has a happy ending. In fact, you could say it is the ultimate action story, because the plot for each sale requires your customer to do six things:
Every single one of those six actions can be enhanced through the effective use of stories in the sales process:
First, you have to get your customer to listen, and stories definitely engage attention. Notice how quickly people pay attention to a situation when an intriguing story comes out: the one that emerged last week about the airline pilot who flipped out and had to be restrained by passengers has already prompted calls in the news media for more psychological screening of pilots. It may or may not be a good idea, but because the story is fresh in our minds is the only reason anyone is paying attention to it.
Stories also maintain attention. Ever since we were kids, we liked to hear stories, and when we hear the beginning of a story, we get pulled in and feel like we have to hear the end. But even more important is the quality of listening; we listen very actively to stories. Our minds do three very active things when we listen to stories: we simulate the action in our brains, we empathize with the actors in the story, and we engage our imagination.
It certainly helps if the customer likes you, and stories build rapport, because when you are telling them you can be more yourself, and the listener also tends to be a little more relaxed and less defensive. You can see it during presentations: the person spouting facts sounds like a teacher, but when they launch into a story, their faces open up, they become a little more animated, and their voices sound more relaxed. The funny thing is that the same thing is happening to the audience at the same time—everyone is having more fun.
Have you ever noticed how the atmosphere changes when you switch from a conversation to your sales pitch? There’s a totally different dynamic and atmosphere between the conversational, narrative phase of any conversation and the analytical, transactional portion.
They also have to understand what you’re saying, and stories are a superb way to package meaning and context. Today’s complex system sales can be very difficult for customers to understand, especially if you overwhelm them with a bunch of technical specifications. When you think about it, turning those features into understandable and compelling benefits is about showing cause and effect, and stories are ideal vehicles for showing how one thing leads to another.
They also make teaching palatable. When I have to give my dogs a pill, I wrap it in a slice of cheese, and they gulp it down. In the same way, your facts can get transplanted to their brains if wrapped in an intriguing narrative. That’s why the Bible uses parables to “sell” abstract ideas such as faith and compassion.
You may not realize that a lot of what you learned about sales came through stories. You’ve no doubt spent time at sales meetings talking shop with your peers, and the “war stories” told during these sessions are a natural way to exchange knowledge and experiences.
Most importantly, stories reduce resistance to your message. Although I am definitely in favor of facts, statistics and logic, overreliance on them puts your listeners into an analytical and critical frame of mind, with at least part of their attention devoted to arguing with your points. A story, on the other hand, invites a willing suspension of disbelief; when you watch a movie, do you spend your time thinking how artificial and untrue it is? No, you allow yourself to be transported along with it. Although you may engage your critical faculties after it’s over, while it’s being told, you focus on the narrative.
When we used reason to tell our loan officers why and how they should sell credit life, their minds were busily engaged in refuting each of our points. When Rosa told her story, they got into it, and were able to imagine themselves in the same situation. By simulating the action in their brains, it was as if they were experiencing it themselves.
Research with mock juries has demonstrated huge swings in the likelihood of a verdict by comparing the effects of one side versus the other presenting the same facts in and out of story order.
And, don’t forget the power of social proof—when you share how someone else faced the same situation and made the right choice, it reassures the listener that they are not the first.
Unless you’re involved in transactional sales that are concluded in one meeting, memory actually plays an important part in the decision process. It won’t do you much good to convince someone during a sales call if that person can’t remember enough to make your case for you in a meeting with her peers a week later.
This is where stories can help. As we saw earlier, the brain that is listening to a story is simulating the action; the regions of the brain that are engaged when we hear about an experience are the same ones that engage when we experience the same thing ourselves. The engagement and simulation that goes on in your listener’s brain when they hear a story etches it deeply in their minds, so that they are easily remembered, which helps when the customer makes the decision some time after your presentation, or when your listeners go on to tell others in their organization what you said.
Of course, the ultimate goal of any selling process is to get the customer to act. Stories can inspire action through familiarity and emotion. The simulation effect discussed earlier means that the listener has already “tried out” your product, and when it comes time to decide, that familiarity can smooth the path of the decision.
More importantly, emotion is often needed to produce action, yet a direct appeal to your customer’s emotions is likely to backfire and provoke resistance. When that emotion is elicited through a story, however, it is much more subtle but no less powerful.
As you can see, stories are one of the most powerful persuasive tools we have, but it’s easy to tell the wrong stories or tell them the wrong way. In Part 2 we will look at how to choose, craft and tell stories for maximum persuasive effectiveness.