Presentations - Sales

Stories that Sell, Part 2: How to Tell Them

The speaker should have read this article

As we saw in Part 1, stories can be a powerful way to sell products or ideas. In this post, we will look at five suggestions to choose, craft and tell your stories for maximum persuasive effectiveness.

Bring out the conflict

Screenwriter Robert McKee, interviewed in the Harvard Business Review, said, “Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes.” He goes on to say that all great story tellers “dealt with this fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.”[1]

Stories are such a natural fit with solution selling because they share the same aim. They both begin with a situation and then introduce some gap, help or conflict that introduces tension or conflict. They then ratchet up the tension enough so that the listener is more than ready for some resolution. That sequence of situation-conflict-resolution is at the heart of a good story, and if you think of it, is also the essence of sales questioning or conversational techniques that get the customer to sell themselves.

When everything is good and there are no problems, there is no story—and no sale.

Make the customer the hero

The biggest problem with stories as used by salespeople is that they focus on the wrong hero. If you’ve been on the receiving end of a sales presentation that told the seller’s company story, and seemed to go on forever, complete with glossy slides showing the company HQ, its products, stock photos of satisfied customers and so on, you know the feeling. One executive I interviewed for my book on sales presentations told me that, in most of these he has been subjected to, even the salesperson telling the story seemed bored with it.

If a story where you and your company are the heroes is not effective, who should be the hero? On the surface, it would seem that the hero of a good sales story is your product. You tell about another prospect who was in a similar situation, the struggle they faced, and how your solution saved the day.

But the best stories, the ones that engage listeners and fire their imaginations, are those in which the listeners put themselves into the shoes of the protagonist. Some studies have shown that listeners actually simulate the action in their own minds, and many of the same brain regions that respond to actual experience are the same ones that respond to vicarious experience. In essence, your customer should be the hero of your story, with your product in a strong backup role.

Keep them short

One of the most common mistakes is to include way too much detail. The obvious cost of this is that they go on too long and risk losing the attention of the audience. The less obvious but more important reason to cut out detail is that the story you are telling is not really the most important one—it’s the story your listeners are telling themselves as they imagine themselves in the scenario  you are describing. Too many details get in the way and engage their argumentative brains.

But throw in a vivid detail or two

Having said that, some small but vivid details are useful to make the situation more real in the listener’s mind and to stick in their memories. In one of my presentations classes, a speaker told of a woman whose chihuahua, Enrique, had tangled with a skunk. When she mentioned the name, everyone laughed and I’m sorry to say that’s probably one of the details they will always remember from that class!

Make them relevant

Because stories are so memorable, you must absolutely ensure that they are relevant to your message. This should go without saying, but we all like to tell a good story, and we often throw in things just because they’re interesting, or because they show us in a good light. The key to relevance is your own listening, as I was reminded by an excellent comment on part 1 of this story from Mark Goldman, who said that, before getting our clients to listen, we first have to listen to them, so that we can understand their story and then find a story that they can connect to.

I absolutely agree with Mark, and as I explain in this previous blog post, you can use your questions and your listening to get the customer to tell you their own story—with your happy ending.


[1] Storytelling that Moves People, Harvard Business Review, June 2003, p. 51-55.

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