Ask Them to Tell You A Story

Two of the most important tools in any persuader’s toolbox are stories and questions. When you put them together, they make for a powerful combination.

Various persuasive questioning processes, including the Socratic method in teaching, Motivational Interviewing in clinical psychology or Huthwaite’s SPIN process in sales, are all designed to get listeners to reach their own conclusion that they must follow the course of action you’re selling. The general principle underlying all these approaches is that rather than trying to motivate people to act for your reasons it is far better to draw out their own motivations. They do this by uncovering gaps between their current situation and an ideal state, and eliciting enough pain and tension that they feel compelled to act to close that gap, ideally with your plan, product, or idea.

Where have we all seen this before? Pretty much every time we’ve been to a movie. Every movie plot is essentially a variation of one narrative arc: situation, conflict, resolution. Think about it: the movie opens with a description of the situation, where we get to know the players and begin relating to them personally. Next an element of conflict is introduced, because without conflict there would be no reason to watch. If it’s an action movie, our heroes are faced with some danger; if it’s a romantic comedy, they meet a potential mate, but something is acting to keep them apart. As the movie goes on, the conflict grows to the point of crisis, where it’s hard to imagine it getting worse and equally hard to see how they will get out of it. But ultimately there’s a satisfactory ending.

Just as stories require conflict to make them work, selling—whether it’s a product or an idea—requires a need, one that is compelling enough for someone to take the risk and expense of buying your solution.

But here’s the problem: if you tell your story to push the need on the buyer, you’re only increasing resistance and distrust because we all have built mental filters and barriers that resist persuasive messages. Anyone who has a small child knows that the surest way to get a certain behavior is to forbid it.

The best way around these filters is to make it their story, not yours. People love their own stories, in which they face a conflict that requires a resolution for a happy ending. When they are telling their story, they are actively engaged in creating the reality they want to see rather than passively or actively resisting what you tell them. The trick is to get the buyer to tell you their story: They are the heroes, they tell you their conflict, they feel their own pain, and they get excited about the potential happy ending, which just happens to be your solution.

How do you get them to tell the story? First, you get them talking about their current situation, but ask questions to carefully frame the discussion so that it leads in the right direction, which is to bring out challenges they face that your solution will resolve.

Don’t lead off with challenges, because it may be too early. If you ask them about what problems they have before they are ready to talk about them, they can easily get defensive and close up. Most people won’t open up until some trust has been established, and letting them talk about themselves is an excellent way to develop trust. Even if they lead off with a description of their challenges, it may help to go back to the situation to get a broader context. Sometimes this will help you get to a deeper understanding which lends itself to solving root problems rather than merely assuaging symptoms.

Second, introduce the conflict. The most direct way is to explicitly ask about problems, which are known dissatisfactions with their situation. But there are several other areas that are also ripe for creating conflict: opportunities, changes and risks. Opportunities may arise because a new technology now allows them to improve their processes in some way; changes happen all the time that they must respond to, such as their customers’ needs and preferences, competitive actions, new laws; and risks are problems that do not currently exist but might. Listen very carefully for words or phrases that signal problems, opportunities, changes and risks, and encourage them to expand on these when they come up in the conversation. Although they will often volunteer information about their challenges, an astute salesperson will have prepared questions or will probe at the right time to nudge them in the right direction.

When they begin describing their challenges, the need is beginning to come out, but here’s the spot where too many sales are lost. It’s like a fisherman jerking the rod at the first nibble. As soon as the client describes a gap they try to stuff a solution into it, except the solution is too big for the gap. They need to make the gap larger, by getting the client to talk about the cost to them in business and ultimately personal terms. You say your process is too slow, so what? How does that affect your customer response times, and how does that affect your sales, and how does that affect you personally? Did you ever lose a customer because of it? Don’t assume that they are feeling the pain just because they’re describing the issues. When you ask these questions, they won’t always tell you out loud how it affects their business, but at least they are thinking about it. Just like a good movie, you want to create a plausible crisis that they will feel compelled to find a way out of.

By this point in the story, they’re ready for the satisfactory ending. Your questions now switch to the positive resolution: How would speeding up the process impact your customer satisfaction ratings? What steps would you have to take to get it done by the first quarter? When they answer your questions, they are ready to hear your solution. And, when they hear it, it will be their own idea because it’s their own story, not yours.

4 Responses to “Ask Them to Tell You A Story”

  1. Jack,

    Nicely done. I’m really enjoying your blog, and think you’re doing a really good job with it.

    Andy

  2. Jack Malcolm says:

    Thanks, Andy. It’s good to get feedback, even better to get positive feedback (even though it feeds my confirmation bias), and especially great to hear it from someone of your stature in the selling world.

  3. Jade Handy says:

    A needed and interesting twist on storytelling and listening. I like how you merged telling stories and listening skills. Both vital.

  4. Brian Higley says:

    More solid stuff, Jack – thanks!

    Much of what you say above reminds me of the great scientist, educator and psychologist, Dr. Carl Rogers, and his “person-centered” approach to living and working. He found that the most powerful ways to bring about meaningful change is to allow others to take the lead (or, “tell their own story,” as you say).

    It’s been my experience that one aspect of his model can often be challenging to salespeople (and to others seeking to be a “trusted advisor” to others): decreasing the need to move someone else in one particular way or another while they tell their story (including purchasing one’s products or services). As counter-intuitive as it may seem at first, I think the cultivation of such a mindset can actually help salespeople in the long run. It’s been my experience that one of the best ways to build trust is to listen to people without thinking about the sale, but with the person’s best interests in mind. If the conversation results in a sale that will truly benefit the other person from their perspective, great. If not, we have built trust by affirming that the other person’s needs takes precedence over our own desire to sell something to them, which can often result in personal and professional growth in both parties on a variety of levels.

    Once again, I enjoyed reading your thoughts and posting some of my own on this topic, Jack – thanks again for all of your investment in quality articles!

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