The Lost Art of Storytelling and the Need to Revive it

It has all changed.  In the past it was the salesperson who introduced a company and its products to the potential buyer. Now, before the salesperson even knows the prospect exists, the potential buyer is researching solutions on the Internet.  What was once a “sales process” has become much more of a buying process and the buyer is much more in control of this process than ever before. This raises a question for sales professionals – How does a salesperson deliver real value and differentiate him or herself once in front of the prospective customer?  To answer that question, we must begin by answering a deeper more cerebral question, “What is the prospect really buying?”

In making any buying decision, the buyer must evaluate three fundamental elements of whatever it is he is buying. They are the product itself, the service associated with that product, and the price for the product.  There is no way any business can provide the highest quality product and the best overall service and do so for the lowest price in the marketplace. It would be illogical to think that. But, if these are the three elements that the prospect is going to take into account in his/her evaluation, what is he or she really buying?  What is the buyer after? One word – value. That’s right!  Ultimately, a buying decision is really a value decision.  

That said, what is the best way to sell this elusive, intangible thing we call “value?”  By far, the best way to sell value is to be a storyteller. No, I stand corrected. It’s not enough to be a storyteller. The true professional salesperson must master the art of being an outstanding storyteller. More than any other sales tool (other than a live human being who serves as a reference for your company and/or product); nothing captures the real essence of value like a story.  

Why should we be telling stories?

Aside from the fact that a story does a better job than anything else of capturing the essence of value, people in general like to hear stories, especially when they are told well. People like stories because when we hear them we have the chance to learn, to be enlightened and yes, to be entertained. Second, when you tell a story, you aren’t so much talking about your product or service as you are the real impact that your product or service had on another company or even better, another human being. Let’s face it, people get bored listening to “product stuff” but who won’t put down their pen and give you their full attention to hear a story?  Third, stories get shared and while you may be sharing your story with only one person or in a single prospect’s office, there’s a very good chance that if your story is told well and makes some solid points, it will get told again and again by those who hear it.

Stories, more than anything else, help us connect emotionally with the buyer; they capture the essence of our lives. That never really happens in a pure product presentation.

How to tell a story “effectively?”

Unfortunately, it is not enough to just tell a story.  You must become a master at telling stories. Here are six points that will get you well on your way to becoming that master storyteller you need to be.  

One, you are always more effective telling a story when you are on your feet (standing not sitting). Your ability to control the room, to walk and talk at a certain pace, to use hand and arm gestures is so much better when you are on your feet.

Two, begin by telling your audience that you are going to tell them a story and then open the story by painting a mental picture for them. Don’t jump ahead to the meat of the story without first telling them about when this took place, the time of year, it may even be appropriate to describe the weather on the day your story takes place, whatever, but helping your audience paint a mental picture helps to take them out of their real environment and bring them deeper into your story.  

Three, describe the people in your story in some detail, either by their physical appearance, their temperament, or their personality.  This truly “humanizes” the story and helps your audience feel like they really know who the people are. Ideally, they may even relate someone in your story to someone in their organization, someone who could be critical in the buying process.

Four, when you are describing the real impact of your product and/or service in the story, it is important to emphasize numbers that are compelling and yes, don’t be afraid to repeat those numbers or write them on a grease board or flip chart for the sake of impact. Stories, however, are about playing more on feelings and emotions than they are numbers and logic. It is equally important when talking numbers to also capture the intrinsic value, the unquantifiable impact that your product had on your customer. How did your product or service ultimately improve life for the people in your story?

Five, close your story with a ‘value statement’ that relates directly to your current prospect (who you are telling the story to). Help them feel the connection and see that the story you just told has definite similarities to their situation; that it could almost be their story if they buy your product or service.

Sixth and last but certainly not least, practice, practice, practice! Yes, telling a story is a performance. You literally are on stage when you are telling your story. It combines the very best of your skills as a public speaker, a salesperson, and yes, even that of a thespian. Don’t think you can hear a story once and then just go ‘wing it’ in your next sales call.  Effective story tellers know how and when to pause for affect, when to soften their voice to emphasize a point, and when to raise their voice and use more dramatic gestures. To do it well takes practice.

In Summary…

Technology and the Internet have changed our lives in many ways. It has transformed what was a traditional sales process into a buying process and it also has changed how we do our sales presentations.  Years ago, before the advent of PC’s and PowerPoint presentations, salespeople were master storytellers. They had to be because they stood in front of their prospect and made presentations with nothing more than marker in their hand, a blank flip chart and possibly a few handouts for the people in their audience. They drew pictures, they told stories, and their presentations had energy, personality, and were professionally done.

An article published several years ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education, made the point that real teaching seems to begin when we rely on the wit and wisdom of the instructor versus the graphics and bullet points in a typical PowerPoint presentation. The article, entitled “When Computers Leave the Classrooms, So Does Boredom” actually spawned new terminology on campuses across the country at the time called “teaching naked” in reference to faculty members who had made the choice to teach without the aid of PowerPoint.

As salespeople who work with prospects in their buying process, we must realize that we are indeed educators in every sense of the word.  That means we need to think about how we can most effectively communicate our value proposition with our prospects.  It just may begin by telling a story or two.

Posted in business, sales.

Harold “Bud” Boughton is a husband, father and grandfather who is often referred to as “the teaching coach.” A former senior executive, published author and professional speaker, Bud currently works for Shine.FM radio, a community-supported, not-for-profit Christian radio station affiliated with Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. He will continue to work for Shine.FM in conjunction with his responsibilities as Co-Director of Team Focus – Indiana. You can reach Bud Boughton by calling 317-258-6372 or click here to leave him a message