Stop Selling Features, Start Selling Stories

The Science Behind Story Telling And Why Selling With A Story Works


Stories are the stuff of life. They define us, give meaning to our actions, justify our choices, make us feel instead of just race through life. This isn’t news. The persuasive powers of storytelling have been known since as far back as Aristotle. But what is it that makes storytelling, particularly in the world of sales, such a powerful tool?

“The difference between any particularly emotional story and a good marketing story is that a marketing story has a purpose” — Tim Halloran

And that purpose isn’t just limited to big-picture marketing campaigns and material. It comes right down to the one-on-one interactions you have with prospective clients and customers each day.

In a recent study, marketing researchers David Gilliam and Karen Flaherty examined the role storytelling plays not on the marketing message level, but in those one-to-one interactions with customers and clients. In their research, they found that while storytelling has such a fundamental role in our day-to-day lives, “the lack of inquiry into storytelling in a selling context leaves sales people operating in the dark.” And because storytelling is “one of the most powerful and ubiquitous forms of human communication,” as they put it, that’s frankly a problem.

There’s a science to storytelling in the world of sales and a science to what happens in the brain when a good story gets us and transforms our thinking. Here are some key insights to help you better understand and integrate storytelling in your day-to-day interactions with customers.

Telling A Story Right Can Add To Your Credibility

We can be so focused on making an argument or outlining benefits and features for a potential customer, that we simply forget to think like a storyteller. But the difference between a persuasive argument and a good story is that a story casually links events, rather than forcing an agenda, according to Gilliam and Flaherty.

That doesn’t mean stories should be so casual as to meander into rambling territory. “Having a clear, concise rationale is critical before creating your story,” Halloran writes. “Storytelling is simply the means to the end. It is our responsibility to understand what that end is.”

When thinking about storytelling in the context of sales, it’s helpful to take a step back and understand the fundamental structure used in the most basic of storytelling — the dramatic arc many refer to as Freytag’s pyramid, named after the German novelist Gustav Freytag. Stories tend to follow a narrative structure that looks a lot like a pyramid with an inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution.

Think about Freytag’s pyramid when you are communicating with customers

When it comes to building sales relationships with new clients and customers, storytelling is invaluable for three key purposes: delivering information, persuading customers, and creating a personal connection, according to Gilliam and Flaherty. “Buyers are looking for ‘cues’ and ‘signals’ that the seller is ‘trustworthy,’” they write. “Stories are a credible form of communication capable of delivering such cues.”

A good story can literally shift a customer’s brain chemistry

Research has shown storytelling triggers an actual neurological shift in the mind of the listener. According to neuroeconomist Paul Zak, conflict in a story causes our brains to produce cortisol, a stress hormone that causes us to focus our attention more.

Harrison Monarth executive coach, and author of the book The Confident Speaker, unpacks how Zak’s research looks in the context of sales. “Neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic,” he writes in Harvard Business Review. The cute factor in a story — think puppies and babies — also releases oxytocin in our systems, which gives us that fuzzy feeling and makes us feel a greater sense of empathy and connection to others.

In his research Zak showed participants an emotional film about a father and son and then asked them to donate money to a stranger. “With both oxytocin and cortisol in play, those who had the higher amounts of oxytocin were much more likely to give money to someone they’d never met,” writes Monarth.

He also examines the work of Johns Hopkins researcher Keith Quesenberry, who analyzed 108 Super Bowl commercials to determine what made the most effective ones appealing to viewers.

Quesenberry found that more than sex and humor, commercials that include dramatic plotlines (think: Freytag’s pyramid of rising action, climax, falling action and resolution) scored significantly higher on viewers’ polls. In particular, Quesenberry looked at the beloved 2014 Budweiser Super Bowl commercial “Puppy Love” in which an adorable puppy and a horse form a bond that would make even the steeliest of hearts melt.

The bottom line: Striking and emotional cord with people using storytelling has been proven to actually make customers more generous and willing to spend money. In the world of sales, that’s always good news.

Stories transport customers to new worlds

There’s another term researchers have for what’s happening in our brains when we’re immersed in a story. They call it “narrative transportation theory.” Essentially this means listeners can become so absorbed in a story that they’re actually transported to that world in their minds. Think about reading a really great book and loosing yourself in its pages. A good story has the power to take you someplace else. “Stories can activate narrative transportation and have positive effects,” the researchers write.

When it comes to sales, this is important because it helps take people’s minds away from the skepticism that prospective customers often hold near when considering about a potential purchase or deal.

In another 2014 marketing study out of Denmark, researchers found that consumers introduced to a new product — in this case, a new type of cubed ham — who were initially not interested in it, were more likely to have a change of heart when storytelling messages relating to the product were shown to them. The researchers found that when presented with a choice, consumers tended to be more drawn to the one that had a compelling story tied to it.

Storytelling can squash the skeptic in your customer

Customers going into a buying situation know the game of selling and they don’t want to be duped. Consumer psychology researchers have found that people often come into a selling situation with a heightened awareness of persuasion tactics, which keeps them on guard. “Buyers learn to recognize when the industrial salesperson is using persuasion to take advantage of a trusting relationship,” the researchers write. That’s where storytelling can have a profound impact.

“When told a story listeners engage in a special form of processing that results in fewer counterarguments.” — Gilliam and Flaherty

Think about it. When you’re rattling off a list of benefits or features, the person on the receiving end is analyzing what you’re saying and essentially looking for false statements that might help them reject your argument entirely. But when you’re telling a story, say about a client you worked with who had a similar problem to theirs and what happened that changed that client’s life for the better, your getting at the same information, but using a narrative approach that research has shown makes listeners naturally less skeptical of what they’re hearing.

Stories Are Critical To Build Relationships

If you want to build real relationships with customers, you have to be willing to establishing a connection with them. “Researchers have shown that relationships depend on mutual disclosures,” write Gilliam and Flaherty. The reason telling stories is so effective in relationship building is that it tends to invite your listener to reciprocate with a story of their own. “Stories are a powerful relationship building tool,” Gilliam and Flaherty write. “Scholars have long asserted that mutual disclosure is an important part of creating the buyer–seller bond.”

But while hitting an emotional nerve tends to attract people, when it comes to translating that kind of customer connection from commercial marketing to one-on-one interactions, the priorities, researchers found, aren’t quite the same.

Don Draper uses his family story to close Kodak

Don’t make friends. Make customers feel heard.

There’s a common misconception in the world of sales that storytelling is important in making potential clients or customers like you. Contrary to what many sales people believe, the researchers found that storytelling wasn’t as important in making a customer like a sales person as it was in showing customers that their needs and concerns were heard. “It may be that rather than buying things from people we like, as salespeople often presume, perhaps we like people we buy things from, which has very different implications for salespeople,” write Gilliam and Flaherty.

In surveying buyers, they found customers were adamant that for a story to be effective, it had to be clearly relevant to their own individual concerns and needs. This held true across the board — whether the stories being told to them had to do with specific products, other customer experiences, the company’s history, or a personal anecdote. If it didn’t relate to them specifically, they didn’t care to hear it.

Not only that, but the researchers also found that customers insisted business relationships, rather than personal relationships, were far more important to them when it came to the rapport they were establishing with a sales person. “This was contrary to the feelings of the sales participants and points out a potentially important area of disagreement between members of the buyer–seller exchange,” the researchers write.

“Salespeople should focus on fostering a deep appreciation of the value proposition by the buyer more so than just attempting to make a friend.”

The bottom line: A good story can go farther than any amount of data or facts you have to offer customers. “Life happens in the narratives we tell one another. A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts,” Monarth writes in Harvard Business Review. “Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.”

Published in Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking

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