Once Upon a Profit: What Sellers Need to Know About the Power of Storytelling

By Mark Godley

HG Data's Once Upon a Profit Blog

I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of brand storytelling, and how it appeals to consumers on an emotional level. But have you ever considered the powerful role storytelling plays in selling? It’s a technique I’ve relied on for years and may be the single most important reason for my business success.

Just as personal storytelling builds greater intimacy, allowing us to pass along memorable life lessons and maintain open lines of communication within our personal lives, selling through storytelling can do the same in our professional lives.

And if you’re a startup or early-stage company with a relatively unknown brand, storytelling helps prospects mitigate their sense of risk in decision making when buying from an unknown entity. With the right story, you can prove the credibility of you, your company and your services and gives prospects the justification they need to trust you with a PO.

Dad, Tell Us a Story

When I’m not on the road, we make a point to have dinner together as a family. My girls invariably want to hear a funny story or two about their zany dad’s childhood, and their threshold for drama has me wracking my brain for tales of my youth. Like the time my brother and I went fishing and I hooked the top of his head on my back cast.

We laugh every time I describe the scene with our small-town police force off-roading into the woods in their two-wheel drive car where we were fishing and looking every bit the Keystone Kops coming to the rescue.

And my poor brother. While the police confirmed he was not in a life-and-death circumstance, they couldn’t remove the treble barbs embedded in his scalp. Only after we got home, and my father and I rummaged in the basement and came up with a pair of rusty wire snips were we able to cut off the barbs and pull the rest of the hula popper, my favorite small mouth bass lurer, through the hole in his scalp.

My kids love these stories. For them, it’s an opportunity to laugh with (and at) mom and dad, and, for my wife and I, it’s the satisfaction we feel in knowing our children now have a nest egg of small tales that, when spliced together, tell a much more powerful story of our lives and the lessons we’ve collected along the way.

The Power of Story

Think about Garrison Keillor’s ability to capture the imaginations of generations of “Prairie Home Companion” fans, and you’ll understand the power of story. It’s his ability to weave the smallest vignette into an engaging tale and bring the characters of Lake Wobegon to life that so completely engages us. And thanks to the convenience of time-shifting, I can indulge my favorite storytellers via podcasts like This American Life, The Moth, Snap Judgment, Radiolab, Serial, Invisibilia, The Dirtbag Diaries, Revisionist History and More Perfect. Each time I listen, I marvel at how fantastic delivery of content can engage and enthrall us, all the while educating at the same time.

At home, we’re entering a new phase as our kids are becoming part of the family lore rather than just hearing about it. For instance, they delight in telling the epic tale of their hike into the cinder cone of Cerro Chato, an extinct volcano near the outdoor mecca of LaFortuna in Costa Rica. The dormant cinder cone is filled with a beautiful lake providing just the strange juxtaposition of geology to create a lasting impression – little did I know. We bushwhacked through a 3-mile, 3000-foot vertical climb in a mist that gave way to driving rain and lightning. Upon reaching the lip of the caldera and seeing we had a steep, 800-foot down climb to the lake that required descending via sketchy rope ladders, I suggested we’d gone far enough. Through my soaking-wet kids’ tears and protestations, I launched into a story about how it’s not getting to the summit but getting back down safely that matters. And even the mundane hike down had morphed into a risky venture, as the trail switched into a rivulet of cascading waterfall for over 2 of the 3 mile walk out. We never saw the lake, the climb was bone soaking miserable, but you wouldn’t believe the joy that weaving the yarn of this story brings the girls as they tell our friends about one of Dad’s most infamous fails they saw firsthand.

Selling Through Storytelling

So what does this mean to us as sales people? And how do we begin selling through storytelling? In my own case, I believe that my interest in including storytelling into effective selling is part of who I am as a business person. But for corporate purposes it isn’t my childhood or outdoor exploits that I recount, but an arsenal of material about 5 aspects of our business – stories about our company, our products, our customers, our competitors and our industry.

When I’m trying to connect with a prospect and create a memorable message, I draw upon these various frames to help make a point. For me, this isn’t a technique or mechanism, but rather who I am. It’s how I see the world – a collection of interesting experiences of others that I soak up with enthusiasm and draw upon for wisdom and reason and inspiration when needed.

And with a little thought and practice—and the 6 rules below—you too can become a business storyteller:

Rule #1: Your Stories Require a Degree of Intimacy
When you’re willing to share something about yourself to someone else, it’s the intimacy that people respect and appreciate. By exposing your vulnerabilities, you build rapport and transcend the role of unfamiliar salesman, you become human to your prospect. And here’s the interesting thing, the more you risk exposing yourself, the more you reduce the risk of buying for your prospects.

Rule #2: Your Stories Must Be Honest
If you embark on storytelling do yourself a favor and don’t embellish and never lie. Just be honest and put your story out there—the whole unvarnished truth—and expose yourself as human. There’s a saying in sales: People buy you first, then your company and then your product. Your honesty will earn credibility and trust for all three.

Rule #3: Your Stories Must Fit the Situation
Once you prove that you can tell the right story for the right audience in the right situation, you’ve demonstrated your domain expertise. You’ve proven you know what you are talking about. But you still need a cache of information to have a relevant story to fit every circumstance. That’s why sales and marketing teams are building content databases filled with success stories, case studies, research and predictions that anyone can draw upon via a CRM or a similar system of record. And when reps close a deal and have a customer-facing story that’s potentially useful for future sales, figure out a means to institutionally capture the who, what, when, where and how to ensure that each client win is memorialized succinctly and made readily available for all to use.

But having the information is just the starting point. You have to know what will inspire prospects, and this means being able to recognize their motivations, personality and values. You must know the difference between stories that will resonate with listeners, and those that will not. Relevance has an expiration date and using it lets prospects know you understand their circumstances. It inspires confidence that you and your products can solve their problems and improve their business.

Rule #4: Your Stories Are a Proof Source
The old adage from the 1980s of ‘no one ever got fired for buying IBM’ applies today within every sector comprised of entrenched, well-known, leading brands. When you’re a small company that has little brand recognition in the marketplace…or you’re an early-stage company doing evangelical sales…stories become a necessary proof source.

If someone is going to buy from the scrappy upstart, it’s that upstart’s obligation to de-risk the relationship by sharing the stories of others that have gone before them. No buyer wants to be the first one to trial a product or implement a solution barely beyond mvp (minimally viable product). By sharing examples of other companies who have travelled the courageous path of bucking the status quo, the startup is able to build confidence of the buyer in his/her decision making.

Rule #5: Your Stories Should Be Memorable (and Hopefully Entertaining)
Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, make the point that when giving a presentation, 63 percent will remember your stories, but only 5 percent remember statistics. And the more memorable your stories, the more people will want to remember you.

In the early ’90s, while guest lecturing in the undergraduate business school at University of Southern California, I used a classroom style that can best be described as edu-tainment—educating while entertaining. I divided my classroom lectures into thirds: one part technical, one part interactive case study, and one part question and answer. The fuse of technical and real-world examples got people’s attention and I still hear from a few of those students today.

Remember, you’re not talking to make people smile. You’re there to inform and to relate; to reinforce your message and to seed a foundation built on trust. That’s exactly what buyers want to see, and precisely what existing clients and employees want to hear. People need to be reminded that you’re just as human as they are, and that your willing to expose your underbelly.

Rule #6: Despite Charlie Sheen’s Enthusiasm, It’s Not Only About Winning.
Let me close with another aspect of vulnerability, and that’s failure. If you listen to my stories or read my blog posts, I often recount my failures, mistakes and the lessons I’ve learned in the process. These aren’t just cheeky, self-deprecating tales, but rather some of the most influential lessons of my life. There’s a quote often attributed to the South African, anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela that I think says it all: “I never lose. I either win or I learn.”

When you talk with prospects about your mistakes and losses—whether your own, your company’s or your product’s—and explain what was learned in that losing experience, you go a long way toward cementing trust, honesty and genuineness. No one wants to know how perfect or successful you might be, but rather, that you are just as human as are they and your willingness to expose your underbelly goes a long way to this end.

Whether you are partial to the classic American storytellers like Paul Harvey, Bill Bryson and Garrison Keller or some of the new school yarn weavers of Malcolm Gladwell, Jab Abumrad, Ira Glass, Lulu Miller and Sarah Koenig, those of us in business trying to distinguish ourselves in crowded and noisy markets have something to learn and adopt from these masters.

Which reminds me, one time I….Eh, I think I’ll save it for another day.

This post was first published on the HG Data Blog.

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