Selling the Story: Storytelling for Skeptics

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selling the story : storytelling for skeptics

“Storytelling…? I don’t know.” A troubled look flashed across Sally’s face. “You’ll have a hard time selling me on your topic. Last year’s speaker was a dud. I need to deliver some wow-factor this year or I might not be planning next year’s convention.”

“I get it,” I reassured her. “When you pitch storytelling, your boss is going to imagine some clown up on stage reading The Three Bears. He’s going to wonder why you didn’t hire a speaker who talks about closing sales or improving customer service or team-building.”

Sally took a deep breath. “Yes … I mean … How am I…?”

I smiled for a long moment. “This is exactly why storytelling is such an important business topic.”

Sally looked even more frustrated.

“Look at it from a sales perspective,” I suggested. “Your boss is your customer, and he’s skeptical about storytelling—the product. And you’re the salesperson who has to sell your boss on the product. How effective can you be at that if you’re on the fence about it yourself?”

Sally leaned in, nodded, and took a sip of her iced tea.

“So I just used a storytelling technique. I reframed our discussion in terms of your situation. I told a story about a salesperson who has to sell a product they don’t believe in to a skeptical customer. Everybody has been stuck in that position at one time or another. Do you lie about your enthusiasm for the product and try to convince the customer to buy? Or do you take the moral high road, build an honest relationship with the customer, and lose the sale?”

Sally laughed. “When I was a kid, I had to sell these expensive candy bars door-to-door to raise money for our church youth group. You could buy a whole box of Hershey bars at the grocery store for the price of one of mine. I think I sold two … and my parents got stuck buying the rest to bail me out!”

“Now you’re telling stories,” I pointed out. “We’re connecting at a different level …. So dig deeper. What can we learn from the chocolate bar story—or from the ‘sell a storytelling speaker to your boss’ story—about sales? Before we get to the customer’s objections…”

Sally interrupted. “We have to get past our own objections! If we don’t love what we’re selling, we won’t be very effective at conveying its value to anyone else.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “And you just used the V-word, Sally.”

“And that is…?”

“Value.”

Sally thought for a moment.

“Don’t try to define it,” I suggested. “Value is like love, God, and pornography. You know it when you see it, but…”

Sally laughed again and then challenged me. “Okay … so where does storytelling come in? How will you deliver value to our company as a storytelling speaker?”

“Well, I’d start with how stories work and then get into the stories of your customers. Who are they? What are the conflicts they face? What are they trying to achieve?”

Sally nodded.

“Then I’d talk about the stories of the sales and marketing people. Do they understand the stories of your customers or are they just babbling about prices, processes, and ingredients? If you’re not talking about customers, you’re talking about yourself … the classic recipe for a bad date.”

“Oh God! I’ve been there too many times,” agreed Sally.

“And again, I used a story to make my point. I didn’t see a ring on your finger so I assumed you’d wasted at least a few evenings with self-centered dates who were more concerned about explaining their own value than finding out what you had to offer.”

Sally sighed and took another sip of tea.

“Let’s get back to selling,” I continued. “You can give a salesperson a list of facts and features, but if they don’t know how to frame the product’s value in terms of the customer’s story, it’s all so much data. Kids hate selling candy because their neighbors don’t need it … and everyone knows where to get a better deal on it. But no one bothers to change the story. The kids think they’re out there to raise money. Their biggest goal is to sell out so their parents don’t get stuck having to buy it.”

“What would you do differently?” asked Sally.

“What was your youth group trying to accomplish with the money they were raising selling chocolate? What was the meaningful outcome?”

Sally closed her eyes and thought. “It was a long time ago, but I think we were trying to buy schoolbooks for some poor children somewhere.”

I raised an eyebrow and smiled at Sally. “So if you were the youth group leader, how would you tell your kids to pitch the chocolate bars to their neighbors?”

“I think I’d tell them that what we were selling wasn’t the chocolate. The candy is really just a reward for making a donation. I’d encourage them to sell by the bar, by the box, and by the box of boxes by talking about how meaningful and important—and valuable—it is to help poor kids who want an education.”

“Yes! So what is the product, Sally?”

“Those kids are in a unique position to connect their neighbors to a faraway group of young people in need. The product—what you’re really selling—is the customer’s sense that they’ve made a difference, that they’ve been unselfish, that they have value to share.”

“And the candy…?”

“Every time they take a bite of that chocolate, they’ll feel good about themselves. They won’t feel ripped off because they overpaid for the candy; they’ll feel rewarded. The candy is a small part of a much bigger and more meaningful story.”

“So, Sally, do you think it’s any different with customer service or team-building or leadership or building corporate cultures that attract and retain talent?”

Sally leaned back in her chair. “It’s all storytelling, isn’t it?”

“And storytelling is all about focusing on meaningful outcomes. If you had to sell storytelling, can you get behind the product? Do you see the value?”

“Yes,” said Sally. “Consider yourself booked for our conference event—and I think you should write an article that shares the story of our conversation. It might just get you booked somewhere else.”

“You never know,” I said. “I might just do it.”

 
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Dave Bricker: StorySailing®