Selling is Storytelling


“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” — Hannah Arendt

The first 30 seconds of Star Wars Episode IV.  The first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The music in Jaws.  Unforgettable ways to tell incredible stories (which may be both dating myself as well as admitting that I’m a fan of 70’s classics).  Any  film maker’s goal is to tell the best story out of pride or artistic sensibility as well as to keep the audience talking about the film and seeing it repeatedly.

Storytelling is the best and most underutilized method of selling something.  It’s narrative, engaging, educational and immersive.  Storytelling replaces the obvious “feature, function, benefit” method with collaboration and the tacit participation that occurs between the storytelling and the listener.  As such the listener becomes part of the production, co-creating the meaning.  It’s also enjoyable to listen to a well told story.

If you’re looking for a better way to sell your products, try replacing the traditional pitch with a five step storytelling process:

Start by asking yourself: “How are people using my product?”  Consider the various ways in which they are not only using the product but enjoying the product.  For example, they may have purchased the product in order to save money.  But how does saving money make a person feel?  Responsible?  Smart?  Safe?  Remember, people don’t buy products, they buy how products makes them feel.  Start with the feeling.

Next, when have your customers experienced a “moment” when they know they’ve made a great decision buying your product?  Was it when they came home from a long day at work and their home feels perfectly calm and cool?  Was it when they opened a utility bill and realized they’d saved money that month?  Was it when they opened their phone and accessed the product remotely?  Every customer has a moment when they smile and silently say to themselves, “This was a really good decision.”  Isolate one of those moments and use it to introduce the conflice.

Conflict is the basis for action.  The second step in storytelling is to identify the problems that your customer wanted to resolve before meeting you.  This is the conflict: The customer wanted X and had to resolve Y in order to accomplish their goals.  Be specific.  Use a true-to-life scenario.

Third, how did the customer find you and your product?  What brought you together?  Why were they interested in your product or your company or yourself?  Clearly there’s something preferential about this process and this is your chance to highlight that preference (not in a boastful manner, please).

Now it’s time to let go of the “FFB” part of the story and replace it with a description–not of valves and motors–but choice and reason.  Remember the old adage: “People don’t buy a two-inch drill bit, they buy a two inch hole.”  Talk about choices your customers have made and the reason behind those choices.  The reasons will be logical and emotional.  Here’s what they won’t be: technical.  Furthermore, this illustrates the correlation between price and value without you having to do the tedious work of explaining it to the customer.

Finally, your story will have a resolution.  This is the impact of using your product.  Ideally it will be expressed in terms of a return: time, money, convenience.  It’s always positive.

As a young salesman I was taught to sell benefits rather than features or functions.  It’s still ok advice assuming that you’re familiar with the product and use it on a regular basis.  Selling the benefits of a new car makes sense because the customer most likely has a base line for conceptualizing improvements.  Selling benefits is more difficult if the customer doesn’t have prior experience with the product.  At that point benefits become esoteric–so we look for comparisons (gas mileage, dimmer switches, etc).  Comparisons are fine but they still assume the customer is interpreting them accurately.  Stories are the best.  Based on real-life scenarios an inexperienced customer can project himself in to the narrative.  Told well, stories carry emotional heft that’s otherwise lost by comparison or data.  Stories are immersive in that the customer will project himself in to the conflict.  And we all appreciate a story that ends well.  There’s relief.

Before you sit down for your next meeting consider the audience.  You’ve hopefully gained their attention.  Ask yourself: What are they most likely to be interested in?  Another one-dimensional product pitch or a four-dimensional, well told story that illustrates the product without committing the error of defining it.



Published by Matt Plughoff

Exploring the next evolution of small business success.

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