Selling With Stories

once upon a time story book

A few years ago, I was involved in a training session in Bangalore and had a problem with attendees coming back late from breaks. Late arrivals cause timing issues and can also lead to disengagement in the room because others read their tardiness as inconsiderate or indicative of a lack of interest. It’s not easy to solve. As this session was a pilot for a Global Programme for one of the world’s biggest technology companies, it had to work. I came up with an idea.

“For many reasons, it’s important we all come back on time. At the end of our next break, I will close the door to the training room. If you return after this time, do come in but please stay at the front of the room. The last one to arrive back late will stand at the front of the room and sing a song to us all.”

Nobody was late again. The pilot was a success. More than 15,000 employees worldwide have been trained in that programme since.

Story-telling is one of the most powerful ways to sell and is too rarely used by salespeople.

Why are they so powerful? And why have I told my Bangalore story so many times?

Human beings love stories. We grow up being read them by our parents, watching them on TV and telling them to each other. There’s a familiarity to them and we like familiarity. It relaxes people and we listen better when we’re relaxed. This relaxation is particularly helpful in sales conversations where our target audience probably listens with a degree of scepticism. Taking down that guard is a big step forward.

Stories are also easy to tell, particularly if they’re true and happened to you. You’re just recounting an experience and it’s easy to picture that experience in your mind and recreate it for others. Additionally, it’s a way to connect easily with a prospective client, something done well with a bit of humour or a story which shows you as being just like them.

Finally, and most importantly, stories put across sales messages in a more subtle way than telling people a benefit of your service or product. There are times to explain the benefit and give an example of that but that isn’t always the best way. You can sow seeds in people’s minds through stories, you can highlight problems or worries that they might have but are not willing to share with you and show how you’ve helped others get over them (and they never need to admit to having this worry themselves!).

So, familiarity, relaxation of audience, ease of telling and subtler messaging are all benefits of stories as sales tools. All of these make your stories, and you, memorable which is also pretty helpful.

And why have I told my Bangalore story so many times?

It’s easy to listen to and an easy story to tell – it’s real, it’s short, it has simple story format: Challenge faced – Solution found – Result achieved (happy ending). Incidentally, that’s the format of just about every story told (yes, think of the films you watch, the books you read and that’s the format). It’s also funny, amusing at least, and people like that – it always raises a smile.

Finally, the subtle messages beneath the surface are magical. I’m telling the audience that my training is credible and used by the best (one of world’s leading tech companies – £250k deal). I’m telling them that my company does Customer Service training not just the sales training for which we’re best known (this has won us deals!). I’m highlighting that we deliver training all over the world. I’m telling them that I have the presence of mind and the confidence to assess an unexpected problem and, without prior planning, to come up with a solution that quickly solves that problem. Clients like that.

All that powerful messaging is woven into what seems, on the surface, to be a story about people getting back late from a break in training. That’s actually the least important part of it all.