The Power of Storytelling

Stories can be an incredibly powerful way to get a message across and to more fully-engage an audience during the selling process or in various components of business or management. They can be incorporated into sales calls, presentations, case studies, press releases, direct marketing, testimonials, advertising copy, sales brochures, Web copy, performance reviews, and even instruction manuals.

Let’s face it, most people would rather listen to a good story than a good sales pitch or a lecture!

In a Harvard Business Review article, Nick Morgan, author of Power Cues and President of Public Words, a communication consulting firm, wrote, “In our information-saturated age, business leaders won’t be heard unless they’re telling compelling stories. Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all, but stories create sticky memories by attaching emotions to things that happen.”

Research from neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak also showed that good stories appeal to people’s logic and emotions; they also tend to inspire action. In addition, his studies concluded that stories are highly engaging and can elicit powerful empathic responses by triggering the release of Oxytocin — often referred to as the trust hormone.

These are certainly important factors given what we know about modern-day decision-making and the degree to which emotions drive final choices.

But watch out! While good stories can strengthen your value proposition or help you gain acceptance for your ideas and proposals, poorly crafted stories can have the opposite effect.

As explained in a recent article by Brad Shorr, Director of Marketing at Straight North, “There are good storytellers and not so good storytellers.”

Fortunately, there are guidelines for creating and telling the best stories.

Let’s begin with timing. There are two ideal times to share a short story during the course of doing business or selling.

  • First, when presenting your value proposition, a well-crafted story can significantly strengthen your message by either clarifying the key benefits of your position or by serving as a testimonial example of how “others” have found value in it.
  • Similarly, as a form of “social proof” a good story is also an ideal way to effectively handle an objection or a reluctance to accept or “buy-in” to your proposals, because the right story explains how “others” have discovered or experienced the associated value.

Now that we’ve determined the best times for telling stories, here are ten important guidelines that will help to optimize the impact (and success!) of those stories.

  1. The story can NOT be about you! Instead, start with a character your audience will find compelling. For example, when selling, tell your buyer a story about one of your other customers who is in a similar industry or who has a similar job title and who was in a similar situation. Use the person’s name (first name only if you’d like to provide anonymity) because the best stories are about people. If anonymity is not an issue, you might even ask your buyer if he or she knows So-and-so? If so, it will make your story more meaningful. Many have found it helpful to begin by creating detailed personas of their typical or ideal customers. This is a valuable exercise for a lot of reasons, storytelling included. Make your ideal customer the hero of your story (see related article). You want listeners or readers to think, “That could be me!” right off the bat. As Shorr put it, “Who is going to walk away from a story they are starring in?”
  2. Set the stage. Sometimes a buyer or team member can be predisposed to think you are about to ramble on and on until they agree to buy-in to what you’re saying. To avoid this pitfall, set the stage at the outset by explaining why you’re telling the story; explain that it’s about a similar set of circumstances and that you believe it will potentially simplify the situation for your audience or help in some way.
  3. Establish conflict. In the selling example above, the conflict is that the main character in the story had the same needs or the same objectives as the buyer. Conflict can be internal or external, though in most business cases it tends to be external, such as overcoming obstacles to achieve objectives, finding a faster way to complete a process, or an easier way to satisfy customers. Whether external or internal (i.e., fear, anxiety, concern, etc.), you must clearly define the conflict so your audience can relate. This clear focus will also help to keep your story on point.
  4. Foreshadow. Foreshadowing is a good way to build both interest and value at the same time! It is the technique of hinting at what is to come, thus building a little suspense and, if done right, a higher level of audience engagement! For example, “You won’t believe what So-and-so said after putting this idea into practice…!” or, “I think you’re really going to be surprised to hear how this actually works…”
  5. Use dialog. Add sincerity, and sometimes a bit of humor or entertainment to your story by including a direct quote. This can enable you to vary tone and “voice” during sales calls, discussions, or presentations as well.
  6. Use metrics to give the story added credibility. It is much more powerful to say, “So-and-so was able to reduce the overall cost by 30% while increasing cycle time by 50%” as opposed to using the cliché, “…saved time and money.”
  7. Keep it interactive by asking questions. Use receptivity tests to measure buy-in and understanding, and rhetorical questions to keep the audience engaged.
  8. Exhibit your own emotions via appropriate facial expressions and/or voice tone. Remember that your non-verbal communication has a significant impact on how others interpret your message.
  9. Keep it simple. For the purposes outlined above, the ideal story should take only one or two minutes to tell.
  10. Practice. A few minutes of preparation to ensure your story follows the guidelines is the first step. But it is also important to self-evaluate after telling a story to determine if it had the intended effect, and to make ongoing improvements as necessary.

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