Selling 201: Storytelling (Or, How I Came To Love Stories)

Turning ideas into sharable emotional journeys

But, I’m not a salesperson

Despite their sometimes sketchy reputation, sales skills are amongst the most valuable in life.  We’re constantly selling ourselves and our ideas.  We sell ourselves to our potential partners, friends and employers.  Much of our daily communication is largely about selling our ideas.  Think about the conversations you’ve had today that were more than a few words.  I doubt you’d find many where you weren’t selling or being sold to…

Selling is about transferring belief, support or enthusiasm for a viewpoint or decision.  This could be as simple as deciding what to watch on TV or what to eat for dinner or as consequential and complex as proposing marriage.

In business, selling can also take many forms:

      • Selling products to a customer
      • Asking for money or trust from investors
      • Convincing management to make the decision you want
      • Getting the right behaviors from your employees or partners
      • Marketing your company and products
      • Aligning stakeholders toward a common objective or means

Decisions come from each person’s own journey 

We may not like to believe it, but decisions are emotional.  They are based on our emotional responses that come from lifetimes of experiences, of consequences of prior decisions and of relationships.  We don’t like “being sold to” because it feels like the person selling is trying to undermine or discredit our experiences or opinions based on those experiences.  

While sometimes frustrating, everyone brings an entirely unique viewpoint and set of personal experiences to every situation or decision.  As a result, what may seem obvious to you often isn’t for other people (no matter how reasonable, good and/or intelligent they are).   When you’re asking something from them, other people don’t generally care about your personal journey (i.e. how you came to your current belief or perspective) UNLESS they’ve been on it with you.

Selling is an emotional journey

At its heart, selling (aka persuasion) can be thought of as an emotional journey FROM one view TO another view.  In fact, the greater the emotional experience (i.e. journey), the greater the conviction and appetite for risk defending the conviction.  People who’ve shared the same journey tend to also share views.

Because it is both impractical and probably undesirable to take people on your own personal journey, stories present themselves as a way to package up the journey in a controlled, effective, efficient way.

Stories are packaged, sharable emotional journeys

Stories are about making abstract concepts into personal, emotional, tangible journeys. Stories allow people to rationalize emotional decisions by providing easy to understand and repeat logical narratives.

Stories take this basic form:

      • Context and introduction of characters
      • Introduction of core tensions, why they matter and why they haven’t been resolved
      • Relief of core tensions
      • The ever after – the results of relieving tensions

What are GOOD stories?

Good stories are self-contained and self explanatory.  They define for their audience what does and doesn’t matter (does it matter that it is snowing?  The author feeds you this answer).  They bring their audience on their own journey to your conclusion by personalizing the pain, resolution and reward.  Good stories allow for an omniscient, credible narrator.  They can contextualize risk and reward (“I see why I should invest here…”).

What GOOD stories aren’t:

      • About your (original) journey to your conclusions
      • Full of extra characters, story lines or elements that aren’t part of the core narrative.  In business, this often takes the form of containing too much DATA
      • Strictly logical arguments – people “think they are logical… but don’t act like it”
      • About how great or clever you or your product/solution is
      • About you (the salesperson/inventor/presenter)
      • Technical/detailed in nature

What are the elements of a good (business) story?

      • Some context (“where are we?” “What can we see/do/feel?”)
        • Some qualitative/quantitative sense of scope of the tension you’ll be relieving
        • A definition of what is happening now
        • Why what is happening now isn’t relieving the tension.  What is tough/painful/inefficient?
        • Anything else needed to setup the major tension
          • Make sure to focus both on the feeling of the tension (why does it matter to the audience) and the root cause of the pain
      • Story of tension within your audience – BE SPECIFIC – some examples in the context of a business pitch:
        • Tension of slow(er) growth
        • Tension of losing customer loyalty
        • Tension of poor returns on investments
        • Tension of eroding/low margins
        • Tension of market changes, competition, changing customer behaviors
        • Tension of failing existing narratives – “the customers will figure out what we’re offering…”
      • Personalized customer story inside client tension
        • “Let’s talk about your customers..let’s walk in their shoes…”
        • Tension of too much cost, too much complexity, poor outcomes, discomfort, feeling of inefficiency, poor personal/emotional outcomes
        • Customer yearning – “the right solution would look make me feel good”
        • Customer envy or perceptions of insufficiency – “the grass is greener”
        • Describe the ways that the tension are and aren’t being addressed today
          • Ideally show some hope of relief (i.e. isn’t SO hard or painful)
            • It’s better than it used to be… Or, it seems to be getting better.
          • Use this as a way to setup your resolution to the tension
      • Release of tension
        • How our solution can break the tension, solve the problem, relieve the pain
        • Our solution will …
        • How your solution works, what it does…
        • Focus on what is new, novel, different, essential
      • The new reality – the “lives happy ever after” part
        • From: x To: y

Some Suggestions on Telling Better Stories:

      • Personalize the tension by knowing and relating to your audience
      • Use props/visuals that engage the audience in the world you’re creating for them
      • Make sure your story is explainable to an average 3rd grader.  Simplify to the point that it could be told 2nd or 3rd hand in an elevator to your mother or father (i.e. non expert) and it would resonate
      • Keep the fluff light – focus on elements that matter to the story
      • Make sure that nobody feels like they’re being sold to (nobody hates marketing, just bad marketing).  The easiest way to do this is to avoid words like “should” or “ought to.”   Good stories don’t directly tell their audience what to do or think
      • Suspense and patience – don’t start with the punch-line – end with it
      • Use time to your advantage when bringing people into your story-land.  The best storytellers are excellent at using pauses and cadence to draw in their audience
      • While the basic narrative structure can be generic, the story can be very vivid and real
      • Don’t be “too cute” with analogies, character development – this is the art part

Some good content on the seven types of stories:


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