Selling: we all do it. All the time, all day, every day.
By: Eman H.Omar
A few years ago, I got a chance to go on a trip to Siwa; alone, for three weeks, to live on and take care of a farm while its owner went to his brother’s wedding in Assiut. Can you imagine an Egyptian single girl in her twenties asking her father to go on such a trip? It was undoubtedly a lot to grasp for anyone, but for a father nearing his seventies, it was quite a heavy load! I knew I was in for one of my strongest sales bids to date, and I needed to be prepared. The regular approach would definitely be blocked or full of obstacles at the very least; and I was aiming for a smooth ride, if not a pleasant one. I decided to play on Empathy, so I told the story from the very beginning...
“Six months ago, I had left my last full time job, was fed up with my whole career, and needed a real break. So I started to look for volunteer or paid jobs outside Cairo. I knew from friends that there are many NGOs and culture centers working on the development of touristic-yet-humble cities around Egypt; like Nubia, Dahab, Nuweiba, and Siwa. So I started sending to different places but all the replies said that no volunteers were needed at the time. I was really devastated, I felt caged, you know it has been my dream to travel alone and work for a while. I needed that kind of experience, to have the kind of stories you told us about your youth... Just this week, an NGO sent me about this opportunity in Siwa…So what do you say we give this a shot?”
After stating the facts, and with a bit of negotiation and financial talk, I successfully got the approval to go on my little adventure in the Western desert of Egypt.
How, you ask? Well, first, I did not start with the request, nor did I state the facts about the trip. I began instead with the problem I was facing, how it all started, why I wanted to travel, what I did to make it work, and then the downfall and how disappointed I felt. I walked him through what had happened, slowly made him empathise with me; feel - or at least understand - what I’m feeling, so when the moment came and I asked him for what I wanted, it was as if he was on my side, and as excited as I am to have found this opportunity.
If you haven’t already figured it out, I have used storytelling to win over my audience (my client) and the decision maker on my deal; the same technique we use everyday, without even noticing, to convince anyone of anything.
Storytelling is one of the trendiest selling techniques and is getting more and more popular in sales courses; but despite the recent hype, using storytelling for sales is nothing new. Stories have existed since the beginning of time. No one can argue their importance in our lives, how attracted we are to them or how they can shape our imagination and play with our emotions. Even as grown ups, we are attracted to stories all the time, from books to movies to that one gossiper in our group of friends - the one with a new story every week. But what about storytelling in business? How can there be a link between storytelling and decision making, especially in a sales deal?
Neuroeconomist Paul Zak have conducted a series of experiments and found out that when people hear stories, their bodies release Oxytocin, the hormone responsible for love, empathy and social connection. It is commonly referred to as the “Trust Hormone”. His experiments showed that when a group of people were shown a short sad story of a father and his dying son, they were much more likely to donate to a charity for ill kids or give money to a stranger (in the experiment room) than those who had watched a simple video of father and son walking in the zoo.
This tell us two things; one is that stories can change the way you see things, increase the extent to which you relate to the person, and affect your decisions. But it also tells us that not any story works, nor can any line of events create a story (father and son in the zoo did not have any impact on people); stories have a specific structure. There are phases to every story, and guidelines on how to tell them for maximum effect.
The power of storytelling lies in creating a connection between people; it builds empathy and understanding and ultimately makes it easier to ask your audience anything. For example: buy my product?
Let’s look at how you can properly use storytelling to appeal to your audience, with a focus on selling.
Keep it relevant and relatable
When speaking to an audience, what good would it bring to tell them a story they have nothing in common with? Always tell stories people can relate to, even if you haven’t been part of it. Find success stories of companies in their industry, entities of the same size or culture, or at the very least, existing in the same country/region. And try to stay away from cliche stories that the client must have heard a hundred times before, unless you bluntly state that this is a cliche that works for this particular situation.
Use metaphors and analogies
People think in pictures, it’s a fact. When you tell someone the word elephant, or house; they don’t see the word written in their mind’s eye, they see an image of it. Likewise, metaphors make it so easy to imagine what you’re saying. Let’s say you’re trying to land an account for your digital media agency, their company has a great product but very little visibility. Telling your client that “without digital presence, it’s like you are watering your plants without exposing them to the sun” would make a much bigger impact than telling them that they need more exposure for better sales or when your product/service to others in the market, try saying “we’re the Mercedes of shipping service” instead of “we’re the best at what we do”, and see the difference in people’s reactions.
Mix facts with narrative to appeal to both logic and emotion
When you’re telling a story about a certain company that made it big through digitizing their operations, changing their internal culture, or their marketing strategy, don’t just narrate a story that is nice to hear. Fill it with real numbers, dates and percentages. Human beings are emotional creatures, they think with their heart, but they like to rationalize their decisions, especially in business, where money is at stake. So give them data of different sorts to appeal to that little “devil’s advocate” inside their minds.
Create suspense and conflict
In every story, the plotline needs to rise first before reaching a climax and then falling into what is called a “denouement”, or a resolution. Likewise, when telling your story, start with the problem, the situation that needed to be resolved. In the personal story at the beginning of this article, I started with the chronological order of events, not in order to make sense, but for the sake of letting my father walk with me through my problem, imagine what I did and how I felt. And then I presented him with a solution.
Even if they refuse to admit it, when you finally tell your clients how the problem was resolved, they feel the relief as if they were part of the story. They have already put themselves in the characters’ shoes, and are willing to take decisions would be fix this problem (one that they probably suffer from as well). That is your cue to present your product/service!
Do not be afraid or embarrassed to share personal stories with your clients. Even if they’re not business related, they could be a metaphor with the same morale that you want to send through. I would gladly share the above story in a professional setting and I know people will relate, especially if there are women in my audience. Personal stories are the quickest way to build rapport and create connections with your clients, even before you talk business.
Write down your stories, tweak them to perfection and practice saying them. You are on stage most of the time in business, you need to sell internally and externally, and you need to be prepared for curtains rising any minute. The worst stories are ones with great substance and a weak structure. People will quickly lose interest in a poorly narrated story; and if they lose interest in your story, they will probably lose interest in what you’re selling. So rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse some more.