Sales is Storytelling. Marketing is Storytelling. Business is Storytelling.

Author: 
Paul Nolan

Compelling stories gain the trust and understanding of others, and make them open to new ideas. Stop selling products or services and start selling stories.

Managers of sales and marketing teams are charged with coaching up individual team members, enhancing their skill sets and improving overall team performance. But where to begin? Do you need to develop or sharpen your team’s analytics skills? Get them proficient with more marketing technologies? Hone their creativity or intuition?

MKTGinsight, an informational website that serves senior marketers across diverse industries, asked 10 marketing leaders to share their advice for ways to be more creative while getting the most from marketing technology, using analytics to solidify customer relationships, and stoke internal relationships to speed progress and improve bottom-line results.

Not surprisingly, several respondents emphasized the importance of advancing tech skills, including understanding tech stacks and embracing the wave of customer data. Amidst these tips was advice that stood out because of its simplicity.

“Whether it’s this year, 10 years from now or 100 years from now, a marketer’s success or failure will come down to one crucial skill: the ability to be an engaging and persuasive storyteller,” stated Amit Bivas, head of marketing at Optimove, makers of software that collects data to enhance customer relationships.

“Marketing is about telling a story, whether it’s a product story or a brand story, and the better story you tell, the better chance you have at achieving your marketing goals,” Bivas added. “Demonstrating emotional intelligence and empathy goes a long way in marketing communications; no one wants to be treated as if they’re a data point. If you’re a good storyteller, your customers will never feel that way.”

Stories get a revival

Storytelling has stood the test of time as a critical skill in sales and marketing — and withstood the emergence of high-powered tech tools that promise to put so many aspects of engaging customers on automatic pilot. Through the decades, the coaches, consultants and idea generators who help sales and marketing teams improve their performance have made storytelling a staple of their message. The fine art of spinning a powerful story will always provide an edge.

“I like numbers when I want to look at quantitative data from a sales manager role, but the power of storytelling is way underrated,” says Carter Young, director of sales training and operations at SaleScout Data Solutions, a B2B sales intelligence provider.

Young believes most marketers continue to understand the importance of creating and sharing strong stories, but that message doesn’t always make its way to sales teams. “They are more often directly engaging with prospects and growth-opportunity customers. Shouldn’t they have a story to tell, too?”

Sales has always been about sharing poignant stories, agrees consultant and author Joanne Black. “If you want to connect with people — and isn’t that our goal in sales — a story is the way to do it.” Black, whose best-selling book “No More Cold Calling,” promotes revenue growth through referrals, says you won’t get introduced to prospective customers unless you have a solid business solution and a means to relay that. “You only have the right to ask for a referral if you’ve got a good story,” she says.

Unfortunately, Black says, many salespeople don’t know how to tell stories well. One thing a good story isn’t is a list of features and benefits, yet that’s what many salespeople revert to. “Nobody cares about how everything works, and yet so many people try to sell that way. It comes down to how do we talk about ourselves without talking about ourselves? The way to do that is with a story.”

The science behind storytelling

Research behind the persuasiveness of storytelling is well-publicized. Neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak found that stories that are highly engaging and contain key elements — including a climax and denouement — can elicit powerful empathic responses by triggering the release of oxytocin.

“My experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later,” Zak states in a 2014 Harvard Business Review summary of his research. “In terms of making impact, this blows the standard PowerPoint presentation to bits. I advise business people to begin every presentation with a compelling, human-scale story. Why should customers or a person on the street care about the project you are proposing? How does it change the world or improve lives? How will people feel when it is complete? These are the components that make information persuasive and memorable.”

Professor Jennifer Aaker at Stanford discovered that people are 22 times more likely to recall information delivered in the form of a story than listed as just plain facts. And Dr. Uri Hasson at Princeton uncovered evidence of what’s called “neural coupling”: When we listen to a story, our brains begin to synchronize with the storyteller’s. The same parts of our brains become active at the same time. “Telling a story is as close to telepathy as you can get,” states sales consultant Matthew Pollard in his new book, “The Introvert’s Edge: How the Quiet and Shy Can Outsell Anyone.”

“When salespeople sell the facts and details, they are telling people what they know to be true, but it comes across as ‘salesy.’ When you tell a story, you are educating prospects on a transition from where they are now to where they want to be,” Pollard says. “The moral of your story is, ‘we did this for that client and we can do this for you, too.’”

Pollard cautions against turning stories into teaching and, like Black, says above all, avoid running through features and benefits. “Salespeople have a wealth of information and feel the urge to educate prospects about all they’ve learned. Stories force them to stay at a high level and prevent them from getting technical about details the customer doesn’t care about.”

In fact, Pollard encourages salespeople to not think of themselves as salespeople. “The actual word ‘sales’ is a Scandinavian term that means ‘to serve.’ Sales done right should be a natural, step-by-step process that leads to a sale. Salespeople are better served if they go in with the mindset of, ‘I want to help more people.’”

It’s not about you

In case you haven’t gotten it already, your stories are not about you or your product or service. “The customer is always the hero in your stories,” says Calum Coburn, director and vice president of The Negotiation Experts, a global training provider. “The switch happens when a salesperson stops talking from their own perspective and starts talking from the stakeholder’s perspective. Only when the salesperson has entered the ‘body’ of the stakeholder is the buyer interested and eager to learn.”

In theory, a veteran salesperson could have an endless supply of stories, but Pollard recommends “niching” down to three strong stories that address the primary customer challenges or the most common customer objections and learn them frontward and backward. Preparation and practice are vital. A story is script that doesn’t feel like a script. The goal is to get into the natural flow of conversation.

“You can’t sit there and read from your script. That’s why telemarketers always sound robotic,” Pollard states. “A good salesperson memorizes their script and practices it over and over again until it sounds natural.”

By having three or four well-rehearsed stories, salespeople do not have to worry about what they will say next and are able to “be in the room.” They can be more in the moment and available to inform the customer.

Picture yourself in a Pixar movie

Strong stories can turn an otherwise mundane business process into a competitive edge. David Richards recently joined FluentStream Technologies as product manager of the phone and VoIP system provider. FluentStream sells primarily to government organizations — school districts, municipalities, etc. — that require the use of RFPs. It’s a system that has those who pitch their services sometimes literally checking off boxes.

That makes it difficult for FluentStream to stand out, so Richards is embracing storytelling as a means of maneuvering around the staid RFP process. An avid fan of Pixar movie studios, Richards has FluentStream experimenting with graphics, stories and even an anthropomorphized rat that chews through a main cord and knocks out a customer’s communications system to reinforce FluentStream’s message of high-quality, personalized customer service. That marketing effort was still coming together when we spoke with Richards in March.

“Telephone service is not the sexiest thing to sell. Unless we are talking with an IT person, no one wants to sit there hear about our services. That’s where storytelling comes in,” Richards says. “We can communicate the same amount of information — the features we offer — but if we put a different wrapper on it in the form of a story, it becomes easier to listen to. When you are trying to break into large organizations and competing against larger competitors, that’s the sort of edge you need.”

Richards was inspired by Pixar’s teaming with online education provider Khan Academy to offer “Pixar In a Box,” a free series (now with three complete seasons) that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the animation company’s secrets of great storytelling. As Richards explains, if a company grants you attention, either through a meeting, a read email or a viewed video message, you owe it to that prospect to make it worth their time.

Calum Coburn of The Negotiation Experts also embraces Hollywood strategies for corporate use. “There’s a structure to successful storytelling. Hollywood doesn’t risk hundreds of millions of dollars on each movie without following successful formulas,” he says. Here again, he emphasizes telling stories from the prospect’s perspective, which he calls “the hero’s journey.”

“The number one mistake salespeople make when crafting their first story is telling it from their perspective. It’s not about you. You will, at best, play a supportive role.”

A buzzword that’s always been around

Storytelling is enjoying something of a resurgence, particularly in this era of content marketing. However, the truth is it has always been at the core of sales and marketing. “Stories have been an essential driver of change throughout human history,” states Shane Snow, founder of Contently, in an essay written for HubSpot called “Why Storytelling Will be the Biggest Business Skill of the Next Five Years.”

“Now more than ever, businesses, workers and leaders have opportunities to stand out, spread messages and make change through storytelling. Good stories surprise us. They have compelling characters. They make us think, make us feel. They stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that numbers and text on a slide with a bar graph don’t.”

Optimove’s Amit Bivas, who pinned marketers’ success to their ability to tell stories, says storytelling was at the core of how companies went to market for decades until the recent emergence of data and customer intelligence began to overwhelm us. Smart companies will keep their focus on telling good stories, he says, referencing a character from the hit cable series “Mad Men.”

“Up until the 1990s, marketers were traditionally Don Drapers, meaning they were focused on the creative aspects of the trade, rather than on the scientific aspects. Today, marketers are expected to be scientists and artists simultaneously, a forced combination that doesn’t necessarily work. Personally, I think marketers should focus on being Don Drapers again, so they can direct their energies on what they signed up to do — tell new and impactful stories — and leave the numbers to the analysts.”