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Essential Sales Technique: Storytelling

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Top sellers share a key sales technique: the ability to connect through stories.

In 2008 my long-held views about what makes great salespeople great got shattered. That was the year I saw statistical proof that during the three decades I had been in the sales productivity improvement business, I had been on the wrong track!

When I first became a sales trainer at Xerox in the 1970s, the focus of sales productivity improvement was moving the 80/20 rule. So easy to measure: 20 percent of the human beings in sales bring in 80 percent of the revenue. If you could get the bottom 80 percent to sell more, the potential improvement in revenue can be staggering. I spent the next 32 years developing programs to help those in the “bottom 80 percent” of performers so that organizations could move the needle on the 80/20 ratio.

In 2008 Sales Benchmark Index did a survey of 1,100 B2B sales organizations and found that the 80/20 rule had actually gotten worse—it was now 87/13! When I learned this, I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. Despite the efforts of all the sales process and methodology training firms, CRM systems, and sales management training over the past 30-plus years, there was an even greater disparity between the haves and have-nots in the sales profession.

What Brain Science Taught Us

That year my partner, Ben Zoldan, and I decided to leave our old world of logical, rational, “proven” sales methodologies behind and ascertain what the great salespeople do differently from the 80-plus percent “journeymen” majority. We began a two-year research project. What we learned is that, at a basic level, the top reps were selling more intuitively. They had a better sense of the customer and were better able to connect with the customer’s emotions about purchasing. More specifically, it turns out that they were able to achieve this level of rapport largely through a skill that not only wasn’t taught in sales training, but that had been largely ignored in the business world: storytelling.

Breakthroughs in brain science helped us rediscover and understand the power of story. Neuroscience tells us that the left side of the brain is always looking for a right or wrong answer; it doesn’t tolerate shades of gray. It tends to be analytical, linear, skeptical and emotionally neutral. It also tends to get “paralysis by analysis” because it can never get enough information to make what it feels will be an entirely correct decision.

By contrast, the right side is creative and imaginative. The big-picture right side interacts with the feeling power of the limbic or emotional brain. The emotional brain is where the “aha” moments happen, where the “I want that” or “I need that” feelings happen. Buyers have a “gut reaction” and an image that allows them to make an emotional decision, such as the decision to trust someone or buy something. They can feel it and see it rather than quantify it.

When human beings anticipate a story, their critical left brain begins to shut down and the creative right brain connected to the emotional brain opens up. They think, “Oh, it’s a story, I don’t have to do anything or decide anything, I can just enjoy it.” At the same time, they also sense, “This could be important; I should pay attention.” What better state of mind to receive a sales message?

How to Build a Story

Ben and I began teaching workshops in 2010. We teach attendees to build and tell stories they would need in selling. Every salesperson needs a minimum inventory of three selling stories: a story about who you represent, a story about who you have helped and a story about who you are. We also teach attendees to build a 30-second version, a 3-minute version and a 10-minute version of stories.

A few tips on building your stories. As part of our research we interviewed screenwriters in Los Angeles. They use storyboards to build their stories. We got inspired to build a storyboard framework for salespeople to build their stories. We give each attendee in our workshops a Storyboard Placemat and colored 3 x 5 index cards with the story elements.

We build stories in a different order than we tell them. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 1990), tells us to begin with the end (of the story) in mind. Here’s how to put together a storyboard:

  1. We begin building a story with the Resolution (red card, if you’re building a storyboard). If it is the story of the organization you represent, then it is what your organization offers today.

  2. Then build your Setting (green card). This is the beginning of your story—how it all began, how your founder and key leaders started the company. The setting must include at least one character. Stories are about people.

  3. Next work on the Complication (white card). This is where the character(s) in your story have to face some challenges, perhaps how they resisted change. What made them human?

  4. Now build the Turning Point of your story (blue card)—the “aha” moment.

  5. The last piece to build is the Point of the Story (yellow card)—the why of your story. It can be built at any time in this process. Ideally, you won’t have to overtly “tell” this piece, because the moral of the story leads your listener to “get” why you are telling this story.

  6. Finally, practice. When you tell your story for the first time, ask a trusted friend to “tend” or listen empathically to it. What this means is exploring the emotional parts of the story, asking you about feelings the characters have along the way—excitement, frustration, depression, elation, etc. Put the emotional words and metaphors on the back of your cards. Pretty soon, you can tell the stories using only the back of the cards.

It was very difficult for me to let go of my old paradigm of selling, but I knew I had to. It is exhilarating that after more than 30 years, we have finally discovered how the most influential people inspire others to step away from their old ways to something new. And, it’s teachable!

Mike Bosworth is co-founder of Story Leaders and co-author of What Great Salespeople Do: The Science of Selling Through Emotional Connection and the Power of Story.

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