Whatever line of business you’re in, almost everyone nowadays is in the business of selling. Whether you’re trying to get customers to buy your product, pitch your company to investors, motivate your employees or get your teenager to do the dishes, your success will be dictated by your ability to influence, persuade and “close the sale”.
And storytelling is arguably the most powerful tool in your selling toolbox.
The best lesson I ever learned about the power of sales stories was during a vacation to Iceland last year. I was at the airport gift shop looking to pick up some last-minute souvenirs for friends. I was thinking of getting a couple of fridge magnets that would cost no more than 5 euros apiece. The store had a huge selection of those, ranging from Icelandic landmarks to elf figurines. They were all very pretty and I had a hard time deciding which ones to get.
Then I noticed one magnet that looked cheaply made. It was a square piece of wood with a little magnet glued to the back. On the front there was a symbol painted in red, which looked like an eight-pointed star drawn by a toddler.
“What is this?” I asked the store clerk, a 20-something blonde.
“Ah, this is a magic symbol for the Icelandic fishermen!” she said.
She went on to tell me that when Iceland was first occupied by the Vikings, most people’s livelihoods depended on fishing. It was a dangerous occupation given the harsh climate. The Vikings worshiped the Norse gods, and this was the magic symbol the fishermen wore or carved on their boats to appease the gods and bring good fortune and protection to their fishing trips.
“How much is it?” I asked
I bought five of them.
If you think about it, what happened in that transaction was quite magical. Before the clerk told me the story about Vikings and gods, the magnet wasn’t worth a dime to me. After she told me the story, which blended elements of history, religion and exotic adventure, the little piece of wood suddenly had so much meaning that I had to get it — gladly paying a premium price that doubled my budget.
Now when I gifted that magnet to friends, I’d tell them that story as well, so that they’d know I wasn’t gifting them a cheap piece of wood, but an embodiment of Icelandic magic and blessing.
And that is the power of a well-told story. It gives meaning to a product that is otherwise impersonal. It differentiates your product offering from your competitors’ and makes it more memorable. It builds relationships and inspires your audience/customers/stakeholders to make decisions beyond pure logical calculation.
But, when should you tell stories in the selling process and how should you tell them? Let’s start with how not to start a story.
1. Don’t apologize or ask permission for telling a story.
Many people don’t know how to start telling a story, especially at work. They begin by saying things like “I’m sorry, but can I tell you a story about this?” or “I promise it will be really quick,” as though they were apologizing for doing something wrong. When you start a story that way, the message you’re communicating is “this story is not important.” Then why should your audience listen to you? If you don’t think your story is that important, don’t tell it. If you think it’s worth your audience’s time, don’t apologize.
2. Don’t use the ‘s’ word.
The “s” word in this case is the word “story.” Don’t mention that word, unless your audience is a bunch of 5-years-olds. Many people in a work environment have a negative reaction to the word “story,” associating it with being unprofessional or inefficient. Don’t bias your audience by saying things like “Let me start today’s presentation with a story.”
3. Don’t give away the ending
A main reason why stories make people pay attention to you is the suspense factor — we all want to know what happened next. Don’t sabotage yourself by prematurely telling your audience how the story turned out. For example, in the middle of your story don’t say things like “Eventually what happened is [insert the ending], but at that time I didn’t know better.” You just ruined your story!
This is the most effective way to start your story.
Storytelling coach Paul Smith explains that you should always start your story with a great hook. A hook in this case is a single sentence or phrase that demonstrates to your audience why they should listen to your story. For example, instead of saying, “Let’s get today’s meeting started. And I’ll begin by telling you a story,” try something like, “Let’s get today’s meeting started. Something happened last week that completely changed my thinking on how to run this department. I thought I’d tell you about that.” The former way is awkward and likely met with resistance from your audience. The latter way is an excellent hook that gets your listeners’ attention immediately.
Another example of a hook: Remember that at the beginning of my Icelandic fridge magnet story I told you the best lesson I ever learned about the power of sales stories was when I went on vacation to Iceland? Yeah, that’s a hook. Did I get your attention? See!
Knowing when and how to tell stories is a powerful skill that will immediately boost your effectiveness in selling anything.