How (and Why) to Tell Killer Sales Stories
By Alexa Harrison
There’s a scene in the British comedy Cemetery Junction that I love because I think it’s a perfect representation of the power of sales stories and storytelling in sales.
The scene (set in the 1970s) centers on two door-to-door insurance salesmen, Freddie and Mike, who arrive at a middle-aged couple’s home to sell them a life insurance policy.
Freddie begins his pitch by opening a textbook and reciting facts about the benefits of the policy. Barely a minute in, the husband cuts Freddie off and says, “This is all fascinating, but we’re really not interested.” He then goes on to explain that they would rather use their money to buy a vacation to Spain.
Then Mike steps up to the plate. The more seasoned salesman, he approaches the pitch from a sales storytelling angle. He places the husband at the center of the plot, and asks “Did you fight in the war, sir?” When the husband acknowledges that he did, Mike begins to tell a sad story about the widows of veterans who died without purchasing insurance. “I’ve sat with so many widows who used to be full of life. Their husbands died and within a month they were a bag of bones. They can’t afford to buy food.”
The couple listens to the entire pitch rapt, emotional. Then, seconds after it’s over – they decide the vacation isn’t worth it. They purchase an insurance policy.
This movie scene seems far-fetched, but it’s actually an accurate depiction of just how key sales stories are. The facts that Freddie recited, as convincing they were, just weren’t enough to move the couple to make a purchase (or even listen to a pitch). In contrast, Mike’s use of a personal, emotional story with the potential buyers at the center helped them better understand why they needed the product. It helped him to quickly close the deal.
All stories, including those used by the best salespeople, have a beginning, middle, and end. They are about a person, (or group of people) who encounters obstacles and overcomes them. Like Nancy Duarte explains in her book Resonate, like great works of fiction, great presentations follow the hero’s journey, but they make the audience the hero.
If you work in sales, have a set of stories ready to go. They can serve as multifaceted tools that come in handy in many parts of the sales process.
When You Should Use Sales Stories
As a person who works in sales, you should have several dependable sales stories you can rely on during the sales process. Then, you can use them to your advantage in the following scenarios:
Use Sales Storytelling to Make your Presentation More Conversational
When you’re crafting a sales presentation, do you think the facts are enough to persuade people to buy? Don’t be like Freddie. If you deliver rote information, without connecting, the information can fall flat. In fact, presentations without stories often make prospects feel that you are talking at them – not with them – which creates a wall. This ultimately drives them away. You don’t want to drive them away, do you?
There’s a way to craft better sales presentations and make your prospects feel involved. That’ll feel better for both of you. In her book Resonate, Nancy Duarte explains how to make the audience the hero “business leaders need to…place the people in the audience at the center of the action, and make them feel that the presentation is addressing them personally.” Screenwriter Chad Hodge, expands on that in Harvard Business Review, ‘[help] people to see themselves as the hero of the story’ because “everyone wants to be a star, or at least to feel that the story is talking to or about him personally.”
By making sales stories “hero’s journey”s with the prospect at its crux, you can personalize the information you’re offering, make data more understandable, turn facts into gripping plot points, and help make details stick. You can also help make the sales process more of a conversation – and less of a presentation.
Dave DeFranco, Duarte’s Director of Strategy Services, explains that sales conversations are actually a back-and-forth interaction between the rep and one or more buyers. “Sales needs the agility to use information and stories in a mix of modalities that lets them engage in a way that matches the dynamic of a conversation, so they can better relate to their buyers.”
When You Want to Establish Credibility
If you can convince a prospect to trust you, you have a chance to persuade them that your product is worthwhile from the get-go. (After all, there’s a reason that 84% of B2B sales begin with a referral. Referrals from a trustworthy source mean that a buyer doesn’t have to worry about whether a purchase is a risk or a scam.)
To establish credibility, start your sales pitch by telling stories that feature previous successes. Prove your product is worth the investment – because you’ve already delivered results.
In 1970s insurance sales, salesmen like Mike told sales stories about widows who wished they’d bought insurance. Today, businesses even include customer success stories on their website so they can immediately and conveniently show the public that their products have led to successful results.
In an interview with VoiceAmerica Business Channel, business storytelling expert and author of Putting Stories to Work Shawn Callahan succinctly sums up the importance of using former sales stories to establish credibility. He explains, that a sales story “demonstrates that you, first of all, understand what their needs are– that you’ve dealt with them before and that you’ve successfully helped somebody through the process.”
DeFranco went on to explain that “stories don’t only help buyers see that what you’re selling works. They also show that you’re a knowledgeable and trustworthy expert. Sales storytelling shows that you know the ins-and-outs of your company and its history. That you’re armed with sufficient knowledge to be trusted.”
Use Sales Stories to Handle Objections
Everyone wants their sales processes to go 100% smoothly 100% of the time. Unfortunately, however, that’s just not realistic. (After all, maybe a couple thinks they would rather go on vacation to Spain than spend money on your product.)
One popular sales storytelling technique for objection handling is called “Feel, Felt, Found” — a central strategy in Apple’s Genius Training manual.
During “Feel, Felt, Found,” you:
- Acknowledge how a prospect feels when they convey any objections
- Relay a story about how a former customer felt a similar way
- Wrap the story with how that customer “found” their solution by purchasing your product.
The “Feel, Felt, Found” method works because it starts by building empathy. Then it relays a digestible, tangible anecdote that feels relevant and helpful. It encourages a prospect to come over to your side (and buy).
Garin Hess, CEO of Consensus, describes the “Feel, Felt, Found” sales storytelling technique by calling it “verbal judo.” He says:
“When we get an objection in sales, instead of resisting, we need to move right with it. An objection necessarily, at first, places our prospect on one side and you on the other. The end goal is to get on the same side, and resistance keeps us on opposite sides… The key to effectively using this framework is to be sincere… You are there to help them solve a problem, not to get the deal. If you solve their problem, they will buy. Using Feel, Felt, Found as verbal judo will take the opposition out of the objection and help you move to a more collaborative discussion to build the right value.”
What Kind of Sales Stories to Use
Now that you know where you can use sales stories, it can be important to build up an arsenal of stories. These can be deployed when you’re trying to sale. Here are several types of stories to have in your back pocket to use when you’re convincing a prospect to buy:
- Previous customer success stories: As mentioned above, stories of previous customer successes can be a powerful tool. They can convince a prospect that they need to purchase what you’re selling. A study by Gartner showed that 70% of executive buyers believe customer stories are the best way to differentiate a company from its competitors. This means that if you’ve memorized and rehearsed tales of how you’ve led your previous customers to success, you’ll probably end up bringing in more new customers.
- Personal anecdotes: Sales people can use personal anecdotes to create common ground with the people they are selling, too. The common ground between sellers and buyers creates empathy. This naturally creates a feeling of trust in the human brain.
- Company failures: It might seem counterintuitive, but telling failure stories is actually an effective way to sell. Failure stories can call attention to instances in which your company has grown and improved. It can also make you seem more credible and honest. Aaron Kotick, Managing Director of Deal IQ Inc. and former president of Fusion Learning, believes in the power of failure stories for sales. He explains, “Failure stories are a great way to build empathy – nobody likes to fail, and people feel for you when you tell one. It’s a way to build trust and connections.”
Selling an outstanding product or service seems like it should be simple. Approach prospects with impressive facts and numbers (like Freddie did in Cemetery Junction). In no time, your buyers will be handing you a check! In reality, however (as any sales professional knows), selling isn’t such a simple science. One of the most effective tools for optimizing the process is sales storytelling. Sales stories paint salespeople as credible experts. They make information relatable and engaging. And, they provide inspiration to make a person take action. If you’re in sales, step away from dry presentations and pitches filled with data. Start building a repertoire of sales stories to use when you want someone to buy. You may just find that your sales process is smoother, more effective, and also more enjoyable than ever before.
Illustrated by Alexis Macias