All salespeople are storytellers. At least that’s the conventional wisdom these days. You can read Three Simple Storytelling Methods That Can Do Your Selling For You, which claims “a story can potentially carry the entire sale for your product.” Or you can read Four Storytelling Techniques That Can Help You Increase Your Sales, which suggests that salespeople “carry your bullet points with you on an index card so you have something to refer to if you need it.” And, if you like slightly larger numbers, you can read Six Ways You Can Be a Better Storyteller in Sales, which concludes with an ad urging you to buy the author’s services.
If you sense some skepticism here, you’re right. In truth, I don’t want you to work through any of those lists. Storytelling is on its way to become a buzzword like “innovation,” “collaboration,” or “disruption” that seems to lose value everytime someone in business uses it. Of course the ability to tell a coherent, entertaining, persuasive story is a must for salespeople, but the advice — often from sales “experts” who have a three-, four-, or six-step plan they want to sell you — tends to range from the generic to the condescending.
And by that I mean condescending to both the salesperson and the customer. The advice often assumes (a) the salesperson needs the most rudimentary storytelling tips (i.e. “have a solid beginning, middle and end”) and (b) the customer will buy anything so long as you hand him or her a competent story about yourself. Almost all the advice I read suggests that salespeople tell personal stories: “just ‘walk’ people (step-by-step) through a painful problem you went through and how you achieved the result your readers are looking for.”
Wrong wrong wrong. It’s not about you. One of the worst things salespeople can do is tell stories that put the focus on themselves. Of course, salespeople or not, we all want to tell stories that move people and influence them. Evolutionary psychologists tell us it’s a basic need. Stories move people better than bullet points, spreadsheets, or comparative metrics. Stories, as long as they’re a healthy combination of authority and vulnerability, bring people closer together. But if you’re telling a story, make it a story about the customer, not the product or service you’re trying to sell — even if the product or service is you. Don’t tell a story about how the product or service is great. Don’t even tell a story about how the product or service can make the customer great. Instead, put yourself in your customers’ shoes. What do they want? If your product or service helps them get there, talk to them about what it’s like to get there and be there. Are you confident that using your product or service will help your customer be great? Show it.
If you want to learn plenty about how to tell stories that connect and persuade, I direct you to an amazing talk by Nancy Duarte. She’s best-known as one of the world’s leading presentation coaches: she helped turn a bunch of slides from Al Gore into An Inconvenient Truth and she works with many TED speakers. You can see her in action in this TED talk, which is about telling stories that can change the world.
Except for the time you spend talking to customers, this will be the most productive 18 minutes of your business day. Watch Duarte and listen to her tell her story. She’s talking about something bigger than herself (that’s the vulnerability), but she’s doing it in a way that makes you see it in a new way. She’s talking about two of the most-watched speeches of the last century — one from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and another from Steve Jobs — and she helps you understand them in new ways (that’s the authority). The best salespeople don’t sell their wares or themselves; they sell a vision of a brighter future for their customers. So do that by telling the stories that matter: the stories about your customers.