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Selling with stories – how to build connection and fruitful relationships

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

Rob entered the meeting room, excited about the presentation he was ready to deliver to a potential customer. They were big cheeses and he knew he had to impress them, so he’d gathered all the data he could find and packed his slides with graphs to showcase credible evidence to support his pitch. By slide five of 50, people started looking at their phones. Undeterred, Rob carried on clicking through, because there was so much more he wanted to say and he hadn’t even got to the killer infographic yet…

No wonder this meeting went nowhere. 

At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve probably all experienced the hurried, don’t-take-a-breath sales approach. The five-minute pitch bombarding you with flimsy benefits and false scarcity that’s like an assault on the senses. It might trick a few into making a reluctant, one-time purchase to make the salesperson go away, but it’s never going to help build relationships and long-term customer loyalty. 

These and other sales techniques miss the mark because they fail to create a meaningful connection with the audience. And after the year we’ve had, people are asking more profound questions of themselves and others to make sense of the world: “What are we in this for?”, “What’s the purpose behind the company”, “Do our values align?” etc.

With 95% of buying decisions taking place subconsciously (Gerald Zaltman, Harvard Business School), an emotional connection is crucial. 

The art (and science) of storytelling

This is where storytelling comes in; the gateway to the subconscious mind and the ‘gut feeling’ that’s responsible for the vast majority of purchases. Endless studies show how storytelling stimulates the brain differently, where listeners physically experience the story, not just listen to it. A story can make a message hit home so it stays with you for days, sometimes years, afterwards. And it can be the difference between failing to make any impact and inspiring others to take action. 

Telling a relevant story helps potential customers to see themselves or their customers in that situation. Instead of broadcasting a load of messages to the client, a story can help them picture the scene and it sparks a conversation, so they come to the same conclusion as yours, which makes selling far more natural and effective. 

People often worry that telling a story isn’t suitable for a meeting with serious executives. That being ‘fluffy’ undermines their credibility, or that sharing something personal makes them appear weak. Quite the opposite is true. A well-placed story is the ultimate evidence of why your work matters. And the good news is, storytelling is a wholly teachable skill.

With training, you can use stories to help:

  • Capture people’s attention 
  • Build trust and rapport
  • Show the human impact of what you do
  • Make data and complex information relatable
  • Change hearts and minds
  • Move people to take action
  • Be more memorable 

It’s how one sales director transformed his approach. After working with Ginger he told us:

“I won a multi-million-pound pitch that by rights we shouldn’t have won… All our competitors were hiding behind expensive 3D models and I just went in with a pen, whiteboard and a couple of great stories.”

Let’s not forget, it’s not just about directly selling something for cash. At some stage we all need to sell something – whether that’s our ideas, different perspectives, reasons for change, challenging messages and more. Storytelling can help us influence on many different levels and create loyalty well before we focus on selling a particular product or service.

For example, storytelling is how Ugo Ojike, Managing Director and diversity champion at Accenture, champions the need for courageous conversations about race.

And how Michelle Poorte, Project Manager bij Vattenfall, uses a story about the relationship with her childhood friend to press for greater understanding and curiosity in society.

How to use storytelling 

One of the main reasons people hold back from using stories is because they’re unsure how to use them in a business situation. 

Storytelling models can get overcomplicated, or they just don’t fit day-to-day business reality. Ginger storytelling expert, Robin Bayley, explains:

“When you strip it back, storytelling is about moving people from point A to point B. But the challenge is the potential customer has to give something up: their time, their point of view, their position they hold, the ‘we’ve-always-done-it-this-way’ state of mind. 

“A story which gives the customer the opportunity to visualise what’s in it for them, where they feel what it would be like to shift perspectives, and can see a clear and simple path to making a decision, is more likely to say yes and be receptive to building a deeper and more fruitful relationship with you.”

Types of business story

Here’s a simple way of looking at some of the most important types of stories: 

  • Those that tell us where we come from (Origin stories)
  • Those that tell us what we do now (Impact stories)
  • Those that tell us where we are going (Vision stories)

Top tips for business storytelling

1. Know your customer

Focus in on your customer so you understand what motivates them. And unlike the football bosses announcing the ill-fated European Football Super League, think beyond the small group of people directly in front of you. Who has the ultimate buying power? Who are their customers and what matters to them? How can you help make their lives better? This will help you identify stories which resonate with their values, their purpose and intention. Showing how well you understand them and their customers through storytelling is far more powerful than a super-polished slide deck or a heap of data without meaning. 

2. Identify the real hero

Even if you’re sharing a personal story about something that happened to you, the main focus needs to be on the who, or the what that made the difference. It needs to be relatable and meaningful to your audience, bringing something they’ll care about to life, where the customer can see themselves in the story and where they have the opportunity to make a positive impact as a result. Cue the sales pitch in the movie Tommy Boy for an example of getting it back-to-front – where the potential customer is made to feel like the ‘villain’ of the story!

3. Show them the way

The aim of the sales pitch is to take someone from where they are now to where you want them to be.  But shoving them in a direction they don’t want to go in is never going to work. You need to invite them to come to your conclusion by painting a picture of what it’s like on the other side. We use a river analogy with a series of stepping stones to help lay a path to your perspective. What would make your customer want to cross the river and how can you make it easy for them to do it?

Mastering storytelling

Ginger runs a popular Storytelling Mastery programme that is currently helping business leaders across the world to tell stories that have inspirational impact. 

From salespeople, to subject matter experts, we help our clients to identify the essence of great stories and then make those stories sing. For more information see our storytelling programmes, or drop us a line – we’re happy to help.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).

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