Posted 4th February 2008.
The art of storytelling is dying.
We live in an age of soundbites, special effects, snappy comebacks and the 30-second attention span. It seems that no one is interested in taking the time to listen to, or tell a good story.
Yet think back to the last time you were truly moved by a film or play or TV show. When you last cried in the cinema or sat on the edge of your seat thoroughly gripped by a thriller.
Chances are that it wasn’t because of the special effects or any snappy dialogue. It most likely wasn’t even due to great acting – although that can help.
No, the reason you were truly engaged with the film or play was because of the plot. Because the author hooked you with an interesting story. And especially, because the author got you to really care about the characters in that story
Stories in Business Development
Now think about that example in the context of business development.
Don’t you want your clients and prospects to really engage with what you are saying? Don’t you want to grab their emotions rather than just their logical brain?
Of course, you will never build the same degree of emotional response in a sales meeting or pitch as in a thrilling drama. But you can certainly do a lot better than the majority of dry, dull sales presentations made today.
The secret, of course, is to use stories. And the most powerful stories to use are personal ones. Stories with real human protagonists rather than faceless corporations.
When you introduce your company, for example, don’t tell your prospects you can save them 10% on their telecoms costs, or that you’ve worked with the top 5 car manufacturers. Get that same message across in a personal story and it will have so much more power.
Contrast these two different introductions:
“We work with all the leading consumer goods companies. Our six-sigma and lean manufacturing services can save you at least 10% of your operating costs and cut 20% from your lead times”
“We recently worked with John Smith, the CEO of BigPack. John’s problem was that because of the long changeover times, his production was very inflexible and he couldn’t respond quickly to the needs of some of his best customers and so he was losing market share hand-over-fist. By working with us using our lean manufacturing and six sigma methodology, he was able to offer the sort of flexibility his customers were crying out for – and as an added bonus, he found that running costs were 10% lower than before.”
Admittedly, the second introduction is a few sentences longer – but those extra sentences – and the way the whole introduction is worded – make a world of difference.
Think about how you would respond to the introductions as a CEO of a Packaging company.
The first introduction is OK. The professional builds some credibility by highlighting that they work for the top companies in the industry. And the fast changeover times and 10% saving on running costs sound OK.
But there’s no emotion here. It’s cold, hard facts.
Worse: the “we could save you 10%” is almost a challenge.
The natural response of most people is to silently think “Oh you could, could you? Prove it”.
After all, it's our first meeting: what does he really know about my business? How does he know I’m not already highly efficient?
But by rephrasing into a story as in the second introduction we get over these problems.
Firstly, the prospect becomes more engaged when he hears someone’s name. You’ve indicated you work with executives just like them – perhaps even someone they look up to.
And when you use the word “frustrations” – not just a business problem, but real frustrations – then they begin to feel empathy towards that person. Chances are they’re feeling frustrations too – but like many executives, there are few outlets for them to vent those frustrations.
Now, by talking about someone else’s frustrations you’ve begun to create an environment where they can safely talk about their issues.
There's something really interesting that happens when you use a story too…
By using an interesting story where you happened to solve the client’s problem and save 10% of running costs, you’re not making a direct claim. You’re not risking a challenge because you’re talking about something that was done for someone else.
You’re not claiming you can save the prospect 10% – but they will begin to make that inference for themselves. They'll project themselves into the story as the hero.
So now they begin to think “hmmm, I wonder if they can make those savings for us?” instead of “well, he claims he can make those savings, but I’m not sure”.
Your story has allowed him to reach a conclusion for himself – and so he is much more likely to believe it than if you claim it yourself.
In similar vein, when you get a prospect or client talking and they tell you about some of the issues and challenges they are facing; you can use your stories to build credibility and confidence that you have experience in these areas and know how to help.
But notice that you’re not jumping to providing a solution for the client’s problem (where you run the risk of being wrong) – you’re relating a story about a client in a similar situation and what worked for them.
Again, the prospect thinks for himself: “Maybe this can work for me. And even if not, they were able to solve this guy’s similar issues – maybe they can find a different solution for me”. As opposed to their thinking if you try to suggest a solution to their problem: “How can they know how to solve my problem after 5 minutes? Do they think I’m some sort of idiot who hasn’t thought about this?…..”
Crafting a Compelling Story
Some people are great natural storytellers. They mentally record their experiences as stories and have no trouble recalling them in an interesting and entertaining way.
For the rest of us, it takes a little work.
What you need to have in your armoury is a set of compelling stories – perhaps 6 or 7 – covering a variety of situations where you, your products or your services have added significant value. You can then select from the stories as needed to fit the particular circumstances you think are going to be relevant and interesting to your prospect. And you can use the same story as an example as part of your introduction, your elevator speech, or in an expanded version when the prospect opens up and talks about a particular issue they have.
To craft the stories, first think about the typical problems your product or service solves. Then think of some recent examples of specific customers where this has happened.
Next, write a short paragraph summarising the example. A few guidelines should help here:
Make the story personal. Don’t just talk about a company, talk about a named individual who “owned” the problem your product & service solved. Your story will feel much more real – and your prospect will feel much more empathy towards a person rather than a corporation.
Talk first about the challenges the person faced. Again, try to describe them in personal terms so that the prospect builds a connection to your story. Don’t belittle the person – turn them into the hero of the story – they had a problem which (by working with you) they overcame.
Don’t spend a lot of time describing what you or your service actually did. Although this might seem interesting to you – it’s the least interesting aspect to your prospect. They’re much more interested in whether the problem you solved is similar to theirs, and what value or benefits did your solution bring.
Close with the benefits your product or service provided – but underplay this. Almost add it as an afterthought – as if the tremendous value you brought was just part of everyday business for you. Avoid boasting or self-aggrandising statements.
Write these examples up using natural, conversational language and revise them until they sound right. Then learn and practice their main points so that they don’t sound like a script.
And, of course, make sure you get the permission of anyone whose name you use.
Putting the Stories to Work
Armed with your stories you can begin to put them into action in sales situations. Don’t overuse them as you risk hogging the conversation when you should be listening. Instead, use them sparingly to spark the curiosity of the prospect, gain credibility, and provoke a reaction or question.
Personally, I use one story to introduce my company and what we focus on (selected based on what I think is likely to be of most relevance).
Then I may use further stories later on, to illustrate a point or to show that I understand their situation.
But I'll rarely use more than a couple in a sales meeting of an hour or less. To do so runs the risk of dominating the conversation and not giving the client enough space to open up about their problems.
And if they don’t talk about their specific problems, then I can’t begin to show them how I can help them.