How To Use Story To Inspire, Persuade and Sell
Updated: Aug 13, 2018
Incorporating simple storytelling principles into your business communications dramatically improves the clarity and impact of your message.
In this post, I share the structure I use for pitches, proposals and presentations that will capture your audience's attention and motivate them to act.
Humans are wired for story. As kids, we were natural storytellers and story listeners. From the time we’re born up until this moment we're exposed to thousands of stories; books, nursery rhymes, films, articles, plays, musicals, and even advertising. This wiring and conditioning make humans ready to receive stories.
Cognitive psychologists understand that the human mind naturally assembles bits of information into stories to make it easy to remember and understand. People readily remember facts when presented in a story.
A story is like a basket. It's hard to catch six balls if someone throws them at you. However, if you’ve got a basket, you’ve got no problem catching them all at once.
THE COMMUNICATION SPECTRUM
Using a story structure to communicate provides an opportunity to increase your success in being understood, being relevant, and having your ideas adopted. The alternative and common form of communication is via argument and producing facts, statistics, and quotes from authorities. An argument appeals to the intellect but not the emotions. To sell you need to appeal to people’s emotions, even in business.
A story not only contains a lot of information but also unites fact and emotion. Using the power of story for communication doesn’t mean that you abandon rhetoric or fact-based information.
Nancy Duarte, author of Resonance and a leading authority on presenting, analysed the characteristics of the world’s best presentations. She explains that presentation falls on a spectrum somewhere between two poles.
At one pole are reports which present exhaustive information with details, facts, and figures. At the other pole is a story, delivered by cinema, theatre, and literature.
Story is dramatic, experiential, emotional and evocative. Presentation falls between these two poles and should be persuasive, motivating and produce clarity.
Reports are hierarchical, and a story is dramatic, presentation unites the two poles, alternating between facts and storytelling.
Presentation, which includes pitching your ideas and selling, incorporates logic, facts, information sharing and drama, tension, and emotion. Using the structure and principles of storytelling increases your impact.
What applies to formal presentations also applies to meetings and conversations, basically any situation where you're advocating for or explaining your ideas, service or solution.
Storytelling, often misunderstood, holds so much power to make business communication more interesting. When I refer to stories here, I’m not referring to anecdotes or examples. These types of stories can be useful, in testimonials, case studies, proof points or as a way of demonstrating your value. However, the storytelling I’m referring to is the power of narrative. More specifically, using a story structure known as The Hero’s Journey.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY
The Hero’s Journey is a story structure explained by mythologist Joseph Campbell. He found that the world’s great myths all followed the same sort of narrative structure. It’s the story of a hero who, facing risk, embarks on a journey to overcome challenges and transform the world for the better. A mentor guides the hero.
For the story to be engaging, there must be something significant at risk if the hero does not reach their goal. The tension between the hero’s goal and the risk is what creates the drama.
Even if you’re not aware of The Hero’s Journey structure, you would've experienced it in film or literature. Movies like Star Wars, Finding Nemo, The Hunger Games all follow the Hero’s Journey Structure.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY FOLLOWS THREE ACTS
ACT 1 – THE ORDINARY WORLD
You meet the hero living in their ordinary and familiar world. Something happens in their life – a complication which brings them into conflict with the world in some way. They're pushed from their normal lives to embark on journey or project which is risky and uncomfortable. The complication is a call to action which gets them over their resistance to change.
ACT 2 – THE CHALLENGES
When they embark on their journey they face challenges and increasing threats. Dramatic tension rises with roadblocks and challenges. This is where the story gets a lot of its power – the tension engages us.
ACT 3 – THE RESOLUTION
Finally, in a climactic scene, the hero overcomes their challenges. After this, the tension drops in what is called the denouement in which the ‘strands’ of the plot come together, and matters are resolved or explained. Then there is the final wrap-up which is the conclusion to the story.
I first became aware of the Hero’s Journey during my days in sales at Microsoft. I noticed that the presentations and pitches that resonated the most all followed the same pattern. A mentor introduced me to the work of Joseph Campbell. Since then, I’ve been using the same presentation structure for my pitches and proposals. I now teach people how to use this in their work with clients and prospects.
(If you want to know more about the Hero's Journey story structure watch this short animation from TEDed which explains it, in less than 5 minutes.)
MY FORMULA FOR A WINNING PRESENTATION
Here's my guide to incorporate the Hero’s Journey into your next pitch, presentation or proposal. It works for any form of communication where you're presenting your ideas and convincing someone to make a change.
NOTE: I use the word 'client' throughout this section. Your 'client' is your audience, and might actually be a prospect, existing client, partner, colleague, manager, or other stakeholder.
1. Remember you’re the mentor, not the hero
It’s human nature to want to be the hero. However, you need to remember that when you’re selling, advising, or advocating for your ideas you’re the mentor to your client, prospect or audience, and they're the hero. When you’re proud of your solution, service or product, you can get caught up in thinking that the client cares about you and your offer. They don’t.
What they do care about is what you can do for them:
How can you solve their problem?
How can you help them achieve their goals?
How can you make their life easier?
As the mentor, your role is to guide their decision, providing insight, advice, challenging their way of thinking where needed. All with the purpose of helping them to reach their goal. Being a mentor can also feel more natural for people who aren’t comfortable with selling.
2. Understand your client’s story first
The Hero’s Journey begins in their current world. It’s the same for your client. They have goals they want to achieve but there are barriers to getting there. That’s why they’re talking to you.
Your job as a salesperson, advisor or consultant is to show them how you can help them. But to do that you need to understand their world first.
Understanding not just how you can help with the benefits of your specific product or service but how you can help them get to where they want to go. Seek to understand your client, what they do, how their industry is changing, what their goals are, what they’re planning and what are their barriers.
That’s a lot of information! There’s never enough time. How do you do it efficiently? How do you do it in a way that makes sense?
Explore your client’s story, research them, develop rapport and then ask great questions of them. Then take this information and turn it into a story, following this structure:
A narrative structure allows you to take data and capture its essence into form that is understandable and meaningful. It’s surprisingly useful whether your client is a small or large organisation. This story will help you understand what they need and how to connect what you do with what’s most important to them.
3. Show Your Client You Understand Them
Now you’ve made all that effort to understand your client you need to show your client you understand them. Understanding your client’s story is not just an academic activity. Making your clients feel understood is the foundation of a great relationship. Feeling understood is also a critical reason that buyers choose a vendor, independent of the solution offered.
Research by the RAIN group shows that the most successful salespeople demonstrated they understood buyers 2.5 times more than those in second place. It makes sense; a client has more confidence in a vendor or consultant that understands them. I bet you can remember the experience of being given advice or sold to by someone who doesn’t get what you need.
To show you understand your client, take the time to confirm your client’s story with them. Ask them if you’ve understood them correctly. By proving you know them, you’ve got a great foundation to propose ideas and solutions and you’ll make sure that you’re focusing on what’s truly important to them.
Surprisingly this technique is used by the FBI during hostage negotiations. Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, turned best-selling author and negotiation expert explains how it works. Voss says that when you show someone you understand them and they say ‘that’s right,’ it is the pivotal point in a negotiation after which it can be concluded successfully. Once you've got the confirmation, now you can segue into your solution.
4. Follow the hero’s journey structure to pitch your solution
Now it’s time for the third act, the crescendo, where you show the hero how you can help them to seize the sword, grab the elixir, find the ring and return home the hero, forever changed.
I use the following structure for all my presentations, pitches and proposals:
- Show your client how their world has changed:
Begin with the current world and describe how things have changed. This part is often quite brief, but it’s key. You’re demonstrating that you understand them and also highlighting why they need to change. Why are they talking to you now? What was their call to action? What changed that caused them to seek you out?
- Show them why the status-quo no longer works:
What would happen if they did nothing? What’s at risk for them, or for the business? Now you’re connecting with their emotional reasons for making a change. Fear of loss is strong driver for people to act. It creates a tension for the client, and the desire to resolve this gives them the motivation make a change.
- Define the ‘the promised land.’
Focus on more than the risk. What are their aspirations? What's their purpose and how does this this manifest in the future.This is their ‘preferred future’? Often people can't articulate this. So you may need to look below the surface to find it.
- Show them how you can help them reach 'the promised land'
There is a tension between the issues they face now and where they ideally want to be. Your solution enables their journey to overcome their challenges and make their future happen. Solve their problems whilst giving them the abilities to meet the goals of their preferred future. Remember to frame it in terms that resonate with the client, you don’t need to spruik your solution. Show them how it solves their problem or helps them achieve their goal.
- Provide evidence that you can help them
In presenting your solution you’ve made some claims, you now need to back it up. How you do this will depend on your solution. It might be data, figures, case studies, testimonials, or any other communication device that suits your audience.
- End with explicit next steps/action
Always close with clear next steps, what do you want your client or prospect to do next? Think about it and make that clear or guide the conversation to ensure you achieve this conclusion. Always follow up to make sure the next steps happen.
Note: Sometimes I tell this story verbally, sometimes I need to do a presentation, other times it’s written. Its so useful you can use it to structure emails when you are making some sort of proposal. Regardless I always follow this same structure.
5. Tailor your pitch to your audience as much as possible.
The degree that you’re able to tailor your pitch will depend on how much you already know about them. Ideally your pitch will address your audience's specific issues and goals based on your discovery.
If you’re meeting with a new prospect, you’ll be limited in how much you can customise your pitch. However, your company story can still follow the same story structure addressing issues that are common to your audience. Try as much as possible to personalise it, based on what you can learn or infer about the prospect before you present.
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