Storytelling in sales is a powerful way of connecting with your customers.
We’ve been telling each other stories since the dawn of time. Stories are a universal language that trigger a response deep in every human being.
We’re all avid consumers of stories. It may take the form of weekly TV soap operas, movies, novels, the ups and downs of our favorite sports team, or even the latest breaking news on CNN.
According to experts, even when we’re not consuming stories, we’re making them up. Neuroscientists estimate that we spend up to 30% of each day constructing stories in our heads (aka daydreaming).
In a nutshell: we’re hardwired to hear stories.
And that’s why storytelling in sales is so important.
At a basic level, a story has three key elements: (1) a character, (2) a conflict, (3) and a resolution.
In any good story, you should be able to answer these three questions:
But as we’ll see in a moment, to be really effective, a story needs to have seven key components.
No one understands the power of storytelling as a sales tool better than Donald Miller, the author of ‘Building a Story Brand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen’.
Miller points out that it’s no accident Apple only became successful after Steve Jobs (together with two other guys) had set up the story-telling factory Pixar.
Here's the timeline:
- November 1995 - Pixar releases its first animated movie, Toy Story
- September 1997 - Steve Jobs returns to Apple
- January 1998 - Apple returns to profitability
It wasn’t that Apple made better computers than anyone else. It was that Steve Jobs had become a consummate storyteller. His years at Pixar, surrounded by master storytellers, had paid off.
Donald Miller identifies seven key components that appear in virtually any story you can think of:
- a CHARACTER who wants something encounters
- a PROBLEM before they can get it. At the peak of their despair
- a GUIDE steps into their lives, gives them
- a PLAN, and
- CALLS THEM TO ACTION. That action helps them avoid
- FAILURE and ends in
Let’s look at these seven elements in more detail.
The 7 Key Elements of Storytelling in Sales
#1. The Character
The character in any story is the hero of the story.
As Donald Miller explains in his book, most businesses make the fatal mistake of casting their product or service in the role of the hero.
Your customer is the hero
But if you want to turn visitors into customers, you have to remember that the customer is the hero. We’re all the hero of our own stories. We’re all trying to get something we don’t have. We're all trying to get to a better place. We're all searching for something that will transform us.
And we’re all faced with obstacles that prevent us from getting that thing.
So we look for a guide who will show us how to overcome those obstacles.
And that’s where your product or service comes in. Your product or service is the guide, not the hero.
Create a story gap
For your storytelling to be effective, you have to identify something your customer wants.
As soon as you do that, you insert your customer into your story as the character.
The only question your potential customer now has is: will this product fill my need? Will this product help me get to where I want to go?
This question is called a ‘story gap’ and it creates the tension that keeps your potential customer reading your page.
When identifying this ‘thing’ that your character wants, remember that we’re all driven by the basic need to ‘survive and thrive’.
Here are some examples of basic needs that motivate all people:
- Conserving time
- Building social networks.
- Gaining status
- Accumulating resources
- The need for meaning
- The desire to give
- Conserving financial resources
In summary, make sure that the ‘need’ you focus on is primitive and related to your customer’s sense of survival. This is the first secret of storytelling in sales.
#2. The Problem
In good storytelling you need to frame your customer’s problem as the villain of the story.
The problem is the villain
The villain doesn’t have to be a person, but it does have to have person-like characteristics.
In Australia there used to be a TV ad for a household fly spray called Mortein. The ad was all about a villain called ‘Louie the Fly’ and it went like this:
Spreading disease with the greatest of ease,
Straight from the rubbish
tip to you.
I'm bad and mean and mighty unclean.
Afraid of no one.
'Cept the man with the can of Mortein.
Many TV ads personify the problem so as to create a tangible villain:
Internal and external problems
Another common mistake that brands make is to focus solely on the external problem.
Behind the external problem, there’s always an internal problem.
That internal problem is what’s really driving your customer. Identify the internal problem, and you have a story that your customer will find irresistible.
It’s often said in marketing that people don’t buy drills, they buy a hole in the wall. A person may want to paint their house because the existing paint is faded and peeling. That’s the external problem.
But internal problem is that their house is the worst looking house on the street and they’re ashamed of it.
Here’s another example.
My external problem might be that I want a more fuel-efficient car.
But my internal problem is that I want to feel that I’m doing something to help the environment.
When you hit upon the internal problem, you touch upon the thing that really motivates your customer.
So this is the second secret of storytelling in sales: turn your customer's problem into the villain of the story.
#3. The Guide
They say that when the student is ready the master appears.
In all good stories, a guide appears and shows the hero how to overcome the obstacle that is preventing him from reaching his goal.
In the story of King Arthur, the guide is Merlin. In the Matrix, the guide is Morpheus. In Star Wars the guide is Yoda. And in the Harry Potter books, the guide is Dumbledore.
In storytelling as a sales tool the guide is your product or service. But it’s important to remember: the story is not about the guide. The story belongs to the hero: remember to keep your customer center-stage.
Your product or service is the bearded figure, with cloak and hood, who appears just at the right moment and gives the hero the tool or information she needs to vanquish her enemy.
The guide has to have two key qualities: empathy and authority.
Empathy means understanding our customer’s problem. We only accept someone as a guide if we’re sure they understand our problem.
Spend some time on your landing page sketching out the problem your customer faces. Paint a visceral picture of the frustration that he or she is likely experiencing.
You also need to demonstrate authority. Why should your customer believe that you have the solution to their problem?
Testimonials are one way of establishing authority.
Another way is to list prominent websites where your advice or expertise has been featured.
You can also demonstrate authority by showing that you have done what your customer is trying to do (e.g. you have got the #1 position on Google, or you won an award for your website or you have 450,000 downloads of your Kindle book, etc.).
#4. The Guide Gives The Character a Plan
In every good story, the guide gives the hero a vital piece of information he or she needs in order to succeed.
In Star Wars, Yoda teaches Luke Skywalker how to use the Force to defeat Darth Vader.
In The King’s Speech, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) gives King George VI the techniques he needs to overcome his stammer. As a result, the King is able to deliver to the nation the declaration of war on Germany without faltering.
The plan is the stepping stones that will take the hero from this side of the rushing river to the other side. You don’t have to spell out exactly what the plan is (after all, that’s what the customer is going to purchase from you).
But you do have to assure the customer that you have the plan that will get her to where she needs to go.
If you’re worried about giving too much away when talking about the plan, remember to “sell the what, not the how”.
In summary, the hero needs to be confident that you (the guide) have the information she needs to complete her journey and get where she wants to go.
This is why storytelling in sales is so effective - we're programmed to look for a guide who is going to show us the way.
If you can create a story in which your product or service is the guide, you'll trigger an age-old response in your reader.
#5. And Calls Them To Action
The hero needs to be called to action. And it’s usually the guide who does this. It’s important to remember that in good stories, the hero doesn’t take action on their own.
If they did, there would be no story.
The hero needs an external stimulus that pushes him to take the next step.
And it’s the same on your landing page.
You need repeated calls to action, each more urgent than the one before. As Donald Miller points out: “Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest, and so do customers”. Our natural state is inertia. If we’re going to take action, we need a vigorous prod.
That’s the whole reason for scarcity marketing: marketers realize that without a powerful reason to take the next step, people do nothing.
#6. The Character Narrowly Avoids Disaster
For storytelling in sales to work well, you must not only create a vivid picture of what happens when your hero (the customer) finds what she was looking for. You must also create an equally vivid picture of what will happen if she doesn't find it.
If you don't show the dire consequences of your hero not finding what she's looking for, your story lacks dramatic tension. It won't hold your reader's attention.
To put this another way: what will happen if the hero does nothing? In most classic stories the options are success or calamity. There’s nothing in between.
In Star Wars, if Luke Skywalker doesn’t defeat the enemy, the Sith (or Darths) will impose a brutal dictatorship throughout the Empire.
In the King’s Speech, George VI needs to mobilize the British people with a rousing speech. If he doesn’t, the evil forces of Nazi Germany threaten to plunge the whole of Europe into darkness.
If your story contains no threat of failure, then it’s a story without stakes.
And the simple fact is we don’t get motivated by stories where the stakes are very low or non-existent.
If you fail to sketch out a vivid picture of what failure will look like for your hero, then you are ignoring the most powerful motivator of human behavior.
It’s called the Negativity Bias: something positive has less of an impact on a person's behavior and cognition than something negative.
In other words, evolution has given us a stronger urge to avoid negative outcomes than to obtain positive results.
This means that you need to raise the stakes for your hero (customer) by showing what may happen if he fails in his quest.
Ask your potential customer where she will be in six months’ time if she doesn’t act now. Point out that it’s a competitive place out there and only those with the right tools survive and thrive.
Whatever you do, you need to paint a picture that is the flip side of success. There must be a cost to not buying your product or service. This is called raising the stakes and it’s what makes stories compelling.
#7. And Finds Success!
The last element in your storytelling is where the hero defeats the enemy, and reaches his destination, or overcomes the obstacle.
This part of the story is closely related to the problem: success for your customer will usually be overcoming the problem you identified at the beginning of the story.
But success is not just absence of the problem. You need to paint a glittering picture of what life will look for your hero when they find success. Be explicit about how your product or service will change their life.
Remember, we’re all on a journey and we want to be taken somewhere better.
What will your customer have after using your product or service that they don’t have now? What will she be feeling that she isn’t feeling now? What will his average day be like after he’s got your product, compared to now? What will your product or service do for her status – how will it change?
When you sketch out the success that awaits your customer at the end of her journey, you are closing the story gap that you opened earlier in the story.
Use images to depict the success awaiting your hero at the end of her journey, Think of those ads for laundry detergent that show a smiling woman with perfect teeth.
Or the adverts for coffee capsules that show a successful businessman about to board his flight.
If you’re selling anything on your website and you’re not using storytelling, you could be leaving a lot on the table. We all dislike being sold to. And the more salesy the message, the more we resist making a purchase.
But none of us can resist a good story. Because storytelling is baked into our DNA.
So talk to your customers about your products or services through the lens of a story.
And make sure to include the seven storytelling elements described in this article.
Go to your landing page now and see if you can reframe your message as a story where your customer is the hero.
You can find out more about storytelling in sales here.
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