Mastering storytelling in sales can transform a routine pitch into a compelling tale that captivates and convinces.
In the dynamic world of sales, storytelling goes beyond just narrating an account. It’s about weaving a persuasive narrative that resonates with prospects. Many top sales professionals have honed this skill through dedicated storytelling sales training, recognizing its potential to connect, engage, and drive results.
But in this guide, we’ll unravel the art and science of using storytelling as a tool, showing you how to craft narratives that not only sell but also build lasting relationships.
What is Storytelling in Sales?
Storytelling in sales is the art of using narrative structures to convey the value of a product or service.
Instead of simply listing features and benefits, storytelling brings those elements to life, placing them within a context that the audience can relate to.
As humans, we have a deeply ingrained interest in storytelling, and have probably been telling tales since we first daubed bison on cave walls!
Stories make situations come alive and help turn abstract notions into inspiring narratives the potential buyer can latch onto.
The Power of a Good Narrative
Narrative paints a vivid picture. Stories simplify complex ideas, making them easier for prospects to digest and remember.
Rather than trying to remember and compare a long list of features and benefits, prospects are presented with a series of images, or scenes, that reveal how the product will improve their lives.
When experiencing a compelling story, the buyer imagines themselves into the scenario depicted.
The techniques of storytelling have been tried and tested throughout the ages. One of the first formalised theories of storytelling is Aristotle’s poetics, written in 335 BCE, in which the philosopher proposed six essential elements:
Plot – what happens, why it happens, and in what order.
Character – who drives the story, including protagonist and antagonist.
Thought – a theme or argument which the story explores.
Diction – dialogue, how the characters speak.
Song – music, since Aristotle was primarily discussing theatre.
Spectacle – the special effects that entice the audience.
All these elements except perhaps song (it may not be wise to break into a Broadway show tune mid-pitch) can be incorporated into any story.
Let’s view Aristotle’s list (music aside) though a sales storytelling lens:
Plot – What difference will the product or service make to the buyer? How will their life be different after committing?
Character – Put the prospect in the driving seat of the narrative, so they can feel that change. Your antagonist is the problem they’re looking to solve.
Thought – What value does the product or service encapsulate? Is this a story about freedom? About security? About joy?
Diction – Speak clearly, confidently, descriptively, and with empathy, to draw the prospect in.
Spectacle – Don’t be afraid to use visual aids – images, videos, demos, where possible, to back up your arguments.
Insights almost 2400 years old are still applicable today, as you weave your storytelling pitches.
Next, let’s look at what distinguishes a story-led approach.
Distinction between Common Sales Pitches and Story-Driven Approaches
While common sales pitches might focus on technical specs or direct benefits, story-driven approaches delve into the experiences surrounding the product.
It’s the difference between saying a phone has a great camera and sharing a story about capturing a once-in-a-lifetime moment with it.
Here’s a comparison of different approaches to storytelling, both traditional and story-based:
Set-Up or Story World
This may be neglected
Emphasised – this is the starting point for your story. The status quo.
Too often characterised in terms of inferior competitor products or services.
The problem or pain points the product will solve or diminish.
Frequently neglected in favour of concrete facts and figures.
Emphasised – how will a prospect’s emotional state be improved?
Focuses on the after-purchase period – selling the future only.
Understanding the past and present to sell the future.
Presented as a list of specs or advantages over rival products.
Depicted and demonstrated in terms of how they improve the user’s life.
Treated as functional issues to be overcome.
Understood as emotional states: frustration, anger, boredom, etc.
To explore this, let’s look at two fictional pitches for the same product, a robotic pool cleaner:
Traditional pitch: The Poolbot 3000 is the state-of-the-art robotic pool cleaner. With more suction, better filtration, a 3D visual mapping system and a battery that lasts over 1000 hours, you’ll never need to worry about hiring expensive pool cleaning professionals again.
Story-based approach: You didn’t buy a home with a pool to let it collect leaves and dust year-round. With the Poolbot 3000, you can have your pool sparklingly clean in a couple of hours, while you’re planning your spontaneous pool party. With its improved suction, state-of-the-art filtration, and ability to scour every corner, you can trust it as much as you’d trust a professional cleaning company.
The second version takes a little time to set up the pain point as an emotional narrative – the homeowner’s ambitions for their home, contrasted with the reality of a dirty and unused pool.
The storytelling version includes facts such as the time it will take to clean the pool, and the suction and filtration benefits, but it frames these as contributing to trust, another emotional state.
Why Use Storytelling in Your Sales Process?
Storytelling makes your pitches more compelling in a range of ways so are a great tool to include in your sales process.
Let’s look a little more deeply at some of them.
Engaging and Memorable Sales Pitches
Sales pitch storytelling is both engaging and memorable.
By crafting a compelling narrative, you are more likely to stick in your prospect’s mind long after the pitch ends. You can do this by incorporating memorable visual images and engaging the senses.
Show that you understand your prospect’s world by reflecting it back at them in ways they recognise.
Imagine being able to knock off at 3pm on Friday because your team has smashed those targets and there’s a sunlit terrace and a bottle of champagne waiting. With ProjectPlan, you need never cancel the weekend again.
Paint as vivid a picture as possible of the pain points your product or service addresses, and the improved emotional state the prospect will enjoy after committing to the purchase.
Building Trust through Sales Stories
Sales stories create trust. They showcase real-life applications and results, thereby proving the effectiveness of your offering.
You can use testimonials to back-up your story or summarise the common themes of positive testimonials and then provide links to existing customer’s positive feedback.
Testimonials can be retold as stories too.
We’ve been working with a start-up who had the best possible problem. One of their Instagram posts went viral, and they got way more orders than they could process. The founder literally woke up to their server crashing with the volume of it. We quickly created some automations that unblocked the sales pipeline so they could handle the volume and scale up quickly. They posted 8 x sales that month.
If you can then back up that story with a link to a testimonial, then you’ve just created interest and built trust.
Emotional Connection with the Audience
Emotions drive decisions. Storytelling for sales taps into this, creating a bond between the seller and the prospect, making the latter more receptive to the message.
Effective Sales Narratives: Breaking It Down
To craft effective sales narratives, it’s essential to understand their key components.
Let’s take a detailed look at the elements of a great sales story.
Setting the Scene
Every good story sets the scene. It provides context, helping the audience visualise the scenario.
Think of the opening of a Hollywood film. Generally, we’re not thrown into the midst of action (unless it’s a Bond movie or Mission Impossible, where we already know the set-up). Instead, we’re shown the world before the narrative kicks off. The unsatisfactory status quo.
What is your client’s day-to-day life like?
You may want to ask a few preparatory questions to help you select which narrative to tell.
These will differ from prospect to prospect, so you can’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.
Introducing the Problem
Highlight a challenge or pain point that your prospects face. This creates a sense of relatability. If you’ve been handed a problem by talking to your prospect, then run with it.
The pain point should have an emotional valency. Here are some examples:
We’re always fighting to keep our head above water, in terms of cash flow.
Anxiety and worry; inability to plan.
There are new competitors entering the market all the time.
Fear and uncertainty.
It’s hard to find an affordable home for a growing family.
Worry; desire to be good parents.
I bought a swimming pool that I never use because it gets dirty so easily.
Guilt and shame.
You’ll notice that these examples come from the prospect’s perspective. It’s important to apply empathy and put yourself in the buyer’s shoes, even if they haven’t been this open and honest,
Doing so will let you frame the problem correctly, so that you can take the next step and identify an appropriate solution.
Offering the Solution
Here’s where your product or service shines. Show how it effectively addresses the introduced problem.
Again, this isn’t about listing the features or benefits, although you can weave those in. Instead, focus on how your product or service will supply the emotional relief the prospect is looking for.
If they are frustrated, the product offers peace of mind. If they are overworked, it provides relief. If they are worried about the competition, the product reassures them that they’re employing a secret weapon, to gain ascendancy.
Driving Home the Impact
Conclude with the positive changes or benefits brought about by your solution. This drives home the narrative’s purpose.
This is the happy ending of your story (there are no tragedies in sales storytelling). Again, you can use testimonials but only to back up your personal pitch, which is the universal good of your product or service.
Our users no longer worry about the day-to-day of running their business, because we’ve used AI and automation to take charge of all the mundane, predictable aspects. Now they can concentrate on what made them found the company in the first place – creating bold, innovative new products. They are risk-takers, so we’ve given them the secure base they need to take those risks.
Mastering Sales Pitch Storytelling
To excel at sales pitch storytelling, you must continually refine one’s approach. It may be that the first few attempts don’t entirely connect. If this method seems new, it may not feel natural at first.
It’s a little like a classically trained RSA-trained actor going from text-based acting to method-based acting. Suddenly they are required to bring much more of themselves to the role, and focus on felt emotion, rather than outward affect!
Similarly, when you transition to storytelling as a sales technique, you’re expected to show more emotion, and reveal more of yourself. This is how connections are formed between buyer and seller.
Now, let’s turn to some techniques which may help you master this method.
Techniques to Elevate Your Sales Narratives
1: Use vivid imagery and sensory details
Even when the product is something as abstract as software, create images that will bring it to life.
Physical products and real-world services are easier to do this with since they have a look, a touch, a sound, a smell and sometimes a taste. But digital products have secondary sensory associations too, related to their users.
A CRM database isn’t just a digital database of customers; it is a family or community.
With a digital product, imagine the new ethos of a company adopting it.
How will that company look and sound? Will there be smiles and laughter? Team nights out? A better work-life balance?
2: Incorporate testimonials or real-life examples
As we’ve mentioned, testimonials can be useful mini narratives within your pitch.
When a client has taken the time to pen one of these, it means they have an emotional response to your product. Choose testimonials where they explore that response.
We were really stressed and working long hours, while bringing up a baby. The last thing we needed was a nightmare house buying experience too. Eze-Homes came on board and took so much of that anxiety away, because they were so organised, they communicated with us, and they really understood what our priorities were. It was the easiest, most enjoyable move we’ve both ever made.
This testimonial is great because it lays out the background, the emotional pain paints the problem, the solution, and the emotional outcome (relief and even pleasure). You can either use it as it stands or paraphrase it in your own words.
3: Create a hero, ideally the customer, who overcomes challenges using your product
Another approach is to create a kind of avatar of your typical customer. One that represents those who will most benefit from your product. This is often called an ‘Ideal Customer Profile’ and helps provide fantastic customer service.
That’s because this technique can easily help your customer understand the product or service you are selling. It’s also used to help create written sales materials, such as sales email drip campaigns, which are sent out to mass mailing lists.
There’s a danger inherent in using one pre-prepared profile explicitly in a face-to-face sales situation, or on the phone, because this avatar might not match up with their individual situation.
However, you can have several different heroes in mind so that you have one that works for the single mother business owner, the ambitious graduate, or the near retirement executive.
This way you can pull a suitable story out of the hat, to help your prospect see themselves in the shoes of the hero you describe.
Many of our customers are small business owners who began with one outlet, experiencing sudden growth, and realised they had the potential to franchise their restaurant.
Their problem was they couldn’t take their eye off the day-to-day running of a successful business to work on strategy or branding. We came in and provided the resources they needed to do so. We enabled them to be truly ambitious.
Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
There are also pitfalls to a storytelling approach – it’s not a magic bullet! So, here are some things to avoid:
1: Avoid being overly technical; focus on relatability
Remember that this approach is about selling the emotional journey from the problem the client begins with, to the satisfaction and relief they’ll feel when it’s gone.
You can always follow up with specifications and technical details in an email.
2: Don’t neglect the emotional aspect
Remember to anchor the story in emotions, rather than purely the “plot” of your hero overcoming problems to succeed.
Every good product or service satisfies some sort of emotional need, even if it’s something as low-key as peace of mind, comfort, or relief. Identify that emotional need and how what you’re selling addresses it, and you’re halfway there.
Don’t get too bogged down in metrics, sales KPIs or statistics; instead, focus on how much better your prospect will feel after they commit to a purchase.
3: Always ensure the story aligns with your brand message
Don’t get too carried away and wander off-brand. If you’re selling high-performance running shoes, whose USP is a 2-5% gain in pace over a marathon, then don’t waste time talking about how hard-wearing they are (if that’s not a brand benefit).
If you’re improvising, it’s still important to bear in mind those ringfenced brand values. You won’t be popular with your prospect or employer if you start making promises your product or service cannot deliver.
Other Stories Sales: Case Studies and Examples
There are brands that always seem to get the narrative right:
Apple, for instance, has always excelled in storytelling sales. Rather than just promoting a product, they tell a story of innovation, creativity, and individuality.
Their 2022 911 commercial stressed how their Apple watch can be used to make lifesaving calls. It’s an emotionally gripping campaign from the first moment.
Nike is also great at telling an emotional story which is inspiring, inclusive, and exciting. Their 1987 Just Do It campaign was groundbreaking in selling sports and activity as an aspirational value for everyone.
Ben & Jerry’s have aligned a luxury product with social activism, making their users feel good as they indulge. This allows the company to express its founder’s values, while telling emotional stories and supporting meaningful campaigns.
Learning from Missteps: Stories that Missed the Mark
Remember Pepsi’s ad featuring Kendall Jenner? It intended to tell a story of unity, tying in with the influential Black Lives Matter movement, but missed the mark, drawing criticism for oversimplifying serious issues.
If you do tell an emotional story, make sure it doesn’t feel shoehorned in, and that you aren’t just cynically co-opting a serious social issue for financial gain.
Similarly, Bud Light recently adopted trans celebrity Dylan Mulvaney as a spokesperson in a tone-deaf attempt to pivot the product’s image away from frat boys and barbecues.
Although laudable in its goal of inclusion, the move was viewed as cynical and patronising by American conservatives and sparked a high-profile backlash and a significant drop in sales. Dylan was not the hero Bud Light drinkers wanted!
Final Thoughts on Embracing Storytelling for Sales
Embracing storytelling for sales isn’t just about selling a product, it’s about sharing an experience. When done right, it becomes a powerful tool that not only drives sales performance but also creates honest, human connections between buyer and seller.
Good storytelling requires empathy and a certain skill in constructing a narrative. The former is something we all have within us. The latter can be studied, practised, and learnt.