Why it pays to fold Story into your Selling.

I’m a big believer that sales can be both ethical and rewarding. Both fun and human.

At the end of the day, when viewed rightly, sales is ultimately about communication, connection and making a real and positive difference in organisations and individuals lives.

What’s not to like?!?

Over the last five years or so the conversation has really evolved about how sales is changing. Some key contributing books have come into the popular domain like Dan Pink’s “To Sell is Human” and “What Great Salespeople Do” from Michael Bosworth.

Now here’s a really important side note. This second book was written by the guys that created Solution Selling – the most used sales training in the US during the 90’s and 00’s.

Hundreds of global companies collectively invested hundreds of millions of dollars training vast salesforces in Solution Selling’s suite of tools and techniques.

And in 2012, this book was effectively the creators of that methodology coming out with the hugely brave move of saying…

“Hey listen, we got it wrong. Most of the stuff that we taught didn’t help the majority of people doing sales get better. Because what we learned was that the best selling has story at it’s core”.

I’ll be writing a lot of what I believe and have learned in my own selling career around this over the next few months, but for now sharing one underpinning concept about how story and sales connect is crucial.

Who’s the hero?

So, first let’s step back. Seeing as selling is a human art, I need to start with three key insights about these key part of the selling process called people.

Three big ideas from the overlapping fields of neuroscience, psychology and the social science known as ‘behavioural economics’…

#1. Narrative processing.

People make sense of the world through narrative. The brain is constantly weaving every experience we have into a story that makes sense to us, and has a degree of integrity with who we define ourselves to be.

#2. Ideal identity.

Everybody that breathes wake up in the morning wakes up and has a (mostly subconscious) idea of the kind of ideal life they want to move into. This projected “ideal self” drives a huge amount of conscious and unconscious decision making, i.e. their brain is always looking for ways to be the ideal mum, IT manager, CEO, church volunteer, whatever.

#3. The Amygdala.

Pretty much all cognitive processing (and therefore decision making) is filtered through a primal part of the brain called the amygdala (think – ah-mig-dul-lah!). It’s the the size of an almond and has the constant purpose of keeping you alive.

Crudely put, you can imagine this part of the brain – the part let’s remember, that ALL incoming information get’s filtered through – is constantly asking two questions : “How can I preserve calories?”, and “How do I stay away from threats (in business speak – let’s call this ‘risk’)?”

If these insights are right (and I think they are, but feel free to test it in your own experience)… then they form a platform for a key concept related to the world of story.

You see…

  • if folk are building stories all the time,
  • if they subconsciously want to be the hero in their own story and
  • if they’re filtering out information that is difficult to understand (burns calories) AND poses a risk (raises threat levels)

… then there’s one key implication for people looking to sell and influence.

You CANNOT talk like a HERO. You MUST become the guide.

People involved in sales need to establish both themselves, the brands they represent and the products / services they sell as the guide to someone else’s hero.

To use an analogy for a second, the more elegantly that you can position yourself as a credible Gandalf to someone else’s Frodo, as an experienced Haymitch that really knows how to help Katniss escape the Hunger Games, then the more likely you are to be accepted into someone’s world.

Because here’s the thing, if your customer is the hero, then the last thing heroes need is other heroes talking at them!!! Other heroes have different and often competing (read: threatening!) quests. What heroes really need and are looking for is a guide!

They need guides that genuinely understand what THEIR version of success looks like.

They need guides have some kind of map to help them get there.

They need guides that communicate in a way they can understand.

They need guides that can help them avoid the traps and frustrations they face.

And ultimately they need guides who care about the hero’s quest and wellbeing far more than their own.

This is what great salespeople, great brands and great influencers do. They show up as guides. Guides who continually demonstrate both empathy for what the hero wants to do and a confident yet humble authority to take a leading role in helping them.

It’s not just a nice theory that fits with a cute analogy… this is backed up by pretty much all the research that is coming out of the fields of behavioural economics, neuro-science, anthropology and psychology. Yet how many times do salespeople feel compelled to rock up and impress / convince customers by talking in hero terms…?

“Let me tell you about the awesome brands we’ve worked with”.

“Let me list off all the reasons why our product is market leading”.

“Let me batter you into submission with facts and figures about why you’d be crazy not to do business with us”.


Effective selling in today’s world goes beyond features and benefits.

Beyond objection handling. Even beyond problem solving. Selling has story based principles at its core, leading us to help those who need what we have to offer get to where they want to go.

There’s much more to say on all of this, but a fundamental question you could ask today if you’re looking to influence someone or sell something is

“How can I elegantly have this conversation in the role of a guide helping them be the hero in their own story?”

Odds are the story will end up having much more of a happy ending… for both of you.

Sean runs a one day “Storyselling” workshop to help brands and their teams establish more influence, sell more stuff. Get in touch at sean@weareform.com.

Further Reading: (books on Amazon UK)

To Sell is Human  /  What Great Salespeople Do  /  Building a Storybrand  /  Thinking Fast and Slow

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