Why telling a story can help you close more sales
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Why telling a story can help you close more sales

Experienced salespeople know that telling stories is a powerful way to get key points across to prospects. But have you ever wondered why a good yarn is so persuasive?

In fact, according to scientific research, a well-told story affects both the brain and the body chemistry of potential buyers, putting them in the right frame of mind to buy from you.

Two psychology professors at Ohio State University conducted an experiment that delved into the psychology of stories and how they can change beliefs. The researchers presented several intensely emotional stories to a group of volunteers. One, for example, was about someone who was physically attacked at a mall.

Then the researchers used a series of questions to measure, first, the degree to which the audience was “transported” – mentally drawn in – by the stories, and second, how much the stories influenced their beliefs. For example, did the stories convince people that malls are unsafe?

The researchers found a strong correlation between being “transported” into the world of the story and changes in beliefs and attitudes. In other words, a good story turns out to be a very effective way to change someone’s mind.

They can relate

But what is it about a story that draws people in? According to the researchers, it was two things: vivid characters and a situation that people could see themselves in. Nearly everyone has shopped at a mall, so people could relate personally to the story about the attack.

What didn’t matter, the researchers found, was whether the story was “true” or not. Some people were told that the story was fiction while others were told that it was true. In both cases, the reactions were largely the same.

So why do engaging, relatable stories like these have such a powerful effect on our minds? Well, it’s at least in part because they have a powerful effect on our bodies. This idea emerges from the work of Paul Zak, a leading neuro-economist at Claremont Graduate University in California.

Emotion and blood chemistry

Zak ran a series of experiments where participants watched two kinds of video clips. Some had a dramatic arc and an emotional pull. For example, one shows a father talking to the camera while his son plays in the background. The son, we learn, is seriously ill.

Another clip presents much of the same information, but in a more neutral tone. The boy and his father are visiting a zoo. The video does not mention illness, but subtly hints that the child isn’t well.

After watching the clips, participants were given blood tests. The researchers found that the more emotive clips triggered bursts of oxytocin, a hormone that is produced by the brain and released into the bloodstream. Oxytocin, called the “trust hormone,” facilitates social bonding by creating feelings of connection.

The emotionally neutral clips, on the other hand, didn’t appreciably affect oxytocin levels – even though they communicated essentially the same information.

Three key elements

Obviously, these experiments have major implications for sales. No matter what persuasion task you’re trying to achieve with a buyer, here are 3 things you can do to help create emotional stories that connect with buyers.

Introduce a character and situation that listeners can relate to.

If your buyer is, say, a veteran IT specialist, learn in discovery what challenges the buyer and organization are facing. Maybe it’s dealing with employee turnover, struggling to keep up with new technology, or anxiety about the progress of current projects. Then tell a story about a past customer in a similar position who was helped by your product offering.

Raise the stakes.

Make the story about something with potentially serious consequences — a company facing sweeping layoffs, a manager squeezed by a constrained budget, an employee struggling to keep her skills relevant to a changing work environment.

Rely on emotional language.

Zak’s experiments show that passionate language makes you more persuasive. So, for example, when trying to influence a decision maker, don’t just talk about your product. Talk about retaining the key players on your prospect’s team, gaining an edge on industry competitors, or avoiding the frustration teams feel when they miss deadlines.

The best thing about all of this is that you don’t need to be a born storyteller who knows how to captivate an audience with words. If you just learn to put the three key ingredients – relatability, high stakes and emotion – into your stories, you’ll be able to create a sense of urgency and influence your buyers’ behavior.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “The Science Behind Storytelling in Sales,” based on the following research studies:

Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of personality and social psychology79(5), 701.

Zak, P. J. (2015, January). Why inspiring stories make us react: The neuroscience of narrative. In Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science (Vol. 2015). Dana Foundation.

1 Comment

  • Damon Meck says:

    Dave – Very well written article. Thanks for sharing. Storytelling is definitely something for us to develop and integrate into our selling, for at work and in life.

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