storytelling_tipsThis post originally appeared on the Sales section of Inbound Hub. To read more content like this, subscribe to Sales.

Story time isn’t just for kids. In my analysis, top sales reps use stories at almost every stage of a deal — clarifying the product, overcoming objections, answering questions. No matter what step they’re at or what the issue might be, they have a story on hand.

But the powerful art of sales storytelling is only mastered by a few. One reason is that salespeople aren’t taught how to talk about case studies and other marketing content as stories. It’s great to create written case studies, film an accompanying video or two, and put those resources on the website for potential customers. But the next step should be to provide training that walks salespeople through the talking points in the context of a story.

Also, too many sales reps use case studies as a way to puff out their chests. But they’re much more effectively put to use as a way to talk through challenges from the buyer’s perspective. Less “look how great my company is” and more “here’s how our client’s life got better thanks to our help.”

Here are the elements that should be in every sales story, to help both sales and marketing determine how to structure these valuable tales.

1) A Hero

Every sales story should include a protagonist that the buyer — not the seller — can relate to. In other words, the hero shouldn’t be the company providing the product or service or the rep who closed the deal. It should be the person who bought or used the offering to their benefit. Thoroughly describe the hero and clearly lay out the similarities between hero and buyer. 

2) A Challenge

After you set the table with the protagonist, you should introduce the challenge. Don’t just talk about it at a high level — explain how it personally affected the protagonist from their perspective.

3) The Change Process

Yes, your product or service will make an appearance in this section. But it shouldn’t get the spotlight. Your offering is at the heart of the story, but it’s not the whole story — process, people, and strategic changes that accompany a purchase are also essential elements. Addressing the whole picture and walking prospects through the hero’s change process step by step makes the story more pragmatic and adds credibility. A great story will be realistic about all the factors that contributed to the client’s success.

4) Results

Don’t just end with the impressive numbers — “they saw a 25% ROI,” “their lead generation increased by 50%,” etc. Include qualitative results along with quantitative evidence of improvement. Remember your hero: How did the change process directly impact them? If the protagonist got promoted six months after the project, bring that up. If they said this was the best decision made in five years, mention that also.

At each step, remember to humanize it. Stories are told in the first place because they resonate better with people than pure data. Too many use cases are about companies, and they don’t relate the situation through the buyer’s eyes. Infuse people-centric anecdotes at the start (“The CMO had been having a problem with X challenge for six months”), in the middle (“The CMO was forced to choose between X and X”), and at the end (“The CMO was recognized by analysts as one of the key revenue drivers”).

When to Tell a Sales Story

There’s no bad time to use a sales story, in my opinion. Top reps have figured out how to use them in just about every interaction with a potential buyer.

You can tie a story to almost anything a prospect says. Here are just three examples:

  • Understanding value. “We work with hundreds of CMOs with similar challenges. We understand those challenges and have the best practices and insights to help you. Let me give you an example: we were working with a CMO in a very similar situation to you … ”
  • Overcoming the “we already have something in place” objection. “That’s great. Many of my customers came to me having X product. As a mater of fact, I was recently working with a CMO like you who had X product. His challenge was … ”
  • Overcoming a price objection. “This guy who became a huge client of ours originally had a very tight budget with the CIO. Here’s what he did … ”

But in order to maximize the potential of sales stories, there has to be training involved.

I think a good way of approaching this is to have the product marketer frame the story and define how it will be presented, but then employ the salesperson who actually closed the deal to lead the training session. That way, they can talk about the specific points in more detail, and answer any questions.

Then at a quarterly meeting, sales leaders can devote some time to having reps practice their storytelling by presenting an objection or situation, and asking what story they would tell in response. This will help to systematize the technique.

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