Story selling – The art and power of persuasion using authentic stories. Being able to persuade or sell to others effectively is a core part of many people’s occupation and position. For example, leaders need to persuade followers, managers need to persuade employees to do things or change for example and, generally, many people are put in a position where they are trying to persuade others about ideas, concepts and products. The art of persuasion has received much attention over the years from researchers and authors.
One of the most powerful ways of communicating in general and persuading in particular is through authentic stories…
- Getting people to accept ideas, practices and change is in fact a sales process
- Storytelling and learning
Whilst many people and organisations don’t like to think of it like this, getting people to accept ideas, practices and change is in fact a sales process. A number of previous studies have shown that storytelling is a hugely effective method of persuasion and selling.
A new (2019) study looking at the impact of storytelling on sales and persuasion and on the effect of teaching people to use storytelling throughout the sales/persuasion process has just been published that looks at the impact of teaching students to incorporate storytelling into their sales processes – doing this had a profound effect on the students ability to persuade and sell.
Storytelling and learning
Recent neurological and psychological research is showing that people learn by creating meaning or telling themselves stories about the things that they encounter, hear, see or experience.
Many previous studies have shown that material presented in the form of stories enhances:
- learning rates
- synthesis of knowledge and constructs and can help significantly with skill and affective (emotion, values and beliefs) development.
However this isn’t about fiction, rather how to use authentic stories to convert ideas and persuade.
In this podcast Sarah Smith (Contributing editor) and David Wilkinson (Editor-in-Chief) explore what the research says about using authentic stories to persuade and sell ideas, concepts, and products:
Sarah: 00:07 Hello. So, we are dipping into another research briefing today for this podcast. This one is looking at effective communication, using authentic stories that persuade.
Sarah: 00:18 I’m Sarah, and I’m here with Dave.
David: 00:21 Yeah. This is, in fact, it’s been called story selling.
Sarah: 00:26 Okay. Yes.
David: 00:27 It’s the idea of using stories to sell, not just products, but ideas as well.
Sarah: 00:32 Yes. Which is interesting because, in a sense, that’s what we are all engaged in doing all the time, [crosstalk 00:00:39].
David: 00:39 Trying to persuade people come to the zoo with me, or whatever it happens to be.
Sarah: 00:43 Yes, that we communicate through story. A lot, or large part of our way in which we engage and connect with other people is in various forms of story. Perhaps, particularly when we’re trying to influence or say … Yeah.
David: 00:58 What interested me about this is that stories are the basis of how we create meaning, cognitively. We tell ourselves stories about things. So, we tell ourselves stories about … Even just articles like a bed, and the difference between a bed and a settee or a sofa, for example. There’s a story in there that we’ve told ourselves about those things.
David: 01:23 So, as we’re learning, what we find, what we know about learning cognitively is that the best learning is when people have the time to be able to construct a narrative, or another word for that is a story. So, we, from a kind of psychological point of view, we call it mediating meaning. So we mediate meaning through stories.
David: 01:44 What we’re storing in our head isn’t facts, and isn’t just snippets of information. It’s the stories that hold all those things together. The story creates a framework for thinking about something. That’s why this paper, particularly, gathered my interest, was using it … Because most of us have tried to persuade other people at work, or just sell ideas, or you want something, or something like that.
David: 02:11 What they’re saying, what this paper’s saying is that, actually, you can purposefully use stories to persuade people because it is the construction of meaning. And it helps to frame things for people, and helps to motivate and move them into a different direction.
Sarah: 02:28 Yeah, it’s unpacking what is the process by which this is happening anyway, but then looking at how can you, in a more deliberate and skillful way, almost craft the types of stories you tell in such a way that they are more persuasive. And in this particular research, looking at that from the context of selling, if you like. So, actually … And telling stories in such a way that you’re persuading a buyer, for example, or a customer, and to engage with them, your product or your services, etcetera.
David: 03:02 Yeah, or the idea.
Sarah: 03:02 Yes. Yes, or an idea or something.
David: 03:07 Yeah, it’s interesting because one of the things that I hadn’t thought about is this idea of stages of persuasion, and that they’ve come up some stages of persuasion.
Sarah: 03:21 Yes, yes. Yeah. Should we dip into those, and have a little look, and show some of the key ones that cropped up?
David: 03:26 Yes.
Sarah: 03:27 So, there we’re five different stages that this particular research looked at.
David: 03:30 That’s right, yes.
Sarah: 03:31 They were suggesting that it’s within each of these different five stages that stories should be used. So, the first stage was about approach or rapport building, so making that connection. The suggestion here was that there should be research to find or create stories that appeal to the audience’s needs or problems. So, you really need to step into the shoes of your audience, really find out what it is that matters to them. What are their values? What are their beliefs? What are their problems? What’s the pain that they’re experiencing?
David: 04:03 Yes. It’s a story to connect them with you.
Sarah: 04:06 Yes. Yes, and not making the assumption that because it’s a story that resonates for you, it’s a story … Or even a story that has resonated for other people who you’ve tried to persuade, or talk to about a particular idea, that it will work with other people, or with this particular group that you’re focusing on. And that stories, at this stage, should be used to show how the author understands and relates to the audience’s unique situation.
Sarah: 04:33 So, in that very process, you are demonstrating to them, your connection and understanding of them. Not only is the story resonating more for them, there’s a subtext here which is, “And I get you. I understand you in your world.” The personal stories, in particular, have been found to be particularly effective at creating that kind of open friendly relationship. It’s real trust building stuff, isn’t it, that’s happening at this stage?
David: 05:00 Yes, yes, the whole rapport.
Sarah: 05:02 A real foundation of-
David: 05:02 Yeah, connection and building trust, and therefore … And we’ll cover this a little bit later on … this idea of authenticity becomes quite important.
Sarah: 05:11 Yes.
David: 05:11 But we’ll come back to that. We’ll come back to this authentic … Then the next stage that they were talking about in persuading people was this idea of a needs identification stage. What interested me about this was that what they’re saying is that you can use authentic stories about needs or problems faced by other people to help the listeners, or your audience, to explore their own needs.
David: 05:40 What I found interesting about this particular phase or stage of persuasion is that you don’t need a completed story. The idea here is to actually use a story in order to invite a response. So, it’s not a full beginning, middle, and end type story. You might have a beginning, a middle, and leave the ending up to the individual so that they can tell you. So, you’re extracting information out of people through a story that you’ve started, but they finish. I thought that was really interesting.
Sarah: 06:12 Yes. It’s really interesting, isn’t it? I was talking about this idea of co-creating things. There was a real sense of that in this that, actually, you may be, you’re starting a process of communication through story, that it is connecting and building trust that then leads you on to co-creating a narrative that moves people on to. And to understanding and exploring an idea, yeah.
David: 06:35 And it’s kind of the thing that we do. You know when you’re talking to somebody, and you tell them that, I don’t know, you’ve been to the doctors with an ailment. And they go, “Oh, yes, I’ve had the same thing.” Then they start telling you their story about their bit. Then they reveal some information that, A, you didn’t know about them, but also about your condition that nobody else has told you. So, you end up together co-creating this kind of narrative.
David: 06:58 That’s what this is suggesting here, is that you go through a process of co-creation of a story in order to find out what this individual’s particular perspective on the things are, and what their needs are. So, we’re not only telling a story here. We’re listening very carefully.
Sarah: 07:14 Yes. Well, you know one of my areas of interest is around wisdom research. One of the things that’s really fascinating is the role of narrative and story in terms of passing on wisdom between people; so collective wisdom, if you like. And then also personal wisdom, and the kind of narrative and meaning making. But how we grasp and assimilate wisdom from others through reading of story. So myths and all sorts of things, and the way in which we can second position, almost put ourselves into the shoes of a particular character in order to draw down some personal insight, in spite of the fact that it came from some sort of third party source, if you like.
Sarah: 08:01 But one of the things that’s been shown to make a real difference in that is the degree to which we can step into the shoes, or empathize with the character; so how well we can simulate vicarious experience, and that some people seem to be better at simulation than others. And the degree to which the story resonates with the individual is going to have a large effect; so the more we can relate to it. So one of the things that particularly struck me out of this was idea of that co-creation because it mitigates for the likelihood that your story is not one that can be simulated by the person that you’re [crosstalk 00:08:42]
David: 08:42 Yeah, it doesn’t relate to them.
Sarah: 08:43 Yeah!
David: 08:44 And again, we’ll come back to this, this idea of authentic stories because they tend to resonate more. We can connect with those. You just think about the novels and things that you really connect with, and other ones that you just can’t because there’s no relationship being built up in any kind of way.
David: 09:02 The other thing that really interested me about this stage, this needs identification stage … And this is something that … When I’m teaching lecturers to teach, for example, one of the things that we’re often exploring is this idea of open loops. You’re not telling the complete story. What you’re doing is you’re opening up a mystery, or you’re opening up a question that you don’t answer because that has a really interesting affect cognitively on people.
David: 09:31 One of the things that I do right at the start of lectures is, I say … You do the usual thing about this is roughly what we’re going to be talking about. Then I say, “Oh, you can share any of the stuff that we’re doing here, but there’s one thing you’re not allowed to share. I can’t tell you until the end of the lecture, but when we get to it you’ll understand why you can’t share it.” And I just leave it like that. My lectures are days long. We’re not talking about hour-long lectures. So, at the end of the process, if I forget, what always happens, they all can’t leave until they know what the secretive-
Sarah: 10:10 What was the thing? What was the thing?
David: 10:12 Yeah, because it’s an open loop. I’ve created an open loop.
Sarah: 10:12 Yes. Yeah.
David: 10:14 There’s a philosopher called Paul [Tillick 00:10:18], and there’s a quote that he wrote which always sticks in my mind. He says that an answer that has the weight of authority kills the question. I think that relates to this idea of opening loops, and that’s very much what’s going on here with this needs identification.
Sarah: 10:36 It really is, isn’t it? Yes. Yes, very much so. It’s prompts a very different experience in the story listener, if you like, in the first instance, and they start to become a participant in that. It sparks curiosity, openness. What’s really interesting is, is they move through this. What starts to happen is you start to move towards closure.
Sarah: 11:00 I was reading a really … I can’t remember the name of the book. I wish I could because it’s such a fabulous one to recommend. It’s all written about somebody whose been involved at quite high levels around trying to influence climate change. And that one of the challenges with the way in which climate change has been approached is that there’s been insufficient storytelling, insufficient myth around it, and a lot more of a factual scientific logical rational explanation, and the expectation that that will … Surely, that would convince. That’s compelling evidence. Why would people not change their behavior, or why would people not be latching onto this in a different way?
David: 11:44 Yes, and telling convincing stories, authentic convincing stories. That one’s quite important.
Sarah: 11:50 Yes.
David: 11:50 Yeah, I find the whole paper fascinating. So that’s the needs identification stage.
Sarah: 11:58 Then presentation and demonstration stage comes after this. This is about using authentic stories to highlight features and benefits of the idea or product, as these are often about increasing memorization and a connection to the other person. These are the hooks, the bits that the person goes, “Oh, yeah, I get that,” or it’s tapping in in a different way.
Sarah: 12:19 Telling stories that show how the idea or product can be used to solve the individual’s problems or challenges was found to be particularly effective. So not only are these the hooks that work for that person, but that a way in which they would resolve something which is problematic in that individual’s experience. Stories that include questions for the audience to answer and participate in the story, and get them to tell their own stories, again, were found to be particularly effective. So, again, it’s the co-creation, that openness that we were talking about.
Sarah: 12:50 Stories that build curiosity, which we were talking about as well, inducing an emotional response. So that’s another aspect, isn’t it, I think?
David: 12:58 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sarah: 12:58 The emotional response and experience that we have with regards to stories, and the degree to which that fuels, perhaps, our perception of how authentic they are; that it speaks to us at an emotional level, not just at another level.
David: 13:13 Mm-hmm (affirmative), and I think an important part of that, particularly when you’re selling an idea or a product or something, is this, “Actually, I can do this.” You get that sense that I can use this. I can do it. And that’s an emotional response-
Sarah: 13:28 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
David: 13:29 … is that sense of, well, self efficacy is that. Yeah, okay, this makes sense to me, and I can do it.
Sarah: 13:36 Yes.
David: 13:37 It’s important because if you go away thinking yeah, great, but you haven’t sold it. They may be interested in the idea, but they’re not going to take any action, and that’s a problem.
Sarah: 13:50 No. Yeah, they need to … There’s something about the ability for it to connect and resonate for the individual, and for them to then be able to have a sense of agency, I guess, in response to that particular idea. That they can see their own part in it, which is, I think that the emotional part of that is a really important one. As you say, it feeds things like your sense of self efficacy and a sense of confidence.
David: 14:19 Yeah, and it’s more than a part; it’s a path.
Sarah: 14:21 Yes.
David: 14:22 That they see that they’ve now got a pathway out of here, out of their problem, wherever it is. And that this helping a solution to their problem. They can use this idea or product or service, or whatever it happens to be, yeah.
David: 14:36 Then the next stage that they talk about is the objection stage. This is about working out the kinds of objections that people are likely to have to the idea or to the product. And working out what authentic stories you can tell around how other people have overcome that objection, how they’ve dealt with it. So, either, this is going to take me a lot of time, for example. Well, how somebody else has chunked it up, or how somebody has delegated part of this to somebody else. Those kinds of stories, they deal with the objections. What the paper is saying is that you craft a series of stories that you can just draw in when you start to identify the objections.
Sarah: 15:23 Yeah, so you’re anticipating those almost in advance, and then-
David: 15:26 Yes, and that you create this … They talk about small authentic vignettes, and just having those stacked for that moment when you’re talking to people, that you can just draw on them. And spending some time just creating those.
Sarah: 15:42 And again, in the process of doing that, there’s a lot of empathic connection that is built; as in I understand, or I get what your objections might be, or the objectives that might exist around this. It’s all about saying I share your experience and understand that.
David: 16:03 Yes, I get you.
Sarah: 16:04 I get you, exactly. Then the closing stage, this was about accurate stories of previous people’s success, stories of satisfaction with the idea or product that can be validated. I think the use of things like accuracy and validation … So, some of this hooks back to this idea of authentic. So they’re a trusted source, that those are really important, very powerful in terms of gaining acceptance.
Sarah: 16:28 Authentic stories which highlight the positive impact of the idea or product, particularly useful in that closing or gaining acceptance for a particular issues or idea. Stories in the state that evoke either, again, the strong emotional reaction, or provoking thoughts of how this idea or product may be useful, again, impacts on things like acceptance levels. And the story at this stage needing to evolve a call to action.
Sarah: 16:59 So there’s a next step, if you like. That’s the “This is the way in which we move on from this.” So they move the story into doing something, which would start the individual using the idea or the product, or whatever it is that you’re selling.
David: 17:18 Yeah, it’s moving them onto the pathway now.
Sarah: 17:19 Yes.
David: 17:19 So, the moving out of-
Sarah: 17:21 You’re not closing it down.
David: 17:29 That’s right.
Sarah: 17:29 You’re literally almost opening it up [crosstalk 00:17:30]
David: 17:29 Right, this is the way to go now.
Sarah: 17:30 Yes, so signposting, almost.
David: 17:30 That’s right, yes. And I can quite well imagine that you can … Stories about how other people have used this idea, that helped to evoke ideas in the individual of how they might now move.
Sarah: 17:42 Yes.
David: 17:43 But I would think, also in there, there’d be something important about not having too many because people can get confused. Or, they can get this sense of overwhelm, that I’ve got too many options. It’s a bit like that famous study about the jam. Have you-?
Sarah: 17:56 Oh, yes.
David: 17:57 Yes, where if you put too many types of jam up, the sales go down. If you reduce the amount of types of jam, it’s easier for people to make a decision.
Sarah: 18:08 Manage choice, yeah.
David: 18:08 And it will be the same, I would think, here in terms of making sure that they don’t have too many options, that they can see a way forward from here, and it’s a fairly clear way forward.
Sarah: 18:21 Yeah.
David: 18:21 Yeah, I just want to come back to this thing about the authenticity because we know, don’t we, when we’re being sold a [salp 00:18:35], when somebody’s just telling us something, and you think that’s not true. There’s no coherence in there.
David: 18:41 One of the things that the paper looks at are the kinds of things that help to built authenticity. It says that there’s two aspects to this. One is doing some research. It’s essential. They’ve got to be authentic stories that match the stage of the messaging that we’ve just been talking about. And that it’s an idea to actually test the story on other people first before you use it live, for example.
David: 19:11 You test them for a number of issues. The first one is coherence; so do people think that the story’s coherent itself? Then authenticity; does it feel right? Does it feel true? Then logical progression. Is it skipping around? Do they get where this is going? Emotional impact; telling it to somebody else and seeing what emotional impact it has, or non, and then shifting it.
David: 19:40 It’s kind of what authors are doing when they’re developing novels and things. There’s a saying, is you don’t write a novel, you rewrite a novel. There’s a friend of mine who’s an author. She says she writes most books 12 times before it gets to publication.
Sarah: 19:56 Yes. Yeah, writing is rewriting. Really, that is what writing is, yeah.
David: 20:02 Yeah, absolutely. Then the last two are cognitive impact. What does it leave the listener thinking? What impression does it leave with them? Then fit with the stage that we’ve just been talking about, and that the purpose … What is it you’re trying to achieve? What is it you’re trying to persuade people in?
David: 20:20 What the study was actually doing is it was … What they’d done was they were training business students to tell stories. And then measuring whether the students who had been trained to tell stories in each of these stages and in this way, when they came to a marketing model, whether those students did better and solved more than the students who hadn’t actually done the storytelling module.
David: 20:47 There was a significant difference in the two. The ones who incorporated stories, in terms of products, sold a lot more, a significant amount more compared to the ones who didn’t incorporate stories and hadn’t done the storytelling module. That was the research part of this, what they were doing, is that they were taking this and using it to see whether it’s-
Sarah: 21:07 Yes, it’s effectiveness, yeah.
David: 21:10 Yeah, interesting, really interesting, and useful. I don’t think we tell enough stories. I don’t think teachers tell enough stories.
Sarah: 21:18 No! No. No, we don’t, do we? And it’s not really a skill that is particularly taught outside of the boundaries of creative writing, or learning to tell stories in those kind of sense.
David: 21:33 That’s right. We all do it.
Sarah: 21:36 [Crosstalk 00:21:36] We all do. As you highlighted earlier, it’s we’re doing it in our own heads. It is how we structure and develop our sense of who we are and how we make sense of the world around us. It’s fundamentally important. And this idea of re-storying, when you think about re-storying our own experiences as we go through life, and the way in which that shapes and influences us as individuals.
David: 22:01 And our identity.
Sarah: 22:02 Yes, our sense of who we are in relation to other and then-
David: 22:05 When you think about it, storytelling is actually the biggest industry on earth, bar none.
Sarah: 22:12 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
David: 22:13 You think about all the magazines, all the television programs, films … Even the news, it’s not a bullet point list of facts. They tell stories to the extent that they send some poor hack out into the rain and the darkness to go and report from the scene, even if you can’t see anything. It’s just black behind them and they’re, “I’m reporting from the scene of this, where you can’t see anything but …”
Sarah: 22:37 Yes.
David: 22:38 It adds to this sense of authenticity and a sense of story. You meet up for a friend for a coffee, or what we’ve been doing since we met up today. The first thing we did was tell each other a whole load of stories about what’s happened since the last time. It’s the language that we use for connection with everybody. We spend our day telling stories.
Sarah: 23:04 Yeah, and yet we-
David: 23:07 Get to formal things, you forget.
Sarah: 23:09 Yes, and if anything, we’ve become so focused on doing, and more transactional type of exchanges often in order to be able to keep up with the pace of demands, and the challenges and those sorts of things. Impacts particularly in workplace context and those sorts of things that, actually, it’s the connection through storytelling that is often the bit that gets pushed out of the way. There’s this idea that, oh, don’t give me the story. Just cut to the chase. I just want the straightforward point. Whereas, actually, the relationship is in the storytelling. And often, the most important information about the person is in the storytelling, not in the if you had an online version of it, what would it be? I only want that.
David: 23:48 Yes, I just want the fact.
Sarah: 23:52 But we become quite like that because of the need for pace.
David: 23:55 Yes. Because I teach lecturers to teach, what we find is a lot of lecturers do very dry lectures that’s just bullet points of all these things, without telling any stories. So it’s not engaging. At one level, it looks effective because the lecturer is giving more information, but actually … And we’ve measured this. There’s a lot of studies to show this … at a completely different level, it’s completely ineffectual because somewhere around about 90% of the information doesn’t even go into the student, because they can’t because it’s not in the form of stories.
David: 24:28 So we end up creating this very ineffective system. One of the skills, I suppose, is when you’re not doing it naturally, like you would if you met some people in a coffee shop and everything, is making it feel natural, so it’s a natural process. We’re all doing it, but what we do is we structure things so they feel unnatural, therefore inauthentic. In business contexts, in teaching and everything, we end up oh, this is the story bit. I need to tell this story, rather it being a natural progression.
Sarah: 25:06 Yes. And the other thing that strikes me in that is that … Because the most authentic stories … And that’s the other thing I liked about this because it wasn’t about saying that, it wasn’t to look into your own story bank, if you like, for this. So, the most authentic effective stories are personal.
David: 25:24 Yeah.
Sarah: 25:24 They are personal stories. Yet often when we stand up to design or deliver a lecture, or you’re going to do a presentation at a meeting in your organization or something, and we take ourselves out of it. We almost … As if it’s valued to be impersonal and be detached and to not bring you into-
David: 25:47 Yeah, this weird idea of professionalism.
Sarah: 25:49 Yes, and yet everything we know about what builds connection and rapport and influences, and gets people on board with ideas, and understanding what you’re talking about is connection. It is bringing the personal into that.
David: 26:04 Yeah, through stories.
Sarah: 26:05 Through stories is what really matters, and yet, yeah, we have this awkwardness about doing it and then-
David: 26:11 Yes, and it’s we miss it out. And some of that I think is because of this concern with time.
Sarah: 26:18 Yes. I think a lot of this is about pace, yeah.
David: 26:22 And yet we know … And it’s a false trap because we think okay, I’ve only got 10 minutes; therefore, I’d better just give them the facts. What we forget is on the other side of these facts is a person telling themselves a story because they’ve got to. They’re either telling the story … And this is one of the things I say to my students. They’re either telling themselves a story about the facts that you’re giving them, or they’re telling themselves a story about you.
Sarah: 26:46 Yes.
David: 26:47 They’re saying something like, “Oh my god, this person’s really boring.” If you’ve got that, the facts aren’t going to go through. It’s not efficient because they’re not listening anymore. They’re just going, “Oh my god!”
Sarah: 26:58 Yes.
David: 27:00 And that’s the problem that lecturers have with students, that sales people have. If we’re trying to persuade people, if we’re having that emotional reaction, oh, we’ve got a real problem. Time’s not the issue anymore because they’re not listening anyway. They just think, “Just let me out of here.” That’s why it’s worth investing a bit of time just to get the connection first, and going through these stages, rather than just, “I don’t have time, so just have the facts.” Then if there’s no connection, you’re lost anyway.
Sarah: 27:32 Yes. Yes, you may as well not spend your time doing any of the later things because they’re not achieving any kind of objective that you might have.
David: 27:38 Yeah, there’s no persuasion.
Sarah: 27:39 No, persuasion there at all. Yeah, you’re just pushing through content, yeah.
David: 27:45 Yeah, I love it. I think it’s a great paper. Members can go into the membership area, and if they just look up either effective communication, or story selling, or authentic stories, and they’ll be able to get the full research briefing references and everything else.
Members go to the Membership site > Library > Archive > search for “story selling” to download the full research briefing and reference
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