“Narratives make story-shaped points that cannot always be paraphrased in propositional statements without losing something in translation.” – Kevin Vanhoozer
If data could change minds, then we would get in fewer arguments. It seems counterintuitive, but numbers never convince anyone of anything. Don’t believe me? Hire a statistician to sell for you and let me know how it goes. If you want to sell something, then statistics are your enemy. If you want to sell anything, you’d better learn how to tell a good story.
Imagine for a moment that it is 589 BCE, and you are living in Greece. A storm rushes in one night, and lightning obliterates your neighbor’s home. Why did that happen? Obviously, Zeus took umbrage with your neighbor and used his lightning against him. Humans are addicted to meaning, and we use stories to make sense of our reality. Without a strong working knowledge of electricity, ancient Greeks anthropomorphized nature in order to understand why things happen.
While we can chuckle at the idea of a deity launching static discharges at puny humans, every single one of us falls prey to the same trap. It’s how our brains are wired to work. Humans will use story to fill the gap when we lack the ability to understand the nuances.
My team and I spend a significant amount of time teaching our new employees storytelling techniques. We know that a great story can quickly establish rapport, lead a prospect or customer to a greater understanding, and even be the final step in closing a deal. A blog post is never going to teach you everything (for that you need to apply for a new career at www.outboundengine.com, and I’ll see you in the training room), but I can share with you some of our rules for storytelling and how storytelling can help you close more deals.
Begin with the end in mind
Have you ever started telling a story only to lose your way down rabbit trails, ultimately limping to the non-finish? We are all guilty of this. The best storytellers know how they are going to finish their story before they open their mouths. If humans use stories to make sense of our reality, then you must first determine your reality before you start your story.
As a Real Estate Professional, the reality you want to determine could be something like, “nothing throws your life into chaos quite like not having a place to live. Finding a home means more than safety, it means bringing order into your life. As a storyteller, you are now aware of your story arc, that the main character of your narrative must move from chaos to order. You also know that what brought order to their chaotic life is your product/service.
At OutboundEngine, we know how important it is for sales agents to be remembered when it matters. If you ever have the fortune of speaking with one of our sales reps, you will likely hear a story about a time when they were remembered, and how it made all the difference.
Good stories are human
People don’t emotionally connect to objects or ideas, they connect to other people. If you find yourself telling a story about a product, a thing, or a concept, then you’re likely telling a bad story. Think about it, when was the last time you went to see a movie about a house? You have never done this. You have certainly seen a movie about a couple moving to a new neighborhood, in which they struggle with their neighbors (like the Tom Hanks classic, The Burbs, pictured below), or in which they fight the house itself (like the Tom Hanks classic, The Money Pit). We don’t care about things, we care about other people and their conflicts. We want to know how conflicts are resolved. What happened to our main character?
Objects sit until they are used and ideas are nothing without action. If you want to tell an interesting story, there must be a person at the center. The equation is simple, begin your story with a generic character and then add immediate conflict. Your story will end with the person finding relief or experience more pain.
Consider this when you watch an episode of HGTV’s House Hunters. If it were a show all about the available properties in a given city, no one would watch it. Think about the construction of each episode, the producers find a couple looking for a new home, and the audience follows them on their journey. While the show absolutely shows off different properties, the conflict keeping audiences tuned in is, ”which of the three homes will they choose?” As the audience, we want to know if the characters share our opinions so that we can either feel validated for our wisdom and taste or feel free to cast judgment on poor decisions of strangers. If a human character is the focal point of your story, then your listener will connect their own emotions and experiences to your story, and to your pitch.
Good stories are universal
In the 1940s, it dawned on an American professor named Joseph Campbell that there are patterns in the way that people write popular stories. After much research, he discovered all popular stories are in essence the same narrative. In 1949, he published, “Hero With A Thousand Faces,” which is a book that insufferable people claim to have read. The most impactful idea to emerge from this work is “the Hero’s Journey.” Campbell diagrammed 17 stages of the mythical narrative arc. If you follow his steps, you will see the framework for every blockbuster movie from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Crazy Rich Asians.
Campbell’s contribution is valuable to sales agents because he lays out the playbook for how to write an effective story. Grossly oversimplifying his work, all popular stories have a protagonist, a mentor, conflict, a moment of truth, and resolution. When you tell your stories, use his framework. Your customer should be the hero, you should be the mentor, the moment of truth is the decision to purchase, and the resolution is the hope of a better future.
While Campbell’s structure will help keep your story focused and easily understood, your story must be applicable to all people and all situations. Don’t tell a story about Rhonda, a 52-year-old mother of three, who wants to sell her home in order to move outside of town to make room for her newly acquired herd of horses. That’s a story for a narrow audience. Instead, try telling a story about a homeowner who is looking to leave the city for more space. The second story allows for the listener to project their own self, experience, and reasoning onto the protagonist, and closer to understanding the value you are presenting.
If it’s good, repeat it
In 1960, a big-budget western hit the silver screen. It starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen as mercenaries hired to save a small town from a gang of bandits. The Magnificent Seven was a massive hit. Not only did it rake in millions of dollars, but the Library of Congress selected it to be added to the United States National Film Registry for its significance and contribution to American culture.
Audiences liked the Magnificent Seven so much that it was remade in 2016 with Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. Of course, the original was not even the original. You see, the first telling of the story on film was by acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurwosawa. His 1954 classic, The Seven Samurai, was so well-received abroad, that the suits in Hollywood knew they had a hit on their hands if only those samurai were cowboys instead. The story was again revisited as a comedy in the 1970s, but this time there were only Three Amigos. If that weren’t enough, when Pixar needed a sure-fire follow-up to their Oscar-winning first feature Toy Story, they decided to recycle rather than create an original piece. So the next time your children to watch the story of an ant colony that hires seven circus bugs to defend them from marauding grasshoppers, point out that the ladybug is a pale imitation of Steve McQueen.
You aren’t a writer, you’re a salesperson. That’s not to disparage you, but to relieve your own expectations. If a story resonates with your prospects, then keep telling it. You might tell a story 10,000 times, but your prospect will be hearing it for the first time. Pay attention to what works in Hollywood, and go with the formula that works.
So you skipped the article to read the end
When you find yourself in a sales conversation in which your prospect struggles to understand the nuances of your pitch, fight the urge to repeat yourself, and use the opportunity to tell an illustrative story.
Remember, our brains are trained to connect the dots and create meaning. Do not underestimate your prospects’ abilities to connect the dots. If you know where your pitch is going, then tell a story about a person in need of help. If that story resonates with one prospect, it’s likely to resonate with most of your future customers as well.
The Kevin Vanhoozer quote leading this post is an academic way to say this: sometimes a generic story can create a more complete picture of an idea than a detailed explanation. What you do and the product or service you sell may not be universally understood, but stories can break down the barriers to understanding. Don’t leave your best tool on the shelf. Use good storytelling to connect the dots for your customers, and in the process connect them closer to you.