PRESENTATIONS supported by graphs, charts and bullet points can convey facts, but when it comes to creating an emotional connection with other human beings, sales people need another tool — one that engages people, gets them to let down their guard and be willing to be influenced.

The lost art of storytelling

Since the 1990s, storytelling — or the art of business narrative — has been slowly but surely making its way into business communication.

Storytelling is a powerful skill largely under-tapped in a sales environment. The reluctance to use it may stem from the fact that we tend to dismiss something so personal and almost childish, as having no place in a serious business environment.

Used in the proper context and at the right time, telling a story is a means of authentically sharing yourself such that others believe you empathise with their situation, resonate with their inner struggles and that you may have a workable solution.

This is the first step of all human relationships that produce breakthrough outcomes.

Storytelling in sales

To apply storytelling in business, you need to frame your stories to support the purpose of the interaction and the interests of the audience in an authentic manner.

Your own life and day-to-day experience is the best source of good stories. You can also draw from what you read and what you heard from others, as long as it resonates with you.

There are three key elements in constructing a good story:

* Framing: This is arguably the most important step, as you need to introduce the story elements to clearly demonstrate relevance. Be concise and use words that grab attention and generate excitement.

* Action: This is where you tell what happens to the central character, the challenges and problems faced and the actions taken along the journey. You can make this as dramatic as the occasion allows so long as the story does not lose credibility or become long-winded.

* Resolution: Here, you share what finally happens and what lessons the audience should derive from the story. You need to link the conclusion back to why you are sharing the story in the first place. The audience needs to be absolutely clear on what message you wanted them to get.

Here is an example drawn from a real experience:

A few years ago, I was working to secure a huge renewal contract from a key client, a regional bank.

Our software is a complex technical product. My team had executed an excellent service and sales campaign with an airtight business case to boot. Nothing could go wrong, so we thought.

At the last moment, the chief information officer requested we make a presentation to his chairman, who needed to better understand how our software could help the bank.

The day came, and one hour into the presentation, the chairman seemed impatient and even slightly irritated.

While my team of experts was offering complex, jargon-filled explanations, an officer from the bank stepped in to save the day.

She said: ‘Mr Chairman, you know how we aspire to offer our customers the best service through Internet banking? Our biggest headache is to make the older-generation IT systems present data that is real-time, consistent and Internet-ready.

‘This software is like a super-fast universal translator which helps all our IT systems understand each other instantly, retrieve the right information and present them in a single page easily readable by our customers when they log in. No more mistakes, reworking or delays.’

At this, the chairman visibly relaxed. It was clear he got what he needed. The contract was issued the very next day.

This story can be used to underscore that sales people need to be flexible in presenting the right amount of detail and using language that is appropriate for different types of audiences. 

Give too many details, use too much jargon, speak in the wrong tone — and you may lose the listener (and the sale) altogether.

Storytelling is an easy but powerful means to help you create instant emotional and impactful connection with your customers. It is a game changing leadership skill worth learning and doing well.