Sales and Stories and Bears! Oh My!

I am a big believer in the philosophy that “facts tell, but stories sell.”

I’ve written about it before, but I’m ready to add a very important caveat. We can’t just tell any story, we’ve got to make sure that we’re telling the right story.

Facts tell, but the right stories sell.

The illustrations, images, and metaphors we use need to be fitting to the presentation being made, thought through and well-crafted, and – most critically – appropriate to the audience.

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Let me give you an illustration.

grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis, Robin SilverThis week Betsy DeVos had her hearings before a Senate confirmation committee to become Secretary of Education. She was asked by Senator Chris Murphy about her stance on guns in schools. Given the increased number of school shootings we’ve seen over the past couple of decades, this is not in anyway the type of gotcha question that is the bane of our political existence. It was a good and heartfelt question.

In response, Betsy DeVos reiterated her support for local decision-making when it comes to such issues. She illustrated her point by talking about a school in Wyoming needing a shotgun to ward off grizzly bear attacks.

Screeching brake noises. What?!?

The story didn’t sell.

You see, Senator Chris Murphy is from Connecticut. Connecticut, as you know, is home to Sandy Hook, where the worst school shooting in American history happened just four years ago. The stories about gun violence in schools that he is used to hearing are the ones told to him by grieving parents.

Betsy DeVos didn’t know her audience. She didn’t tell the right story. And as a result fewer and fewer people are buying her as Secretary of Education.

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But this article isn’t about Betsy DeVos. It’s about how telling the wrong story can derail the sales process. I’m sure it’s happened to all of us at some point or another.

I remember once being on a sales call with my manager. We were talking to the owner of a local chain of pizza restaurants. We were trying to convince him to do some advertising with us, and he was throwing up every roadblock he could think of. It was a spirited and lively conversation.

In the course of the conversation, my manager kept coming back to the same illustration, over and over again. He kept describing the difference between a BMW and a Hyundai. Both can get you where you need to go, he would say, but one gets you there a whole lot better than the other. It was clear – BMWs are good and Hyundais are bad. It’s a decent illustration, one that my manager really liked because I heard him use it often.

However, we were talking to a good ole boy who drove a pickup truck. His pizza places are known for their $5 hot and now offer. Honestly, he’s not the BMW of pizza restaurants in our area. He’s the Hyundai of pizza.

We couldn’t convince him to buy from us. As I reflected on that meeting later, I wondered if the story we relied on actually made it harder for us to make the sale.

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Here’s something I’ve learned about telling stories in the sales process: you can’t just wing it. You can’t always fall back to the same old illustrations you’ve used a thousand times. The zip and passion and energy won’t be there. The clear connecting of dots for your client will get fuzzy. And you’ll end up telling a story that makes selling harder for you because it doesn’t fit your audience.

So, before your meeting, think about who you’re meeting with. Think about their personality, their motivations, their experiences. Think about which stories are the best to tell and which are best to leave out.

And when you’re ready, go tell a great story.

Because facts tell, but the right stories sell.

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