In marketing, stories simply sell better

He was a successful engineer with a nagging problem. It haunted him during his commute, in the shower, and when his golden retriever woke him up at 3:00 a.m. for a quick trip outside. Never was it far from his thoughts.

It involved a process that he knew could be improved. He had a hunch about what was involved, but just couldn’t pin it down. It gnawed at him until that Saturday afternoon. As he was mowing his lawn, the solution flashed through his brain. In what looked like a trance, he left the mower in the middle of the yard and raced inside, where he began to sketch out the idea.

What was it? I don’t have a clue. The solution is completely fictional. The engineer, his lawn, his problem, and his lawnmower don’t exist.

But you were captivated, weren’t you? The opening sentences drew you in, and the description of the process stoked your curiosity. Each line whetted your attention for the next step, and you couldn’t wait for the twist that would be revealed in the resolution. Right now, I suspect that you’re more than a little annoyed with me for failing to deliver that resolution.

Sorry about that, but I wanted to illustrate something in a compelling way. That something is the power and value of presenting information in the form of a story. All too often companies and organizations that want to share something with prospects and other stakeholders think the best way to do that is to present the facts in a straightforward manner. “Our customers are busy,” they insist. “We can’t afford to waste their time!”

Ah, but you’re wrong. You see, the human brain absolutely loves stories. We’re hardwired to respond to them, thanks to centuries of evolution. Long before someone came up with the idea for written language, our ancestors shared what they knew by telling stories. Keep in mind that printing has been part of our culture for less than six centuries, and widespread literacy for only about half that time.

When we were kids, a good story was one of the few things that could get us to focus for any length of time. As adults, stories still capture our attention. We may call them by names like “gossip” and “conversation,” but as soon as someone begins to recount what happened last weekend when they went to paint the living room or teed up on that par-four 14th, we’re hooked.

Stories are always more compelling than raw facts. Sure, you could list the reasons your product is better or why your service is superior. Your audience may even commit a point or two to memory. But when you cast that information in the form of a story, you connect with them on an entirely different level and dramatically increase the likelihood that they’ll remember what’s really important. When you share a story, you’re entertaining your audience as you inform them.

There are two forms of stories that are particularly effective in sales and marketing situations. The first is the case study, in which you share a real-life example of how someone used your company’s product or service to solve a problem or improve a process. Case studies are effective for two reasons. First, they make it easier for the reader to understand what makes your offering better and to apply the benefits to their own situation and challenges. Second, when a respected or well-known company appears in your case study, you benefit from their implicit endorsement.  (If Amalgamated Industries trusts your product, my company can buy it with confidence.)

The second form is what I did in this article: creating a story around a fictional example that represents the typical customer or user of what you offer. There’s nothing unethical about doing that, as long as you own up to the fact that it’s a fictional representation (or as long as you don’t create misleading quotes from imaginary customers). Even though the reader understands that your customer is fictional, they’ll still be able to relate to the story and the message you’re conveying.

The next time you try to share a message with a prospect or other stakeholder, don’t think in terms of making it sound like an ad or a sales pitch. Tell them a story, and you’ll capture their attention and quietly convince them as they enjoy what you’re sharing. The fact that you’ve read this far proves it works with you.