Stories sell more powerfully

The successful engineer had a nagging problem that haunted him during his commute, when he was in the shower, and every time his black lab woke him at 3:00 a.m. for a quick trip outside. The problem was never far from his thoughts.

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

What was that idea? I don’t have a clue. What you’ve just read is completely fictional. The engineer, his lawn, his problem, and his lawnmower don’t exist.

But I had you captivated, didn’t I? The opening sentence caught your attention, and each new detail stoked your curiosity. Line after line whetted your attention for the next step, and you couldn’t wait for whatever would be revealed in the resolution. In fact, I suspect that you’re more than a little annoyed with me for failing to deliver that resolution.

My apologies, but my deception was deliberate. I wanted to illustrate 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 key stakeholders like prospects think the best way to do that is to present the facts in a straightforward manner. “Our customers are busy,” they say. “We can’t afford to waste their time!”

It’s well-intentioned, but it’s wrong. The human brain absolutely loves stories. We’re hardwired to respond to them, thanks to centuries of evolution. Long before someone came up with written language, our ancestors shared knowledge by telling stories. Printing has been part of our culture for less than six centuries, and widespread literacy only about half that time.

As kids, a good story was one of the few things that could demand our focus for any length of time. As adults, stories continue to capture our attention. We may refer to them as “gossip” and “conversation,” but as soon as someone begins to recount what happened last weekend when they went to paint the kitchen or teed up on that par-five 17th, we’re hooked.

Stories are always more compelling than raw facts. Always. Go ahead and list the reasons your product is better, or your service is superior. Maybe your audience will remember a point or two. But cast that information in the form of a story, and you’ll connect with them on an entirely different level. More important, you’ll and dramatically increase the likelihood that they’ll remember what matters most. By sharing a story, you’re entertaining your audience as you inform them.

Two forms of stories are particularly effective in sales and marketing. 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 work well 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. Second, when a respected company appears in your case study, you benefit from their implicit endorsement.

The second form is what I did here: creating a fictional story representing the typical customer or user. There’s nothing unethical about doing that, as long as you fess up to the fact that it’s a fictional representation (or don’t create misleading quotes from imaginary customers). The reader understands that your customer is fictional, but she’ll still be able to relate to the story and the message you’re conveying.

The next time you try to share a message, don’t think in terms of making it sound like an ad or a sales pitch. Tell your audience a story, and you’ll capture their attention and quietly convince them as they enjoy what you’re sharing. Not sure it works? You’ve read this far, haven’t you?

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