Stories sell. It’s as simple as that. By some estimates, messages delivered as stories can be up to 7x more memorable than facts alone.
But knowing that stories are an effective means of conveying messages is not the same as being able to execute them successfully. Whether you’re struggling to get sales prospects to buy into your message or you just want to make your sales presentations as effective as they can be, storytelling could be the answer.
Here’s how to do it well.
Step #1: Start with Buyer Personas
The simple fact of the matter is that you can’t use storytelling effectively until you know who you’re speaking to. That’s because the most impactful stories resonate differently with different people.
If you’re going to incorporate narrative into your sales presentations, you need buyer personas to help you understand your audience and what they’re struggling with. If you have existing buyer personas, the key elements to familiarize yourself with at this point in the process include:
- The pain points your buyers experience
- The language they use to communicate these challenges (as well as other issues they’re facing)
- How they see themselves
- Their role in the decision-making process
- Their role in the organization
And if you don’t have buyer personas in place already, there’s never been a better time to build them. Fortunately, HubSpot has plenty of solutions to get you started, including the Make My Persona tool and a library of free buyer persona resources.
Step #2: Learn the Principles of Storytelling
Once you know who you’re speaking to, you can begin constructing a story that’s custom-tailored to their needs. To do that, you need to understand the principles that underlie all great stories.
Although there are multiple storytelling frameworks out there, Robert Carnes’ “The 4 Principles of Storytelling” is a helpful starting place. As defined in Carnes’ Medium article, this framework involves four elements:
According to Carnes, “A main character gives the story focus and personality. Character development describes changes that a character undergoes during the course of the narrative.”
In a sales context, your character is your customer. Depending on the specific type of story you decide to tell, your character might be an actual customer you’ve served in the past, or it may be a more generic amalgamation of common customer traits.
In any case, the goal of defining your character is to create a compelling hero for your story. In order to buy into your narrative, your prospective customers need to be able to see elements of themselves in the main character of your story.
Next, context provides the framework for a story. In Carnes’ framework, both internal and external context must be considered.
Internal context refers to the setting of a story. You identified your main character in the prior step. Now, internal context can be deployed to explain the story’s background and setting, as well as its atmosphere, mood, and characteristics.
Is your character sitting in an office? Are they on the road traveling? Are they in their boss’s office being reprimanded for failing to meet expectations? Internal context answers these questions and more.
External context, on the other hand, has to do with how the story is received. Traditional storytellers need to consider such factors as the audience that’s receiving the story and the medium through which it’s being conveyed.
However, since using stories in the context of sales presentations means that the audience will be your sales prospect and the presentation will be your medium, you likely won’t need to spend much time brainstorming these factors.
The heart of any good story is a conflict. Think about every great book you’ve ever read or every great movie you’ve ever watched. You’ll see that it’s conflict that captivates our attention and drives the plot forward.
Even in the context of a sales presentation, your story will fall flat if there isn’t some conflict your main character must overcome. For your prospective customer to get invested, your character must face relatable risks and tangible potential for loss.
According to Carnes, “Creation pulls together characters, context, and conflict into one comprehensive narrative.”
Have you ever listened to someone tell a long-winded story that seemingly never gets to the point? Or one that rushes the narrative in such a way that the impact of the supposed conflict is lost? These are failures of creation — and if you commit them in your sales presentation, you’ll have wasted all of the time and effort that went into constructing your story in the first place.
Step #3: Transform Positive Customer Experiences into Stories
Now that you know the basics of good story construction, go back to the pain points you identified when working with your buyer personas and try to match them with success stories from past customers who solved similar problems using your product or service.
For example, suppose you’re a marketing consultant who supports SaaS companies. In this case:
- Your “character” could be the owner of a SaaS tool
- The “internal context” of your story could be a board meeting with the company’s investors
- The “conflict” to play up in your story could be your character’s company falling short of sales projections
Putting these elements together could result in a story like the following:
“I remember the first time I talked to one of my past clients, Mike. He was fresh out of a board meeting with his SaaS company’s investors, and he was desperate. He’d just had to report that his company wasn’t going to hit its Q2 sales goals. He hated feeling like he’d let them down and that their trust in him hadn’t been warranted, but he didn’t know what else to do. He’d hit a wall, and he was starting to think he’d be better off closing down for good than to keep burning himself and his team out chasing sales that weren’t materializing.
I could hear in Mike’s voice how upset he was, but I asked him to give it just one more chance. What Mike didn’t know was that I’ve worked with plenty of entrepreneurs in his shoes before — and I knew that he didn’t have a sales problem. He had a marketing problem. If I could just get him to start thinking about marketing in a new way, I knew that he too could enjoy the 10, 15 and even 20x sales lift my past clients had experienced.”
Don’t you want to know more about what that new marketing approach looks like? Or whether or not Mike was able to fix his company’s sales problems? Just think about how much more impactful it would be to introduce your solution in this way, rather than with a dry statement about achieving a 20x sales lift.
Step #4: Incorporating Your Stories into Your Sales Presentations
Building stories is only part of the battle. The way you “create” your story will depend on how exactly you plan to incorporate your final story into your sales presentations.
Don’t just dump your stories and run. Infuse them into your sales presentations in ways that support the overall narrative you’re trying to create.
- Sharing a story at the beginning of your presentation can capture your prospect’s attention.
- Storytelling in the middle can refocus your targets if the energy in the room is lagging.
- Sharing stories throughout your presentation helps support key features or benefits you’re describing.
- Sharing a story at the end of your presentation encourages prospects to put themselves in the shoes of your character.
It’s also possible to thread a single story throughout the presentation as a means of maintaining attention, but this requires a higher level of skill as a storyteller to be able to maintain clarity and tension. Consider it as a narrative device only after you’ve had the chance to put your stories to the test and see how they land.
Pay attention to your delivery as well. Remember, the brain processes visuals 60x faster than words. When it comes to sales presentations, storytelling can’t just be telling — it needs to be visual as well. That’s why it’s important to plan for a visual delivery from the start.
Whether you’re meeting in person or you’re sharing a remote presentation, make sure you have an effective solution for forging connection through visual cues. Video conferencing can be a powerful tool here if you aren’t able to be on-site with your prospective customers, as it allows you to create a face-to-face experience that drives better storytelling performance.
Step #5: Evaluating the Performance of Your Stories
Even the best stand-up comedians spend months — even years — testing new material to see how audiences react. That’s because they know that, while some stories will create powerful connections with their listeners, many can fall flat.
The good news is that you’ll immediately know if your stories aren’t working. If people are engaged, they’ll maintain eye contact, lean forward in their seats, make encouraging noises or give other positive signals. If they aren’t, you’ll feel their lack of engagement in their limited responses, their shifting attention or their glances at their phone.
Bombing with a story doesn’t feel great, but it’s an important learning experience if you want to improve their performance. Pay attention to which stories work and which don’t. Then, take every story that isn’t working and either tweak the different elements of Carnes’ four principles described above or replace it entirely.
Succeeding with Storytelling in Sales Presentations
Introducing storytelling into your sales presentations can feel intimidating. Deviating from a more straightforward pitch involves putting yourself out there in ways that may or may not connect with listeners.
That said, it’s still a great skill to practice. And when it comes to intentionally influencing the feelings of others in the context of a sales presentation, there’s simply no better tool in your arsenal than the good, old fashioned story.