Ask any prospect to recall information from a presentation you gave last week and you’re likely to get a blank look – unless you told stories to illustrate your points.
People remember stories. They repeat good stories. Try it and you’ll find your client will probably need his notes to recall the specific costs and capabilities of your software, but guaranteed he’ll be able to repeat from memory that story you told about a mistake you made during a past implementation and how your company learned from it.
Still, the question for many sales people is: how do I find stories? And how do I remember them when I need them? In his book What’s Your Story? Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful (Kaplan, 2006), Craig Wortmann advises having stories ready to tell in these four areas:
Success stories. Everyone loves success stories. They put people and companies in the best light, and they play an important role in showing prospects how other people addressed the same challenges. We connect to the details and can envision ourselves walking down the same path and achieving the same great results. We crave success stories because we all want to be successful!
Failure stories. Yes, that’s right. You need an arsenal of stories about your failures, how they happened, what you learned, and what changes you made as a result of those lessons. Why tell this kind of story? First, everyone knows they exist and if you try to sweep them under the rug and pretend you have had no failures, prospects won’t trust you. Second, failure stories “help us build strong bonds with people,” says Wortmann. “They demonstrate that we are human and that mistakes are acceptable. This is so obvious, but so often forgotten.”
Work should be fun, says Wortmann. Sure, there are times to be absolutely serious but there’s no reason you can’t use a fun, humorous story to lighten the mood in a big presentation as long as that story is tasteful and relevant. For instance, if you need to console a rep after a tough presentation, you might tell him about the time you were presenting to a room full of people and “the arrogant, overly-serious, most senior person in the room had just finished telling all of his minions that ubiquitous cell phones make him crazy when my cell phone began ringing loudly in my suit pocket,” says Wortmann. That was a true story, he adds, and it ended badly.
Legends. These are the stories many people already know, but they still serve an important role in that they shape the ways we do business. Think about the stories of Michael Dell building PCs in his college dorm room, or Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines drawing his vision of the airline on a cocktail napkin, or, going further back, Henry Ford telling his marketing people that “you can paint the cars any color you want, as long as it’s black.” Since everyone knows these stories, they offer shortcuts to making points about taking risks, trying something new, pursuing dreams, and so on.
Do you have stories to tell in all four categories? If not, start thinking about your experiences and jot down memorable events. It doesn’t have to be dramatic; often, the more real and “everyday” it feels the better your audience will be able to connect with it. Keep a notebook and as events occur that are worth repeating and learning from, jot them down. After a year or so of looking for and thinking about stories to tell, you’ll have a wealth of stories from which you can pull to help persuade clients.