Storytelling for Sales

The 1 Line Description

How to supercharge your sales with powerful stories.

When to use it

From the start.

Key Ideas

* This article summarizes the key takeaways from the second half of a workshop run with the MEST Express 2021 Cohort, run by Erica Halvorson

Setting the scene

Today is all about how to knock the sales pitch out of the park. How to connect with your audience and make a pitch that's compelling enough to close the deal.

  • Found myself in sales by chance, after studying journalism and mass communication in college.
  • I was at meltwater from 2015 to 2020. I worked my way up really quickly there, it was a great learning experience. They threw us in right away to get started with closing deals from our first days on the job. I was promoted as sales manager within nine months. Then I was a senior sales manager, I moved over to the client success team to work on how you can upsell and cross sell clients.
  • I was a managing director at meltwater for a while before I left overseeing our renewals and net churn.
  • Now I'm at a startup. So I'm at about a 30 person startup called hustle. We really aren't we're also a communications tool at hustle. I'm an account executive here working with nonprofit enterprise.

The magic of Storytelling

Stories are a really compelling way to get your message across in a cohesive manner, while tying in both facts and those warm, fuzzy feelings that can really push you over the line.

Ben Feldman was apparently one of the most successful life insurance salespersons in America ever.

Even if you're selling something pretty boring, not too exciting. You have to focus on what it can do. If you can tell that story and paint that picture. Anything can be exciting, anything can be compelling. Even life insurance.

^ Take a minute to try and capture this in just 1 or 2 sentences. This becomes the start of your elevator pitch, which in turn becomes the core of a 1 hour pitch.

What we need to do now is figure out how we expand those two sentences into a larger story, what stories we can tie in there to really connect all of the dots for our prospects, our customers, our funders, so that they can see themselves in this story, and see themselves in the bigger picture of what you're creating.

Telling people what to do in a sales setting comes across as super pushy, rather than compelling.

What the best sales people do is they'll tell a story about why and how this product has worked. When we talk about the expertise, you need to be very careful to never assume knowledge in your buyer, right, you're going to be the expert in your product, and you need to teach people about it. The best way to do that is by telling a story where that buyer or that prospect can picture themselves in the shoes of one of your existing customers, or a case study that you have.

Crafting your story

There are certain formulas and methods you can use, but at the end of the day, it is still an art form, right? Not a science, that means you can have fun with it, there's not going to be a one size fits all story or story structure here.

So, storytelling is a science and an art, I recommend as a team sitting down and creating a formula that you're able to adapt. So some bullet points or a flowchart of what your core story is, how it should flow. And know that inside and out. So that when you go to tell it, you can actually adapt that formula based on what you learn in the conversation, the listening that you do. So it's not it's the same story every time.

You need to know your value props and your story so well, you can fit them into any scenario.

Again, it can be really, really helpful to create a sales flow charts, based on customer profile, use cases, objections that can come up problems that can come up. So if you kind of create a flowchart of if this, then that, that can really help you create an adaptive story that can flow into any conversation. That quote that we looked at before where the moment we want to tell the buyer what to do, we've lost them, our own expertise can be our worst enemy, we get too eager, and we can miss out on uncovering value we could add.

So before you dive into any story, ask open ended questions and get your prospect talking. If you can do that, then you're going to gather super valuable information.

They're going to tell you how they spend their day, what the biggest pain for them during the day is what events goals benchmarks are coming up that they're working towards all of that, listen closely, because you can tie that into your story. And make sure you're connecting the dots to them of how you're going to get them to those goals.

So that's why you are really your most important and valuable asset and your sales process.

If you leave your personality behind, when you go into a sale, you're only going to be left with the selling aspects, right. And that's how you fall into that trap. If you bring yourself to that meeting pre connections, you're more believable, they know who you are, they know about your values, and you're able to build a connection and build trust.

And again, I mentioned, if you've listened, wow, hopefully, you can make a valuable personal connection that really, really resonates with your buyer. Find some common threads there.

It's good to do some listening, and some research upfront and know who you're talking to, right? If we're talking to someone who's like a CFO, super numbers focus, they're giving you only 15 minutes are probably going to rely more on the numbers and the data. However, if we have the time, and we're able to appeal to the emotions this is still really going to push us over the line.

And if we can have someone walking away, feeling something about what we've pitched them, and having those hard, cold numbers in their head, that's going to seal the deal.

I've talked to a lot of companies that mass that are, say, selling products to shopkeepers that are on any digital products yet, right and you're helping them manage inventory. That seems like a huge, huge project to people. So before you can really sell them on those huge problems that they're going to be able to solve. It's important to meet the buyer where they are.

It's very rare that they're going to know as much about your product area as you do. So it's really valuable to find some sort of anecdote or analogy, some tidbit of a story that connects to something they've surely experienced.

In the example above: "I'm sure you know, that can be a pain when you're keeping books by hands for your inventory. And all of a sudden you realize that you've lost a sheet of paper and everything's gone, right?" Something that surely, everyone's experience connects there.

So we're starting small and relatable, and we're building into aspiration. This will also help you use larger names. If you have some big companies that you're trying to sell to smaller ones. You can say, hey, this is what you've experienced. And this is what things could be like, right? We're tying those dots together. We also need to make sure they can see themselves in that picture.

Some Examples

Obviously I've got to follow my own rules and tell you a story. :) 

So when I was working at meltwater, I was there during a point when we acquired a social media analytics company called Sifnos. And it was going to be really our biggest investment into social media marketing analytics. The product allowed you to put in keywords for their own company, their competitors, industry topics, reviews, and see the results come in, both in terms of the actual results in dashboard analytics. So I had the very fun responsibility of trying to sell people in the Washington DC area.

At the time this kind of product was considered only something for large consumer brands. So we had this amazing case study from WWE, which as an organization was nothing like any of my prospects and customers that I was selling to. But I was able to look at that story and find the pain point that social media marketers at trade associations or nonprofits in Washington, DC could connect with.

The WWE Story

We worked with WWE on all their social media marketing and analytics. And they searched for all sorts of things were monitoring all sorts of topics. They were looking for all of their wrestlers, names, all their talents, they were looking for WWE specific events. And they had an entire marketing team that literally had these dashboards up on screen. So they had a very big operation. There were marketing managers whose entire job it was to watch those dashboards and see what came up and dig into it.

So one day, there's a marketing manager that is taking a look at their dashboards and they see something totally unexpected come up. Now, WWE has a pretty big marketing arm. So it's very rare, they see an increase in conversation and buzz, when they haven't planned it. Usually, when they see a spike, it's around something that they've promoted or advertised. So it was really shocking to this marketing manager when they see this huge unplanned spike.

Luckily all the dashboards and the social media analytics tool were completely interactive. So that marketing manager was able to click into the exact points when that increase started. And their entire dashboard uploaded to focus on that point in time. By doing that, they were able to narrow down to the timeframe and realize that it did occur right after a specific fight. What was surprising was that it was a fight that no ad dollars behind it. No marketing had been put behind it, since they weren't expecting people to talk about it much. It was a women's wrestling fight that lasted about 30 seconds, and so wasn't supposed to be a big deal at all. Turns out that's what made it a big deal.

WWE had never invested as much money in women's wrestling at this point, because they didn't think there was a big audience for it. Having insight into social media, though, what they realized was with their traditional marketing analytics, they weren't able to identify these audiences. But there was a huge subculture of people who loved women's wrestling and were sick of it not getting the time and money and support that the men had.

So what they realized was that when this fight happened, it was only 30 seconds long. All of the fans went online. And they started using a hashtag that said, hashtag give divas a chance. That hashtag showed up huge in a word cloud on that dashboard. And they were able to find the most influential social media users that were using that hashtag engage them in personal conversation, and really kind of appease them to get their feedback, dig into it.

So they weren't able to stop that before it went really viral. Most of you probably never heard that story, because they learned about it real time. You NS gathered tons of information they were able to take back to executives that impacted the company's strategy. So within a year, they open WWE open an entirely new marketing department dedicated to women's wrestling, they changed the name of women's wrestlers from divas to superstars just like the men.


So that story, obviously, is aspirational. That's a huge company with tons of money behind it. And in and of itself, if I just say, Oh, we work with WWE, and they use these analytics, someone's to say, okay, that's nothing like my business.

But it started with a very real experience of a social media manager, when something happens on social media, and you have that, oh, no moment, what is this, if you can detect that early, you can mitigate the most potentially damaging results, you can connect with your fans.

So that story was really impactful for me when I was selling, regardless of who I was selling to, because it did meet people where they were are, and then build into aspiration, it connected to the software specifically described exactly what they did with that information, and then talks about ROI on both micro and macro level.

When you have a sales process where you often have to educate the buyer. That happens a lot in the sales that I'm doing now, the startup I'm working for, we are really on the cutting edge of a very niche type of text message technology and SMS marketing. A lot of the times our buyers think of SMS marketing is all the same thing. All are really spammy shortcode messages, like what you see up on the screen here. And I have to talk to them about some technical differences. What is short code text messaging versus long code, text messaging, that means nothing to my buyers, usually, it's very technical.

But everyone in the US recently has a smartphone, they most for the most part, they understand certain things about texting, so I'm able to connect the dots from them, hey, you know, when you find you buy something online, and all of a sudden, the company is texting you a bunch you can tell it's not a real person. That's a short code message.

Versus when you're texting with a friend, and you have a real vocal phone number. It's conversational. That's long code, I can basically talk to someone about something they do in their daily life, and educate them on the technical aspects there.

So I'm finding some sort of anecdote that might not have that much to do with the end pitch. But as at least making the technical questions, the technical aspects makes sense to help me in that education process. I'm overcoming that technical education and a simple sentence, a simple story, versus derailing my entire pitch, telling someone the ins and outs of this super technical process that isn't really helping me build the value.

And then this is one of my favorite examples. In 2019 the top 30 sales reps from meltwater were invited to a party to celebrate, but also to do some sales work shopping. So one day we had this competition where a meltwater sales rep was teamed up with some of the participants of the master's program, some of this students and graduates there. We were given one hour to think of any problem in the world, and then come up with a company, a business plan that would solve it, and then create a five minute pitch.

So we got four different people who didn't know each other and who all have different interests, and you have to really figure out what problem we can all get behind and how we're going to pitch it. One member of my team Osbourne who was super passionate about football. He supported a UK team but didn't have friends in Ghana who supported the same team. So he was watching on his own at home, and there were all these huge game winning moments. "And I want someone to hug and celebrate with, but there isn't anyone".

So the idea that we came up with to create that community was an online forum where people could join teams, do forums for their teams have live chats, all of that. And we made sure that we started our pitch, we went out there with Osbourne going and telling a specific story, but a specific game of winning goal, and that Alicia, and he felt the disappointment when he didn't have people to share it with. He told an amazing story there, it captured everyone's attention, it really made people feel something.

And then we hit them with a stat straight after. So as soon as we had that emotional feeling built up, we came in and we said their soccer, football is the most popular sport in the world with x Billion fans worldwide and $X in market potential. So we appeal to the emotions, we have activated people with that with a really beautiful story. And then immediately came in with a rational thinking.

And, you know, not to brag too much, but our team did win the pitch competition there, in what I'd say is a pretty competitive field.

Closing the deal - A Checklist

Ask if there's hesitation. Ask if there's reasons they wouldn't buy this? Is there anything they didn't see?

It can be really scary to ask some of those really important questions sometimes because you don't want to get a bad answer. But if you leave that conversation not asking, and they weren't to give you a bad answer, you've given up your opportunity to provide the information that you needed or disqualify that prospect after all, and then you're going to spend a ton of time following up.

So whatever methodology you're using, whether it's dance, or another one, don't forget to see if you've checked off and gotten your questions answered for those core qualifiers like budget, authority, need and timeline.

if possible, have your buyer or prospect verbally confirm their next steps and then set a timeline.

E.g. "We're going to go ahead and put our heads together, get you a client reference and a proposal. You need to speak with your CEO and get your executive board ready for our next meeting. Do you think you can do that by next Wednesday?"

Every conversation provides you with information you can use and your story arsenal. So whether something works out the way you want it to or not reflect on it, understand why record the stories you've learned. The pain points people shared with you. The points in your story that people got excited the stories they've told you reflect on it all, record it and use it later build up your sales arsenal.