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How to sell with a story

Book Review: A good story can help you close more sales

Sell With A Story: How To Capture Attention, Build Trust, And Close The Sale. By Paul Smith. Amacom. 290 pp. Sell With A Story: How To Capture Attention, Build Trust, And Close The Sale. By Paul Smith. Amacom. 290 pp.

I found myself needing to buy a gift for a client from Russia.

Just a few days prior, I had been told a short story by a friend about one of his friends, who could not figure out what to buy as a holiday gift for a gentleman who was a superintendent of his building in New York. He suggested that his friend should get a bottle of vodka and a jar of pickles for the super.

This seemed an odd choice to me.

But the friend telling me the story explained. The super came from Russia and when my friend, who was telling the story, had lived in Russia, all the Russians he knew drank their vodka this way: vodka, pickle, vodka, pickle, vodka, pickle, until the bottle was finished.

My friend insisted that this made the vodka-pickle treat the “perfect gift for any Russian.” So, he said his friend followed his instructions.

And the superintendent could not have been happier.

So, I bought my client a bottle of vodka and a jar of pickles. I watched his face light up when I gave him the gift. I was sold when I heard my friend’s story.

Paul Smith has made a specialty of writing books supporting the use of stories, including Lead With A Story and Parenting With A Story. His latest book, Sell With A Story, suggests you treat storytelling like any other professional skill. It does not have to be a natural ability. Storytelling is something you can learn to do, and then do well if you practice it and master it. This is not to replace your existing sales practices. It’s just a new skill—a very helpful one—to add to your repertoire.

Smith documented more than 2,000 personal stories to come up with what works and what doesn’t. He interviewed sales professionals from more than 50 companies and organizations in a wide range of fields.

But that’s not where he stopped, because selling takes a seller and a buyer. Smith also interviewed procurement managers to understand what made them buy what they did—and from whom.

What goes into a story

Stories typically have six characteristics which will distinguish them from other types of narratives, according to Smith.

1. Time. Each starts with a time indicator, such as “last week” or “when I was born.” (When we were kids, how many good stories began with “Once upon a time” or “Long long ago…”?

2. Place. Next comes a place indicator, such as, “at the top of the Eiffel Tower” or “at my desk.” (You can already imagine that the story taking place at the top of the Eiffel Tower sounds much more interesting than the one that starts “at my desk”— unless your desk is at the top of the Eiffel Tower, which would be quite a story!)

3. Main character. The next characteristic is your main character—“my banker Lisa Rabinsky,” for example.

4. Obstacle. Then you have an obstacle, typically a villain, but this could even be something as humdrum as your “evil” copy machine.

5. Goal. A story must have a goal. The author cautions not to confuse the goal of your story with the goal of your main character.

6. Events. Something has to be happening.

In storytelling, great stories will have a worthy lesson, a relatable hero, a relevant challenge, and an honest struggle, according to Smith.

Why tell stories?

They are attention-getting. They help build relationships and are memorable.

The next time you meet a Russian, you will probably be thinking “vodka and pickles”!

You might even be craving some now.

Your bank has a story

What stories should all bankers be able to tell? The story of your brand, of course.

How was your bank started? What are its values? What makes it unique?

When I worked for SunTrust, on your first day of employee orientation, you were told the bank’s Coca-Cola story. It was very memorable to hear about the bank’s involvement in Coke’s IPO and how the “secret formula” remains in a safety deposit box in Atlanta to this day.

Stories can be used at every step of your sales process—from prospecting to networking to call planning and the actual sales call. During the call, you should use stories to build rapport, discover needs, and to make the sales pitch itself. Following that, use stories for overcoming objections, negotiating terms, and closing the deal.

One thing about stories: Smith states that you will know you have your story right when you can tell the same story to different people, like your mom, your spouse, and your kids, and they can all understand it.

Stories from your customer

On the other side of sales stories are the buyer’s stories. If you can get customers to share their stories, you are in a much better position to win their business.

So how do you do that? Smith has much advice on this.

First, simply listen.

Next—and this is something we all learned in a sales training class, but may have forgotten—ask open-ended questions.

Those questions don’t need to be just about their business. Look around the office. Ask about the signed baseball on their desk. There’s likely a story attached to it.

Lead by example, open up and share your stories. Sharing stories is a great way to build rapport and gain trust.

Pitching with a story

Yes, you are there, after all, to sell, by meeting your customer’s needs, not just to swap anecdotes.

One of the biggest moments in a sales cycle is your sales pitch. Some of the stories you can tell in your sales pitch include how your product came to be, how you solved a problem, success stories, and value-add stories.

In banking, we often sell new technology this way. For example, I think any cash management officer can tell a story of how they solved the problem of a client having to get to the bank each day by using Remote Deposit technology and that turns into a success story and a value-add.

Handling objections works in much the same way. In the example above, the banker can see the problem, they know the solution, but perhaps the client doesn’t want to spend the money.

Every banker who sells has faced this same scenario. Here’s one I used.

I shared a true life story of another client whose office manager insisted on going to the bank every day. She gave the business owner every usual reason, ranging from “I like to keep a relationship with the branch staff” to “Why spend the additional money?”

Every day, the office manager would go to the bank, which was within a mile of the firm’s office, and it would be an hour to an hour and a half, on average, before she returned. I questioned the business owner on this and her obvious hesitancy with the change.

Initially, he thought it was better to keep doing things the same way.

Then the office manager went on vacation. So the owner had to bring the firm’s daily deposit to the bank. He managed to return within 15-20 minutes. When he shared that with me, I asked why it took the office manager so long. He began wondering himself.

When she returned from vacation, he discovered the real motive. Confronting her over the huge time difference, he finally learned what was what. She would spend the extra time every day to stop and see her boyfriend.

He made the business decision to keep the office manager.

But he also signed up for the Remote Deposit product which immediately improved efficiency in his office.

From a value-add standpoint, the low monthly fee for the Remote Deposit was more than made up by the payroll cost for the time he had been paying his employee while she visited her boyfriend every day.

Getting your technique down pat

The book also discusses story structures that work, how to transition your stories, and what the context is. The last point answers where and when the story takes place, identifies who the main character is, and what they want.

This also helps you recognize the challenge in the story, as not to be confused with other events that may be taking place, as well as the conflict and eventual resolution.

The author explains how emotion plays into stories and its critical role in decision making. He includes techniques to enhance the emotional potential of your stories.

And surprise!

He does include a chapter on the element of surprise in storytelling. (Did you see that coming?)

Some of the tools that writers use when writing stories are not as effective for sales stories but there are a few important elements that you can use: dialogue, details, and length. Smith also discusses using data to tell stories.

Delivery needn’t be perfect

All of this leads to the delivery of your story.

This book is not about how to deliver a speech to a group per se, but, because some of the best speeches consist of illustrative stories, it does include tips to make you more effective. That includes your body language and drawing attention to the storyteller.

For those who worry about appearances, Smith has this good news: “A perfect delivery is not perfect.”

The goal is to make your story conversational.

If you ever read a transcript of a meeting, you’d quickly learn that they bear no resemblance to finely crafted movie scripts. People make false starts, go on tangents, flub their points.

But a good storyteller’s momentum keeps you going.

How close to “exact” is necessary?

One of the most common questions that the author says he gets is “Does my story have to be true?”

He has found what is really being asked is either

• “Can I make it all up?” or

• “Does every detail have to be accurate?”

His answers are quite clear.

If you make up a story, your audience should know you made it up. Otherwise, you risk losing credibility.

When it comes to accuracy, Smith cautions that the farther your story strays from what actually happened, the more likely you are to mislead your audience. You then risk violating their trust and potentially ruining the relationship.

Smith’s test is to imagine someone was there when the story took place. In your retelling of the story, would they be offended or would you be embarrassed?

If the answer to either question is yes, you have probably changed too many details.

What you don’t want to change is the essence of your story, the people (although using different names to protect their anonymity is fine); the obstacle or challenge that was faced; the process they went through to solve it; the resolution; and the lesson learned.

Now it’s time to go tell your stories. What is your story?

Lisa  Rabinsky

Lisa Rabinsky, senior vice-president and commercial relationship manager, CenterState Bank, frequently reviews books for

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