Most of us make a living selling something that can’t be seen, can’t be touched, can’t be tasted, smelled, or heard. We sell services.
Unlike ice cream or perfume or a brand new car, which purchasers can experience with their senses, what we offer is invisible, intangible, and has no taste. Whatever “it” is that we sell, “it” happens largely inside the customers’ brains.
So how do we persuade our customers to buy from us something that has little or no sensory input?
Surprisingly, in the same way marketers sell Haagen-Dazs, Obsession, or a shiny new Lexus. Those products are sold when their sellers succeed in creating inside the minds of their customers a future story of pleasure experienced or pain avoided.
Take for example, every perfume commercial you’ve ever seen. What are they selling? Romance, adventure, seduction. Or at least the imagined hope of it. Buy this perfume, dab it on, and that’s what will happen to you. Can’t you just picture it?
Or consider all those Lexus commercials last December. You know, the ones with the devilishly beautiful couple still in their pajamas on Christmas morning, one leading the other out to magically unveil the shiny new car with the big red bow on top. What are they selling? An over-the-top surprise gift, leading to overwhelming gratitude on the part of the [wife, husband, girl friend, boy friend], leading to ... Well, you get the idea.
The key to the sale is the future story brought to life inside the mind of the prospective customer.
This is just as true for you as for your local Lexus dealer: To sell a professional relationship with you, you must bring to life inside your prospect’s mind a narrative of a shared future, one in which they are finding happiness or avoiding danger because you are a part of their life.“Great,” you say, “but how do I do that without the benefit of sensuous smells, new leather seats, and a million dollar TV advertising budget?”
My answer: learn to master the art of story.
There’s something different about the way a story touches us and inspires us and moves us to take action, compared to other ways of communicating. Steve Sabo captured the essence of this difference when he stated:
Tell me a fact and I’ll learn.Tell me a truth and I’ll believe.Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.
It is not altogether clear why stories have such impact, but I believe it has to do with the way the two sides of our brains operate. It is thought that the left hemisphere is the critical, analytical side. Its function is to process numbers, evaluate data, and keep things neat and tidy. The right hemisphere, by contrast, is the intuitive, creative side. Its function is to think imaginatively, handle abstractions, and form and decipher stories. Storytelling and story listening are definitely right-brain activities.
The mental picture I have is that when story-based information is directed toward our brains, it gets routed to the right side, whereas numbers, statistics, and logical arguments are directed to the left side of the brain. Upon arrival, bundles of information sent to the left side (numbers, statistics, and logical arguments) are scrutinized and critiqued careful and skeptically, because that’s what the left brain does.
Story-based information, on the other hand, is subject to less cynical review because that’s the way the right brain operates. It’s as if stories bypass the harsher scrub-down and go straight into the system. And since most of our important decisions are made intuitively and then later justified analytically, stories can be very potent in moving us to action. When it comes to touching hearts and affecting behavior, a well-placed story is almost always more effective than numbers, statistics, and logical arguments.
Stories Connect Us on a Human Level
I have learned that stories are the real ties that bind, regardless of the type of relationship. Sharing stories is an honoring, intimate experience that results in feelings of closeness and affection.
Sharing stories is the best way in the world to connect with people, to understand them, and for them to feel understood. We create genuine human connection by sharing the stories of our lives. As we share experiences back and forth, we start connecting on a personal level. It’s very natural and comfortable.
I believe that we human beings are hardwired to connect with each other through story and to share important information, both factual and emotional, by sharing stories. For thousands of years, we sat around the community fire sharing the events of the day. We sat on the porch and rocked and talked about life. We shared happenings at the family table. We told our children stories at bedtime. We hung around the fishing hole weaving tales waiting for the fish to bite.
Today, however, with Twitter and iPods, text messaging and life’s busy pace, we don’t seem to have nearly as much time for story sharing. Nevertheless, I think it is still a basic human need to tell stories and to hear them.
Because this deep need to share stories is still strong within us but is so seldom honored in today’s world, when you offer to listen and share stories with prospects and customers, they appreciate it and they connect with you. As a result, they start to feel comfortable with you and trust you. One of the most important things you can do in an initial meeting is to use stories to nurture a relationship of sufficient trust so that when you ultimately offer your advice, prospective customers will accept your recommendations and implement them.
Stories Create Empathy and Understanding
By sharing stories, we are briefly able to see the world—or at least a part of it—from another’s vantage point. We take in their words, their tone, and their body language through our senses and send them on to our minds, where they become the catalyst for our own internal reconstruction of the life experiences they are sharing with us. Their stories remake the neuron structure of our brains, and thus they literally become a part of us. True empathy and connection occur.
Just as story sharing builds human to human connections, conversely, whenever people reduce or terminate story sharing between themselves, their relationships are weakened. If you look closely at any relationship that is fading or already dead, you will find the parties to the relationship—whether friends, a married couple, family members, management and labor, or even nations—no longer share stories.
In fact, if you work back upstream to the point in time when the relationship turned from good to bad, you will discover it was at that moment that the parties stopped listening to each other’s stories and stopped trying to tell them to each other. I’m not sure which is cause and which is effect, but I’m certain that, left unchecked, the cessation of story sharing is an unmistakable harbinger of the death of the relationship. Strong and lasting human relationships require the sharing of stories.
A Secret about Stories
We connect with those who listen to our stories, and we cherish those whose stories we have truly heard. Through stories, we understand their world and they understand ours.
The fact that this can happen quickly, almost immediately, is one of the keys to honest and authentic professional selling. When two people meet at the story level, they don’t need decades of memories to create a meaningful friendship. They become friends by creating a positive story of their future together. Friendships turn prospects into customers.
My third book, Double Your Sales: An Honest and Authentic Approach to Professional Selling, is based on these principles. It teaches how to use story to connect, to humanize, to warn, to encourage, to clarify, and to share information, both personal and professional.
Most importantly, it shows how to use stories to create between you and prospective customers a shared narrative of your future together. It allows both you and them to visualize a tomorrow in which you are working together for your mutual benefit. Without that, few if any sales are likely to happen.
Fortunately, you don’t have to become a professional storyteller to be a successful salesperson. You don’t have to understand all the details about stories and how they work, any more than you must be able to service a modern computerized, fuel-injected automobile to successfully drive it. It doesn’t hurt to know those things, but it’s definitely not required. Your innate skills as a storyteller and a story listener, with a little practice and a little polish and with an engagement process based on a sequence of storytelling and story listening will be enough.
But the key is to remember that the most important story of all is the one being created in the mind of your prospect – a future story of pleasure experienced or pain avoided, resulting from their relationship with you and their implementation of your client process. That is the way to sell the invisible.