Helping a prospect understand how your product or service will change their life is one of a salesperson’s most difficult tasks. Fortunately, there’s a powerful tool leaders can use: storytelling. Appropriately, well begin with a story…

The Power of Stories

Jesus lived on this earth until approximately AD 30. Most scholars believe the books of the New Testament were not put into writing until AD 50 or 100. However, the challenge of remembering the events of Jesus’ life did not end. The stories of the New Testament were primarily passed down orally for 300 years, because copying the gospels by hand was banned until the emperor Constantine allowed it in AD 325. Until the invention of the western printing press in 1439, the Bible was copied primarily by hand, and few people owned a copy. For almost 1,400 years, the stories in the New Testament were mostly learned through storytelling. Today, I would venture to say that most people in western civilizations can recite one or more stories from the Bible. That, dear reader, is some powerful storytelling.

Here’s a more recent example. Steve Epstein was a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Defense and in charge of the Standards of Conduct Office. When he conducted training, he found that reciting the rules alone wasn’t working. The message didn’t seem to stick. He created the “Encyclopedia of Ethical Failures” in which he collected stories of compliance failures in chapters titled “Bribery,” “Abuse of Power,” and the like. Here’s a real gem from the encyclopedia:

“A military officer was reprimanded for faking his own death to end an affair. Worthy of a plot in a daytime soap-opera, a Navy Commander began seeing a woman that he had met on a dating website. The Commander neglected to tell the woman that he was married with kids. After six months, the Commander grew tired of the relationship and attempted to end it by sending a fictitious e-mail to his lover informing her that he had been killed. The Commander then relocated to Connecticut to start a new assignment. Upon receipt of the letter, his mistress showed up at the Commander’s house to pay her respects only to be informed by the new owners of the Commander’s reassignment and new location. The Commander received a punitive letter of reprimand and lost his submarine command.”

This story, although better than just reciting policy statements, can still be improved. We’ll look more into that later.

Why Stories Work

In 1944, Heider and Simmel conducted a study that showed that our brains are wired for stories. They showed a movie to groups of students (you can see the movie here) where silent geometric shapes moved around the screen. One group was given directions to describe the story they saw. The other group was given little direction prior to seeing the movie, then was asked to describe what they saw. Not surprisingly, there was little difference between the two groups. They both saw the story of an angry triangle’s confrontation with a friendly triangle and circle.

This experiment shows how important placing data into the context of a story is to our brain. In fact, 65% of our conversations are stories, primarily in the form of gossip. Why?

When processing facts, only two areas of our brains are engaged. These areas do nothing more than decode the words we hear into their dictionary meaning. But when we listen to an effective story, many other parts of the brain are activated. This results in interesting brain activity:

  1. Neural coupling: Neural coupling allows the listener to turn words into virtual experiences. For example, smell words such as lavender and cinnamon activate the smell centers of the brain as if the listener had actually smelled them. Similarly, using active sentences such as, “Bob kicked the ball,” activate the portion of the listener’s motor area associated with leg motion.
  2. Mirroring: The power of neural coupling lets an effect called mirroring take place. Mirroring allows a storyteller to relate personal experiences directly with the listener. Since the motion and sensory areas of the brain are activated by action and sensory descriptive words, a storyteller can almost recreate their reality in a listener’s brain by using those words. When a storyteller relates an effective story, listeners’ brains are literally living those events.
  3. Dopamine: Finally, the brain releases dopamine when it experiences an emotional event—even through storytelling. Dopamine imprints a memory and makes the event easier to remember with more clarity. This is why saying, “Don’t go near that dog,” is not as effective as saying, “My friend was mauled by that slobbery, mean dog, so stay away.”

The combination of neural coupling, mirroring, and dopamine makes storytelling 22x more effective in helping the listener retain information than data alone.

Fast & Slow Thinking

Humans aren’t rational beings by default. Our brain operates from two systems: Fast thinking (system 1) and slow thinking (system 2). Fast thinking is intuitive and requires less energy, so it’s our brain’s default. This system allows you to talk while driving your car, play the guitar without looking at the strings, or know that 2+2=4.

Slow thinking is the rational and deliberate system. This system uses significantly more energy, and it’s not our default. Slow thinking makes you think through a process or figure out a problem. It’s how the brain operates when you try to calculate 17 x 54 (which is 918) or learn a new skill, like driving a car. You have to think through every step and may feel drained when it’s all said and done. But during this learning, the brain is rewiring itself. New connections are made until the new skill can be performed without thought.

In this age, fast thinking is the default. If our caveman ancestors used slow thinking for everything, we wouldn’t be here today. They would have been eaten by saber-toothed tigers while they thought about how to react when they saw one.

These peculiarities in brain function are why flight simulators work for training an aircraft pilot. Without first practicing in a flight simulator, a mistake by a first-time pilot while landing in an unfamiliar airport could result in death, fire, and mayhem. But with a flight simulator, the same pilot can try and fail many times without anyone getting hurt. All the while, the pilot’s brain is rewiring to be able to perform the real landing.

Stories work like flight simulators on our brains. Because a well-crafted story causes our brains to activate through mirroring, stories take us into intense simulations of situations that we experience in parallel to reality. Often, we can react using our fast-thinking brain when exposed to similar real-life situations.

Connecting Through Stories

In his book “I and Thou,” the German philosopher Martin Buber states that humans are defined by two pairs: I-Thou and I-It.

Our relationship with things (I-It) separates us from objects. Our relationship with others (I-Thou) eliminates boundaries between us. That’s why, even if someone is an extreme naturalist, they’ll have no qualms about cutting down a tree for firewood to warm their cold family. The I-Thou connection they have with their family bonds them together, while the I-It relationship with the tree separates them from the tree.

Storytelling allows us to see the subject of the story in an I-Thou relationship instead of an I-It relationship. When implementing change in an organization, simply putting lessons learned into policies and procedures keeps us separated from the results and doesn’t create a sustainable culture. Understanding the “thou” behind a story builds a lasting connection.

In the medical field, many hospitals are now using this concept to avoid medical mistakes. Instead of referring to patients solely by their medical condition (i.e., “the broken leg in room 2”), staff is encouraged to build the story behind the patient in their charts and conversations. This staff-patient connection has been shown to reduce the number of medical errors.

Elements of a Great Story

The steps to building a great story can by remembered through the acronym CAR, which stands for context, action, and results.

Context sets the background for the story. When and where did it happen? Who’s the main character? What does your character want to accomplish? Who’s the villain, or what stands in your character’s way? The main character in your story needs to be someone the audience can connect with, and the villain, whether a person or situation, needs to present a real challenge.

Action is the substance of your story. What does your character do? Action must include an obstacle, setback, or failure.

Result is where you reveal your character’s fate. To be effective, you must subtly give the moral of the story.

To be fully effective, you must remember why stories work. Create an experience that induces mirroring through action and sensory words and avoid clichés. Engage the audience by illustrating a real struggle. Pin your character against real villains. Admit flaws. Rosy pictures are boring.

Next time you’re in a movie theater, look around you and watch the people. If the movie is effectively telling a story, you will see everyone reacting as a single organism. They will all laugh at the same time, flinch together, or gasp simultaneously. A great story builds a common thread. The story doesn’t even have to be told to a group all together. Think about the connection you feel with others who also saw the latest blockbuster movie. You don’t have to be in the same theater to share the experience.

The power of storytelling is timeless. Stories continue to build compelling reasons to change, especially when engaging sales prospects and retaining current customers. An effective sales strategy and a strong sales pipeline are only possible with the transformative power of story.

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