Harnessing the Power of Story for Educational Sales – Part 1

In this first of a two part series, guest blogger James Mayfield Smith responds to my post on Storyline in Textbooks and Video Games. James has the coolest job title I think I’ve ever seen – Applied Mythologist. We worked together at Pearson several years ago, he speaks about Education Publishing from direct experience on the front lines of selling and authoring.

Part 1 of 2: The Strategic Use of Story to Sell

By James Mayfield Smith

891609_magic_lamp_of_the_alaaddinI’ve enjoyed your posts on the potential of storyline for instruction. As a former teacher, educational sales consultant, and reading program designer, I’ve had many opportunities to see how a good tale told well can engage both students and adults in genuine conversation. Yet teachers are often left to work around their story-averse textbooks. Your analysis of why publishers in our industry are wary of strong storylines when designing instructional materials is insightful.

Story in Sales?

Many publishers also miss the boat by failing to see how the power of story utilized well can impact their sales revenue. Much of my consulting involves training executives to appreciate how humans respond to stories, imagery, and metaphor. By examining how we have told stories about ourselves for thousands of years, we gain valuable clues about the impact that telling and living into our stories has on us. With this information, we can begin to harness the power of story to teach, to create, to market, and to sell.

I discuss story-savvy selling in particular with sales training analyst Dave Stein in his Commentary on Sales Leadership blog. While Dave is quick to point out that story-savvy selling is an advanced selling skill, the five sales trainers who comment on the post enthusiastically share how they bring the power of story to bear with their own clients. Educational publishing executives may be interested in tapping into this power for their own marketing and sales force efforts.

On a strategic level, leveraging the power of story can be seen as a framework for the selling process in general. We all live out and perpetuate stories in our lives. For any sale to close, a buyer must let go of an old story of how to do something. The buyer must then embrace a new story that involves a different solution and a new way of accomplishing an objective. From a mythological perspective, trying to force a behavioral change while continuing to live an old story is rarely successful.

Most of us know a friend or relative trapped in an old story that they just can’t seem to shake behaviorally. When the old story is released, however, and a new story is fully embraced, the behaviors that result naturally from living into this story support a successful implementation. Applied to sales, the sale simply makes more sense and becomes more compelling within the new story than it would from the old perspective.

This change management aspect of sales is critical. Intelligent use of story is a powerful driver for facilitating change, particularly on the emotional and behavioral levels. Buyers usually make decisions on the emotional level, justify them with logic, and act on them behaviorally. Any long-time sales executive can regale you with stories of buyers who bought a product based on emotion rather than on the best fit for their circumstances.

An Example

As a young teacher, I once set out to buy a used Volvo, and then became emotionally enamored of a great deal on an “inexpensive” high mileage Mercedes. I bought the car and for the next two years, used a credit card to pay far more than my teacher salary allowed for the expensive maintenance. I had even heard that Mercedes vehicles were expensive to maintain. Yet this data was impersonal to me, and I had no emotional connection to it, so it didn’t even factor into my decision. I made an emotional decision based on my story that successful people drove a Mercedes rather than finding out all the facts about Mercedes ownership.

A good story that personalized the possible consequences of my decision might have curbed my romanticized story. This could have encouraged me to make a better decision for my circumstances. Telling the right story at the right time humanizes the sales process and accesses this emotional region, so that a seller can help a buyer make a more informed decision from the place where such decisions are actually made.

Three Reasons to Use Stories to Sell

But why the focus on stories, you might ask, rather than the emphasis on questions and conversations found in many sales training methodologies? Of course those are essential, as are other selling basics. But understanding the power of story is oft-neglected, so we’ll address this in particular here.

First, naturally talented salespeople are already (often unconsciously) using the power of story to sell. These naturals engage buyers with stories and tell key stories about other buyers to leverage a sale. Yet they are usually unable to articulate or teach what they are doing. Companies often joke about cloning their top sales reps – compelling storytelling is often one of their defining traits you should consider teaching it reps who are not using it.

80kwknpSecond, the selling power of story is a direct result of how our psycho-emotional-behavioral system responds to stories. After thousands of years of an oral storytelling tradition, we are hard-wired to respond to story in specific ways. After millions of collective bedtime stories and many millions more stories told for entertainment, humans have developed both a longing to hear stories (which supports the Hollywood film industry), as well as a calming and accepting approach to story. One effect of this conditioning is that stories allow buyers to bypass the somewhat irrational emotional defenses often triggered during a sales interaction.

Instead of reacting to a salesperson in a guarded way, buyers have the opportunity to relax into a story about a student whose life was changed or an administrator who successfully increased achievement in her district. Buyers are given the freedom to identify with any character whose wants, needs, and values match their own. This identification with characters process usually happens during a story. This self-selection dynamic draws our customers toward us and facilitates trust, like we are drawn to the heroes and heroines of a good novel. By allowing our customers to build emotional connections to characters and scenarios that are meaningful to them, we also build valuable bridges to ourselves as solution providers.

Third, and paradoxically, while stories relax our customers on one level, it stimulates them on another level by heightening attention and memory recall. The myths, legends, and stories of the tribe usually conveyed key data about where to go and not go, how to get home, what to eat or not eat, and other life-preserving information that was critical to remember. Thus, thousands of years of using story to convey important survival information has conditioned our brains to remember story well. Thus teachers and administrators will leave a conference and forget much of the data they took in, while remembering the stories they heard. By embedding sales calls within a story-rich framework, we provide our customers with anchors for retaining the key information about our company, our products, and the solutions we provide.

Coming in Part 2

Our next post in this 2 part series will address the tactical use of story to sell. We’ll discuss how to use the power of stories and business narrative to architect conversations about our educational solutions. We’ll also identify the different types of stories that are useful at different stages of the buying cycle.

James Mayfield Smith is an educational consultant, sales executive, and trained mythologist who applies the principles of depth mythology and the power of business narrative and story-savvy messaging to sales, marketing, and educational product development projects.

Lee’s original post Storyline in Textbooks and Video Games is here.