Storytelling in Sales: Notes from Prezi Podcast “The Narrative”

My friends at Prezi invited me to join them for an episode of The Narrative. It’s a podcast aimed to expose the power of storytelling in business.

I sat down with host David Hooker to share my approach to storytelling in sales and sales development.

This piece is not a transcript of the episode. Instead, it’s a supplement filled with insights and actions to get you thinking about narratives and how to better craft them. It’s incredible how often stories are needed.

Consider these examples:

  • How well does your LinkedIn profile complement (not repeat) your resume? What’s your story for how you add value to an organization?
  • How do you, or how does your team, broadcast its results? How do you highlight the journey of going from x to y?
  • Why would a live audience, especially one comprised of prospects, want to listen to your presentation? How can they relate to your theme? What’s in it for them and how can they apply what you’re telling them?
  • How do you tell prospects – in a fast, brief phone conversation – it’s worth their time to keep talking with you?

Like it or not, you’re always telling a story. The question is, are you good at it? If you are, how do you stay sharp? If you’re not, how do you improve? 

David and I chat about what I’ve seen work in my career. Take a listen. If you like the episode (it’s Episode #2, by the way) share it with others.


Show notes from Episode #2 of The Narrative

00:51 Introduction from host David Hooker.

01:37 David asks about selling for United Parcel Service (UPS), where I started my sales career in 1994.

At UPS, I was a “back door salesman” for close to six years. Most sales calls happened in the shipping area, which is typically located in the back of the building.

My learning experience at UPS was rich. It became the bedrock for my understanding of sales, management, customer service, and leadership.

While I was at UPS, the company continually raised the standards of the sales force in many ways. From how we dressed (women and men wore business suits) to how we communicated (daily huddles), we illustrated a high-caliber operation.

We opened team meetings by reading and reflecting on excerpts from the UPS Policy Book. Reading aloud our commitment to integrity, values, and management philosophies really set the tone for serving the marketplace. What does your company or team’s policy book say? What’s your mission?

The entire sales team received subscriptions to Selling Power magazine. Issues simply arrived in my mailbox each month. I could’ve thrown them out or read them from cover to cover: I chose the latter. I read and applied tips from Editor-in-Chief Gerhard Gschwandtner and contributor Jeffrey Gitomer, both of whom I later met (and keep learning from).

Covers from the now legendary Selling Power magazine.

As UPS salespeople, we were also immersed in Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling methodology. We applied lessons from the book, from classes, and from exercises that earned us certifications.

Finally, we were given a series of books titled Our Partnership Legacy. The books (I still own three of the five) captured talks given by UPS founders and executives at management conferences. The transcripts underscored the obligation leaders have to serve their customers, people, and communities. Pure gold for students of business, leadership, and storytelling.

02:23 Has storytelling been present throughout my career? Was I telling stories as I walked through the back door?

Storytelling has been around since the dawn of humankind. It’s not going anywhere either.  Of course, I’d have stories for my customer visits, but the story was about the customer, not me or my company.

For example, I might have said:

“Remember my last visit, when you were telling me about that band you liked? Well, I just read they’re releasing a new record this summer. The second it’s out, I’m bringing you a copy. In a Rolling Stone article, the lead vocalist felt they showed grace under pressure by finishing the record before going way over budget. The last time I visited, you were dealing with tight deadlines for that shipment to New York. I drew up a few options for streamlining it next time. Let’s grab a few minutes to walk through them.”    

Kevin Avery from Sales Benchmark Index (SBI) suggests we “tell stories that compel your customers to act by answering the key question, “Why change?” Sometimes buyers will change just so they can work with you. When you establish rapport and credibility, become a trusted advisor, and they like you, it could serve as the catalyst for them to move forward with your offering.

Check out SBI’s Guide to Better Storytelling.

Frame stories using the Guide to Better Storytelling

03:01 Has the need to tell stories to prospects changed over the past two decades?

No. There are just different ways to tell stories today. In fact, two decades ago, we were sowing the seeds for how we tell stories today.

Channels for storytelling have evolved since the 1990’s when you think about the internet, reality television, and 24/7 news becoming mainstream. Watch this discussion with Vanity Fair’s editor, David Friend. He talks with former White House Press Secretary, Dee Dee Myers, and filmmaker, Judd Apatow, about how storytelling has grown over the past two decades.

03:28 As a sales leader, how do you get the importance of storytelling through to a large-scale, global team?

People learn differently. Delivering a message to a team of people located across the globe requires mindfulness of geography, language, culture, and learning styles. The Memletics Learning Style (Memory + Athletics = Memletics) trains your brain, like athletes train for competition. 

Accommodate people’s learning styles by delivering messages in different formats. For example, while you listen (aural) to this podcast episode, you’re reading (verbal) my detailed show notes, clicking the links I’ve shared, looking at images (visual) in this post, and sharing your comments (social) below. 🙂

There are seven Memletic Styles of learning.

Gary Vaynerchuk calls this “content on content on content.” The next time an update is sent to your team, especially a critical one, perhaps it’s broadcasted on an All Hands call + by email + in a video clip + from a laminated 3×5 card left on everyone’s desk + by text or WhatsApp.

One time our marketing operations (MOPs) team updated our inbound lead statuses and service level agreements (SLAs). To ensure the change was communicated and adopted by our global team of sales development reps (SDRs), the MOPs team made the announcement at our company’s annual sales kickoff (SKO) meeting. It was an opportune time since every SDR was attending SKO.

As part of the announcement, the MOPs team slipped a laminated 8×10 of the new lead statuses and SLAs into large red envelopes. An envelope was then slid under the hotel room door of every SDR.

An effective way to deliver news to your team is to hand deliver it.

News of the lead status updates traveled fast, was seen by all stakeholders, and was memorable. It was a tangible, physical way of delivering the story.

04:32 Are new hires, especially ones just starting their sales careers, aware of the power of storytelling?

It depends. Whether new hires are aware or not, their sales leader must integrate storytelling into the experience.

Effective leaders direct teams by starting with the why. “The company is on a healthy trajectory towards an IPO. A healthy IPO places us prominently in the market, enables the public to invest in our (and our customers’) success, and expands our ecosystem so we help a broader audience.”

Leaders then tell how it’ll get done. “Let’s aim to produce 2x the opportunities currently in the pipeline by end-of-year. We’ll tweak the qualification criteria, implement a deliberate prospecting campaign against specific target accounts, involve several different teams, and add one hour to each workday to execute our plan.”

Finally, leaders will explain what is happening. “Everyone, our team is hyper-focused on creating 2x the opportunities we have in our pipeline. Unless you’re working with them to accomplish this goal, let them do their thing.”

An easy way to consider this approach is by learning about Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle:

Hey Salesperson: WHY go with you? HOW does it help me? WHAT changes for me?

05:29 What does “learning the hard way” look like when getting storytelling wrong?

Telling a story goes wrong when it’s not persuasive, doesn’t have a proper beginning-middle-end, doesn’t have a conflict that’s resolved (or on its way to resolution), or doesn’t introduce a protagonist and antagonist.

Another way stories go wrong, especially in business, is when data is improperly used or misrepresented. As this Harvard Business Review article explains, “quantitative information is uniquely able to capture attention, convey a story visually and bolster your credibility.”

Say you’re a sales development leader, presenting year-over-year (YoY) pipeline contribution figures to your company’s sales leaders (your #1 customers). It’s assumed you own your business within the business and are fully aware of key performance indicators. Yet, you often rely on your operations team to “check the math” and provide the actual figures.

Now it’s time for the final QBR of the year, where you present in front of the sales leaders. If you mistakenly tell the sales leaders your team grew pipeline 88% YoY, but it was really HALF that, you’ve got a problem. In an instant, you risk losing credibility, rapport, and respect. The damage could be systemic, too, as your team’s credibility is also in question.

That’s how storytelling can go wrong.

Former Dell executive, Jim Stikeleather, shares tips for mitigating this risk. When using data to tell a story, it’s important to:

  1. Find the compelling narrative. Ask yourself, “Is there really a story to tell?”
  2. Think about your audience. What does the audience know about the topic, and how well do they know it?
  3. Be objective and offer balance. This comes from alternative representations and showing visualizations devoid of bias.
  4. Don’t censor. Don’t be selective about the data you include or exclude.
  5. Edit, edit, edit! Really work to explain the data, not decorate it.

06:09 What’s the worst story I’ve told or heard told?

I tell the story of a phone call I got at work one day. A sales development rep called to thank me for attending his company’s conference and sell me on his product offering.

He hadn’t done any research prior to the call. Hence, he missed that I was a speaker at the conference and was also connected to several of the company’s executives. If he invested time to learn about me the call would’ve gone well. Alas, that wasn’t the case. I ended up writing about it here.

An effective way to make phone calls conversational is by asking great questions. While yes/no questions are powerful when used at the right time, open-ended questions are the way to go.

Remember to “create space” in your conversations, for the other person to process the dialogue and respond in kind. The best conversation starters and open-ended questions come from Barry Rhein’s Selling Through Curiosity program.

07:37 A good story, then, is a two-way street? Where questions are asked and there’s a conversation? And preparation is key?

Get good at writing. Outline sales conversations before they happen. The better acquainted you are with when you’re at the beginning, middle, and end, the easier it is to navigate and establish conversation flow.

Let’s go back to the sales rep who called me after his company’s conference. If he outlined how he wanted the conversation to go, but also kept in mind how it could go, the call would’ve likely gone well.

See the conversation first in your mind. Guide the prospect through it like a sherpa, knowing where the key questions will surface, knowing how it will likely play out.

10:38 A big portion of a salesperson’s work is preparation, right? From lead qualification to putting the right person on the right account in the right territory, isn’t preparation something good salespeople have done for a long time?

Preparation is imperative, but here’s the catch: Don’t spend too much time preparing and not executing or taking action.

11:25 What kind of impact are you seeing with sales reps that have a good conversation flow?

The best sales reps actually have a story to tell. Take a face-to-face meeting, for example. Reps who establish flow keep things simple. They may mirror and match the person they’re speaking with by tilting their head in the same direction or crossing their arms at the same time.

Looking people in the eyes will never get old, in terms of authenticity. Author Leil Lowndes, in her book How to Talk to Anyone, suggests the “Sticky Eyes” technique:

“Pretend your eyes are glued to your conversation partner’s with sticky warm taffy. Don’t break eye contact, even after he or she has finished speaking. When you must look away, do it ever so slowly, reluctantly, stretching the gooey taffy until the tiny string finally breaks.”

Address people by their name. In his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie wrote: “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

13:05 Tell us about the five barriers.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen salespeople at all levels fail because of one or all of these obstacles. I’ve even experienced it myself. Not fun.

The five barriers are:

  1. Obscurity
  2. Lack of Focus
  3. Inactivity
  4. No Conversation Flow
  5. Failure to Keep Improving

Lack of conversation flow (and storytelling) can have serious consequences. For salespeople, it can stunt career growth, damage relationships with field reps, and prevent your company from landing new customers.

16:19 What’s your advice for salespeople on what tools to use at pivotal points in the sales process, when they must transfer their idea to the prospect?

Sooner rather than later, salespeople need to stop talking and start showing. Most feel limited in how to show their offering or sell their idea.

The traditional slide presentation can put people to sleep. It comes with monotonous bullet points, old school bar charts and graphs, and poorly combined color schemes. A-player reps leverage the strengths of their marketing colleagues or become architects in building killer, compelling presentations.

There’s a number of tools to use in addition to Prezi and other presentation programs. None will work well for you until you embrace all components of a great presentation:

  • Keep things simple: font, text, bullets
  • Use high-resolution, crisp images
  • Create flow with transitions
  • Empower color schemes and palettes

There is a science and an art to selling – this is the art part. Consider your presentation’s aesthetics! For example, let’s talk about colors.

Use a color scheme generator or the color wheel as a guide for complementing colors and setting the mood.

Smart color choices are potent. Choose wisely. (Graphic: Bull Marketing)

Effective sales reps help prospects engineer a vision of the Promised Land (what GREAT looks like). Visual presentations serve as an extension of the sales rep, as a conduit for conveying the rep’s offering or idea. When you’ve got your prospect’s attention, take advantage of it by keeping things simple, tending to the details, and making the presentation pop.

18:22 Companies invest millions of dollars in lead generation, account intelligence, tools, and technology. However, there’s always a reliance on salespeople to produce the magic in the moment. Shouldn’t companies invest more in enabling the salespeople in those moments?

Last I checked, businesses were comprised of people. Therefore, companies must ensure their salespeople develop people skills. Tap into the power of influence to create win-win situations.

Robert Cialdini introduced six principles for us to reference when persuading others:

  1. Reciprocation – be the first to give, give to get
  2. Scarcity – the rule of the rare, exclusive features and offers
  3. Authority – showing and knowing, illustrating credibility and rapport
  4. Consistency – the starting point, sequential success
  5. Liking – making friends to influence people
  6. Consensus – people proof, people power

Draw on these principles when telling your story, especially about how your offering will solve your prospects’ problems. Ideally, you’ll arrive at a point where your presentation accomplishes these six principles on its own.

19:50 The stereotypical sales presentation connotes a drab, dry vibe, unless the salesperson is on.

Craft presentations that resonate, whether you’re presenting them yourself or they’re doing it on their own. One of the best guides to achieving high level presenting is the book Resonate by Nancy Duarte (download it here for free).

In it, Nancy implores you to ask “How badly do I want my idea to live?” Answer that question and you’ll light a fire within yourself to frame-up – and deliver – a presentation that’s nails.

When presenting in front of an audience, never fail from the front of the room. Break the fourth wall by walking into and among the audience members. Put your hand on the presentation screen, place deliberate inflections in your speech to emphasize points, and make it conversational.

Engaging your audience is tougher to do online, which puts more weight on the presentation to live on its own. Video is an exceptional alternative. No matter what channel you choose, preparation is imperative and the aim is to resonate.

21:35 The role of visuals is getting more important. What are examples of staying coherent, compelling, and interesting in a digital world?

Geofilters are overlays on Snapchat and Instagram Stories that allow viewers to feel like they’re there with you. Filters enable story creators to add the outdoor temperature, or the location, or an emoji to give depth and emotion to their visuals.

Did you see the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio? While the bossa nova classic, “Girl from Ipanema” played, model Gisele Bundchen dazzled the crowd with a catwalk across the entire stadium.

As she walked to the soundtrack of the song, the audience cheered and sang the lyrics. Each of Gisele’s steps left a fluid, trace of light beneath her, giving millions of viewers at home a sharp impression of the country’s spirit.

So, what’s your story?

Stories often follow arcs. A theme is exposed, which lifts towards a climax and tumbles downward to resolution. The same applies to your own storytelling evolution. Keep that 5th barrier in mind and never stop learning. All the resources are there if you just look for them.

Thanks to the team at Prezi for having me on The Narrative and waving the storytelling flag.

Salespeople, Don’t Ignite All Your Fireworks at Once

There once was an annual fireworks show in San Diego that encountered a major malfunction.  All 7,000 fireworks blew off at once, with the ‘show’ ending in less than a minute.

Often times, sales reps light all their fireworks at once, too.  Without investing time and energy in researching or engaging their audience, salespeople unleash an arsenal of ambiguous noise about their company, their products, and themselves.

You hear it in their 80-second voicemail messages. They do it in online presentations, while you have the mute button on. It’s spelled out in their three-paragraph emails.  You see and smell it from a mile away.

And when fireworks like that are over, you just roll-up your blanket, pack your bag and head home. Maybe the next show will include space between each explosion, allowing you time to adore, process, and absorb the value.