The question is, can storytelling principles be applied to sales techniques, starting with the concept of good and evil? In storytelling, the bad guy is a character, for the most part antagonistic, who embodies Evil, or at least acts like he does. He is generally fighting against the “good guy”. This concept of the antagonist is basic to storytelling. It has been effectively used in many a successful film: Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Batman and Joker, Terminator and his computer Skynet, James Bond and Dr. NO, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, etc. But it has nothing to do with sales techniques. Or does it? What is the relationship between sales techniques and this type of principle used in the stories we tell? And how can sales techniques make use of this concept?
How can sales techniques make use of the concept of antagonism?
Steve Jobs was the master of using storytelling as a sales technique. He started very early by casting his first competitor as the bad guy in his very first presentations in 1984. The villain was IBM, who wanted to monopolize the market. The good guy, the hero, was Apple, who wanted everyone to have a computer and the distributors to make money quickly.
I used this principle in a sales presentation for the company I work for: Mercuri International, a firm that optimizes company performance. Our products include sales training courses. And since 2008, we had been having problems presenting a so-called “blended” training product that was a mix of classic learning techniques and new technologies. Two types of customers had good reason not to buy this type of approach:
- Early adopters of new technologies who were disappointed with elearning: they had tried elearning as early as possible, in 2000 to 2006, and generally had bad memories of it. We would lose their attention as soon as we mentioned computers, because they associated our product with elearning, whose limits they had had time to test. Even though the two had nothing in common.
- Anti-technology diehards, the people who find reading emails too long, would rather use the telephone than the internet, etc., who resist adding this type of tool to their training programs.
Rather than presenting Mercuri’s blended line, I put together a presentation that tells the story of Phil.
Phil is a sales rep, and the story was about Phil’s experience with a classic training course compared to a Mercuri blended course. Phil became the presentation, the person who used facts to demonstrate the limitations of classic approaches for learners like him, by telling the story of his experiences in the days of such training. Phil also showed the advantages of the new Mercuri blended approach, talking about how exciting it was to be trained in on-line methods that allowed maximum time for practical training, to train using tools like iPads or business simulations, and about the progress he was making professionally. Most of what he said was what we hear from our course participants. The client saw in Phil his own sales reps and teams, and began to see the benefits of working with Mercuri.
Since then, I have made progress on two points:
- I have added a second character that contrasts with Phil: Jenny. Jenny talks about the limitations of classic courses, which she endured rather than enjoyed. Jenny adds color and contrast to the story. I start the story with her, because Jenny allows me to connect with the sort of product that the customer is familiar with, the kind he buys from our competitors.
- But most importantly, in the first part of the presentation I defend this classic product using all the reasons why the customer has not changed, all the obstacles that make companies like his work the way they do: the costs, the system changes, human resistance, the impersonal side, lack of motivation, etc . This increases the suspense, another storytelling basic: if the hero’s victory is too easy or predictable, it kills all the interest and suspense of the story. At the beginning of every story the villain must be stronger, his victims’ problems must seem insurmountable, and the hero’s task must seem impossible. There needs to be drama. In fact, that is what this phase of storytelling is called: dramatization.
Meanwhile, the client hears Jenny repeat word for word all the complaints he hears everyday about his current solutions. He visualizes and feels why he needs to drop his current supplier and find another solution. That’s how we spark a desire for an alternative, for different solution from the one he’s using …
And guess whose solution will solve the problem? … You’re right, the one Phil got: ours, of course, Mercuri’s.
But this one’s trickier … have you figured out who the good guy and the bad guy in the story are? Phil and Jenny? No, not them, they’re the ones whose lives depend on the heroes and the villains, two of my best friends in real life. No, the villain is the competitor that the client works with now, of course, and the hero is Mercuri 😉
So, have you figured out who gets to be Robin Hood, James Bond, the hero of the story? It’s you, the sales rep who has become a storyteller 😉
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