A Waterloo, Ont., entrepreneur recently gave me an idea for what could have been, in a less discreet magazine, the title for this column: "Canadians suck at telling their stories."
Harsh? Maybe. Significant? Hell, yeah.
Storytelling isn't just for kids. Every entrepreneur should know they need a catchy, pithy mission statement to explain to customers and prospects what they do. In truth, most business owners are really bad at this. The purpose of the mission statement is to get the other person to say, "How interesting. Tell me more." Too often, people go away confused—they don't want more; they want a drink.
But say someone does like your opening. How good is your follow through? Too few entrepreneurs seize this opportunity to offer compelling stories that attract attention, build relationships and leave indelible impressions in people's minds.
Why does this matter? There are lots of people selling the same thing you do. Some probably sell it cheaper. Your only hope of standing out is to tell your story better than anyone else. And with today's social media-saturated world, the stories you tell can go on to win attention in a thousand blogs, Twitter posts and Facebook updates.
"Sell benefits, not features" is the mantra of many top sales professionals. But take this a step further. You rarely get the chance to pitch a product until you have caught the buyer's interest, and this you do not do by selling but by telling stories that show how you create value for others.
Some entrepreneurs think they have these stories: "We helped Company A cut costs by 12% while increasing throughput 15%." But that's data. Stories are about people, and the best tug at our heartstrings. Saul Colt is an Internet marketer whose creativity—he radiates "buzz" by hiring mimes to accompany him at trade shows, and he once sold a grilled-cheese sandwich on eBay—has helped build Toronto-based FreshBooks into a world leader in invoice automation for small business. He says sales begin by gaining people's attention with stories or stunts that make them laugh, think or feel genuine emotion.
Stories show you're human. Stories describe the role you play in people's lives. Stories build trust and distinguish you from the pack. U.S. sales consultant Robert Hunter ("the Sales Hunter") says no one wants to look like a fool for buying from you: "They want the salesperson to provide them with enough emotional benefit to allow them to convey to others they made a great decision."
What makes a great story? The same elements that have always captured the imagination:
- a beginning, a middle and an end;
- a sympathetic protagonist, beset by conflict or adrift in doubt;
- a looming threat that seems unsolvable; and
- a valiant hero (this would be you) who saves the day by using compassion, knowledge and unique skills.
Yes, this describes the plot of every story from Little Red Riding Hood to Star Wars, but it works. Societies perpetuate their most important lessons by wrapping them up as cautionary or inspirational tales. When you use the simple story hooks of every chronicler from Homer to J.K. Rowling, you make it easy for prospects to remember your stories and, just as important, retell them.
Every company, every product needs its own repository of trust-building stories. Yet, so few have them, and fewer companies still share these stories to ensure everyone in the organization can recall and repeat them. When I ask groups in marketing seminars to tell me their customer stories, they become as nervous as Goldilocks upon meeting the three bears.
I've only ever heard one compelling business story I feel comfortable passing on. When I asked seminar attendees once for a great customer story, a woman (we'll call her Cindy) who runs a flower stall at a Toronto mall told me about the young man who came into her shop one day in a state of distress. (Good opening!)
He told Cindy he'd had a fight with his girlfriend and wanted to make up with her by buying one of the bouquets at the front of the store. Instead of wrapping the flowers and grabbing the sale, Cindy started asking questions. How serious was the argument? How much did he want to get back with this girl?
Once Cindy had determined the buyer's state of mind, she suggested that maybe the bargain bouquets at the front of the store weren't his best choice. He should instead consider a more impressive, sophisticated arrangement—and she offered to show him a few.
This is called "up selling." More important, it's using your unique skills to devise the best solution for the client.
Long story short, the suitor bought a more expensive product than he'd intended but left the store full of hope. A week or so later, he returned, and asked Cindy for another special arrangement. He had just become engaged. And to this day, he returns to the shop to buy anniversary flowers as a thank you for Cindy's extraordinary professional expertise.
Don't suck at storytelling. Make yourself a hero. Just start with the happy ending and work back.
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