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Scientific Approach to Storytelling – Why Does It Sell?

Before we move on to serious scientific details, let me tell you a short story. I am sure that every copywriter will share my indignation because all of us encounter similar kinds of situations from time to time.

To make a long story short, some time ago my blog post was criticized without remorse. The main niggle was that my article should be closer to the topic, include bare facts, no introductions, retreats, my personal opinions and so on. I was told that a promo article is not a book and I am not a writer. That nobody will read this snotty stuff, that our customers have no time for that and that we should enumerate only plain facts, features and statistical data. I felt smashed and empty inside having invested a part of my soul in that article. I had been writing it for several days, but after being corrected in this manner my article turned into one poor paragraph containing dry, impersonal, straight-to-the-point words. If something of the kind had happened to you, continue reading, and next time you will have scientific explanation why is storytelling important in business, more over, you will have the proof of power of storytelling in marketing.


By the way, see how to organize an effective business presentation with PowerPoint design.


Most people like to listen to interesting stories, this is the art of storytelling. It’s part of human nature. We get used to ‘tuning-in’ when the story is one told since childhood. Storytelling can be called a new wave that is taking the front seat in many disciplines: sales, marketing, communication… You can’t but agree that the best sales people are also great story tellers. Storytelling in sales is an essential tool to use to connect and interact better, and to listen and engage better. All these are important ingredients for a successful sales recipe.

The secret is covered by the fact that when people read product features they begin to analyze them. They switch on their logical thinking to find counter arguments to all the benefits you list. They are not inclined to believe technical terms. On the contrary, technical details may seem difficult to understand, they are confusing and they make the prospective buyers think well before taking any actions. Please don’t think that we get your attention only not to mention technical terms or features at all. They should be stated, but in a way that is easier to absorb. For instance, you can tell your customer a story of the buyer who faced the same problem and how your product made the life of the latter easier, thanks to certain item features.

Apart from that, story telling can be very successful because they touch customers’ hearts and affect their emotions, which we can’t control. Such an emotional approach makes the buyers more generous. If the story is well written, the customers simply believe it; they don’t search for product faults. They just buy it. Stories are the stuff of life. They define us, give meaning to our actions, justify our choices, and invoke our feelings instead of just having us scurry through life. The persuasive powers of storytelling have been known since as far back as Aristotle’s time.

In fact, each story we are told has its purpose. Even fairy tales we tell our kids teach them something good. The purpose of marketing stories is to sell the product, and to do it obliquely. But the aim of marketing story-telling isn’t just limited to big-picture marketing campaigns and material. It comes down to the one-on-one interactions you have with prospective clients each day.

Let me tell you about the recent study, carried out by marketing researchers David Gilliam and Karen Flaherty. They examined the role of storytelling not only on the marketing message level, but also on one-on-one interactions with customers. During their research, they found that while storytelling has such a fundamental role in our day-to-day lives, “the lack of inquiry into storytelling in a selling context leaves sales people operating in the dark.” And because storytelling is “one of the most powerful and ubiquitous forms of human communication,” as they put it, that’s frankly a problem.

Did you know that there’s a science to storytelling in the world of sales and a science regarding what happens in the brain when a good story impacts itself on us and transforms our thinking. Here follow some key insights to help you better understand and integrate storytelling in your day-to-day interactions with customers.

Remember, telling a story right can add to your credibility.

According to Gilliam and Flaherty the difference between a persuasive argument and a good story is that a story casually links events, rather than forcing an agenda. So, don’t forget to think like a storyteller when you are focused on making an argument or outlining benefits and features for a potential customer.

However, that doesn’t mean stories should be so casual as to meander into rambling territory. “Having a clear, concise rationale is critical before creating your story,” Halloran writes. “Storytelling is simply the means to the end. It is our responsibility to understand what that end is.”

If you are thinking about storytelling in the context of sales, it’s helpful to take a step back and understand the fundamental structure used in the most basic of storytelling -  the dramatic arc many refer to as Freytag’s pyramid, named after the German novelist Gustav Freytag. Stories tend to follow a narrative structure that looks a lot like a pyramid with an inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution.

You know, when it comes to building sales relationships with new clients, storytelling is invaluable for three key purposes: delivering information, persuading customers, and creating a personal connection, according to Gilliam and Flaherty. “Buyers are looking for ‘cues’ and ‘signals’ that the seller is ‘trustworthy,’” they write. “Stories are a credible form of communication capable of delivering such cues.”

It has been scientifically proven that a good story can literally shift a customer’s brain chemistry. We will tell you how it happens.

According to neuroeconomist Paul Zak, conflict in a story causes our brains to produce cortisol, a stress hormone that causes us to focus our attention more. You see, storytelling triggers an actual neurological shift in the mind of the listener.

Here is how Harrison Monarth, executive coach and author of the book ‘The Confident Speaker’, unravels how Zak’s research looks in the context of sales. “Neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.” He wrote these in Harvard Business Review. The cute factor in a story (think puppies and babies) also releases oxytocin in our systems, which gives us that fuzzy feeling and makes us feel a greater sense of empathy and connection to others.

Zak showed participants an emotional film about a father and son in his research and then asked them to donate money to a stranger. “With both oxytocin and cortisol in play, those who had the higher amounts of oxytocin were much more likely to give money to someone they’d never met,” Monarth writes.

He also examines the work of Keith Quesenberry, Johns Hopkins researcher, who analyzed 108 Super Bowl commercials to determine what made the most effective ones appealing to viewers.

Quesenberry found out that, more than sex and humor, commercials that include dramatic plotlines (remember the Freytag’s pyramid of rising action, climax, falling action and resolution) scored significantly higher on viewers’ polls. Want to know minor details? Ok, in particular, Quesenberry looked at the beloved 2014 Budweiser Super Bowl commercial “Puppy Love” in which an adorable puppy and a horse form a bond that would make even the steeliest of hearts melt.

NB! Striking an emotional chord with people using storytelling has actually been proven to make customers more generous and willing to spend money!

Good stories are able to transport customers to new worlds.

Have you ever heard about the “narrative transportation theory”? Researchers use this term to describe what’s happening in our brains when we’re immersed in a story. To put it simply, listeners can become so absorbed in a story that they’re actually transported to that world in their minds. Think about reading a really great book and losing yourself in its pages. A good story has the power to take you someplace else. “Stories can activate narrative transportation and have positive effects,” the researchers write.

But what does this mean when it comes to sales? This is really important because it helps take people’s minds away from the skepticism that prospective customers often feel when considering a potential purchase or deal.

In another 2014 marketing study out of Denmark, researchers found that consumers introduced to a new product,   who were initially not interested in it, were more likely to have a change of heart when storytelling messages relating to the product were shown to them. The researchers found that when presented with a choice, consumers tended to be more drawn to the one that had a compelling story tied to it.

Storytelling can squash the skeptic in your customer! Selling through storytelling becomes easier.

Nobody wants to be duped in a buying situation. So, the customers carefully study the rules of the game before the purchase. Consumer psychology researchers have found that people often come into a selling situation with a heightened awareness of persuasion tactics, which keeps them on guard. “Buyers learn to recognize when the industrial salesperson is using persuasion to take advantage of a trusting relationship,” the researchers write. That’s where storytelling can have a profound impact.

When told a story, listeners engage in a special form of processing that results in fewer counterarguments. Gilliam and Flaherty

Just let this quote sink in for a minute. When you’re rattling off a list of benefits or features, the person on the receiving end is analyzing what you’re saying, and essentially looking for false statements that might help them reject your argument entirely. But when you’re telling a story, you are delivering the same information, but using a narrative approach that research has shown makes listeners naturally less skeptical about what they’re hearing.

Building relationships is important for your business success - stories are critical to build relationships.

“Researchers have shown that relationships depend on mutual disclosures,” write Gilliam and Flaherty. The reason telling stories is so effective in relationship building is that it tends to invite your listener to reciprocate with a story of their own. “Stories are a powerful relationship building tool,” Gilliam and Flaherty write. “Scholars have long asserted that mutual disclosure is an important part of creating the buyer–seller bond.”

But while hitting an emotional nerve tends to attract people, when it comes to translating that kind of customer connection from commercial marketing to one-on-one interactions, the priorities, researchers found, aren’t quite the same.

Everything said before doesn’t mean that you should make friends with your customers. They need to feel heard, that’s all.

It’s a misconception in the world of sales that storytelling is important in making potential clients like you. The researchers found that storytelling wasn’t as important in making a customer like a sales person as it was in showing customers that their needs and concerns were heard. “It may be that rather than buying things from people we like, as salespeople often presume, perhaps we like people we buy things from, which has very different implications for salespeople,” write Gilliam and Flaherty.

In surveying buyers, they found that to be effective, the story had to be clearly relevant to customers’ own individual concerns and needs. It doesn’t matter whether the stories being told to them had to do with specific products, other customer experiences, the company’s history, or a personal anecdote. If it didn’t relate to them specifically, they didn’t care to hear it.

The researchers also found that customers insisted business relationships, rather than personal relationships, were far more important to them when it came to the rapport they were establishing with a sales person. “This was contrary to the feelings of the sales participants and points out a potentially important area of disagreement between members of the buyer-seller exchange,” the researchers write.

“Salespeople should focus on fostering a deep appreciation of the value proposition by the buyer more so than just attempting to make a friend.”

The bottom line:

A good story can go further than any amount of data or facts you have to offer customers. “Life happens in the narratives we tell one another. A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts,” Monarth writes in Harvard Business Review. “Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.” So, tell your stories to the customers, understand them better and succeed in your business. And don’t forget to drop us a line in the comment section. Do you agree that storytelling is really that effective in your marketing campaigns and raising your conversion rates? Do you use this technique? If not, has our story persuaded you to add the tool of storytelling to your stock of tips, tricks and life hacks? Are you going to stop trying to sell features and start writing stories instead? We sincerely hope that your stories will be interesting and efficient and can’t wait to read them on the Internet.


Helga Moreno

Experienced writer passionate about highlighting all the topics related to web, design, marketing, SEO, and more. Follow Helga on Quora.

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