Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale

Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale

by Paul Smith

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Despite all the high-tech tools available to salespeople today, the most personal method still works best. Through storytelling, a salesperson can explain products or services in ways that resonate, connect people to the mission, and speak to the part of the brain where decisions are made. The well-crafted story can pack the emotional punch to turn routine presentations into productive relationships.In Sell with a Story, author Paul Smith, one of the world's leading experts in organizational storytelling, focuses his wildly popular and proven formula to the sales arena. He identifies the ingredients of the most effective sales stories and reveals how to:• Select the right story• Craft a compelling and memorable narrative• Incorporate challenge, conflict, and resolution• And moreLearning from model stories, skill-building exercises, and enlightening examples from Microsoft, Costco, Xerox, Abercrombie&Fitch, Hewlett-Packard, and other top companies, readers will soon be able to turn their personal experiences into stories that introduce yourself, build rapport, address objections, add value to the product, bring data to life, create a sense of urgency . . . and most importantly, sell!“If you're serious about increasing your effectiveness as a communicator and looking to transform your sales results, Sell with a Story is for you. This book empowered and energized me, and I know it will do the same for you.” --Mike Weinberg, consultant, speaker, and author

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814437124
Publisher: AMACOM
Publication date: 09/08/2016
Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 165,557
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

PAUL SMITH is a dedicated father of two and an expert trainer in leadership and storytelling techniques. As the author of the popular Lead with a Story, he has seen his work featured in The Wall Street Journal, Time, Forbes, The Washington Post, Success, and Investor's Business Daily, among others.

Read an Excerpt

Sell with a Story

How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale

By Paul Smith


Copyright © 2017 Paul Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8144-3712-4



It's 9 o'clock on Monday morning, three days before a big sales call with a new prospect. The entire team is assembled in a conference room ready to start planning the sales pitch. At 9:02, the sales VP walks in the room and calls the meeting to order with a clap of her hands. She remains standing, puts her hands down on the conference table, leans out over the surface, and says, "Okay, people, what's our story?"

Do you think she's asking for an actual story in the traditional sense? Almost certainly not. She's probably asking for the logical series of facts and arguments and data the team should lay out for the prospect, probably in a PowerPoint presentation, that will have the greatest odds of leading to a sale. That would certainly be a reasonable request. But it's not something anyone would have called a story 10 years ago. It would have been called a message track, or talking points, or presentation slides, or simply a sales pitch.

In the business world, it's become popular in many circles to consider just about any meaningful series of words a story. Our strategy document is a story ... the mission statement is a story ... our co-marketing programs are stories ... our brand logo is a story ... and so on.

If using the word story for all those purposes helps people find or create more meaning in their work, then that's obviously a good thing. But for the purposes of this book, these are not stories. Not every set of words that has meaning is a story, just like not all collections of words constitute poetry. A story is something special.

So, how can you distinguish a story from other narratives that are not stories? We need some practical tips to recognize a story.

The most sensible attempt I've seen to do this is by business storytelling consultant Shawn Callahan. He even created a 10-story quiz at to help people practice identifying general business stories from nonstories. I encourage you to try the quiz yourself.


Inspired by Callahan's work, here are my top attributes that distinguish a story from all other forms of narrative. Stories, as I will discuss them in this book, typically have the following six identifiable features, listed in the order you're likely to encounter them in a narrative: (1) a time, (2) a place, (3) a main character, (4) an obstacle, (5) a goal, and (6) events. When you find these features in a narrative, it's a good indication that what you're experiencing is a story. It might not be a good story, but it's a story. We'll get to what makes stories good or even great later in the book. But for now, let's just figure out how to recognize a story when we come across one. Stories generally have:

1.A time indicator. Words like "Back in 2012" or "Last month" or "The last time I was on vacation" are all indications of when something happened. And since in a story something has to happen, these time indicators are a clue that something is about to happen.

2.A place indicator. A story sometimes starts with words like "I was at the airport in Boston" or "It all started in the cafeteria at our office" or "On my way home." Again, since stories relay events, those events have to happen somewhere. Try telling a story about something specific that happened to you without mentioning where it happened. It's not impossible, but it feels awkward, which is why most stories have a place indicator.

3.A main character. This should be obvious, but as discussed above, much of what passes for "a story" these days are things like mission statements or talking points that have no characters at all. For a narrative to be a story, there has to be at least one character, and usually more. In the context of sales stories, the character is almost always a person, but it could be an animal, a company, or even a brand.

4.An obstacle. This is the villain in the story. It's usually a person, but it doesn't have to be. It could be a company that's your main competitor, the disease you're designing medicine to combat, or the faulty copy machine you finally got your revenge on.

5.A goal. The main character in a story must have an understood goal, particularly one that's worthy or noble in the eyes of the audience. Don't confuse your goal in telling a sales story with the goal of the main character in the story. Your goal in telling the story may be to close the sale. But the goal of the pigs in the Pig Island story, for example, was to find food to survive. It's hard to get much more worthy than that.

6.Events. If there was a single most important identifier that a story is happening, this would be it. For a story to be a story, something has to happen. Statements about your product's amazing capabilities or your service commitment, or testimonials about how awesome your company is, are generally not stories because they don't relay events. Nothing happens in them. They're just someone's opinion about something. If nothing happens, it's not a story. Those kinds of narratives can be very compelling and effective and are an essential part of any salesperson's tool kit. They just aren't stories.


Let's give these criteria a test drive and see how they work. Similar to Shawn Callahan's story test, below are four narratives that may or may not be rightly called a story, but specifically in a sales context. Your job is to decide which are and which are not stories, and why. We'll score your answers after the narratives.

Narrative #1: Are your teeth stained or yellow? Are you embarrassed to smile at parties or in pictures or videos, especially next to your friends with movie-star smiles? Have you tried teeth whitening systems but given up after a few days because they made your teeth too sensitive? If so, Ultra-White is right for you. It's the revolutionary new teeth whitening system designed by Hollywood dentists to give you star-quality whiteness without all the pain and discomfort. Ultra-White involves a two-step process that alternates applications between a high-impact whitening paste and a desensitization gel. The result is sparkling white teeth without any discomfort that would keep you from showing off your new Hollywood smile.

Narrative #2: A couple of years ago, Dave Neild, the network service leader at the University of Leeds in the UK, realized he had a problem. He was getting cease and desist orders and copyright violation notices from all over the world as a result of students using file-sharing services like BitTorrent. In addition, many of the students were showing up in his office with computers infected by viruses. It took his staff up to an hour to clean up each one. Dave agreed to do a test with Hewlett-Packard's TippingPoint network security device to see if that could help. When the test was over, he told us, "As soon as we installed Tipping- Point, we instantly stopped receiving copyright notices. That protected our students from getting threatened by lawyers, and it protected the reputation of the university." The university also got about 30 percent of its lost bandwidth back from the reduction in file sharing.

Narrative #3: You should be using your shoppers' planned purchases of toothpaste to sell more toothbrushes. Currently, shoppers buy toothbrushes only about every six months, despite the fact that dentists suggest replacing a toothbrush every three months. But your shoppers are already in your Oral Care aisle every two months to buy toothpaste. If you co-merchandised toothbrushes with toothpastes, you could close more of your shoppers with toothbrushes. And toothbrushes help sweeten the profits for you as a retailer. The average toothpaste category profit margin is only X percent, but the profit margin on toothbrushes is usually double that. And your own sales data show a dramatic increase in toothbrush sales when merchandised with toothpaste. Our February co-merchandising event delivered a 22 percent sales increase on toothbrushes over three weeks. That was $YY million in incremental sales. This was by far the best toothbrush sales month of the year. Even bigger than Christmas!

Narrative #4: I had just spent way too much money on my new road bike, which was white with bright orange highlights all over it. I unloaded it off my truck last week and was standing at the elevator doors of my loft. As the doors opened, I saw a girl from my building already standing inside. I'd been wanting to meet her for some time. She gave a friendly smile as I entered. I see this girl all the time and she runs and bikes constantly, so I knew she was going to comment on the new bike. I was just waiting for her to speak up. She kept looking my direction, clearly about to say something. When she finally opened her mouth, she said, "Is that a wood watch?" I had totally forgotten I was wearing my Sully Green Sandalwood watch from Jord that day. "It's really cool," she said. At that moment, the elevator stopped on her floor and she got out. Didn't even notice the bike. Might as well have been invisible. That watch gets so many comments, it's crazy. Thanks, Jord!

Okay, let's see how you did.

First off, admittedly none of these are earth-shatteringly great stories. But some of them are stories, and some of them are not.

Narrative #1 (Ultra-White): Not a story — Let's walk through all six criteria. There is no time and no place mentioned. There's also not a clear main character, although "you" is mentioned several times. There does appear to be a main obstacle (yellow teeth and the discomfort of most teeth whitening systems). And there is clearly a goal (whiter teeth). Finally, and most tellingly, there aren't any events that occur in the narrative. Nothing happens. Net, this narrative contains only two or three of the six criteria. It might make for a good advertisement. But it's not a story.

Narrative #2 (TippingPoint): Story — There is a time (two years ago), a place (University of Leeds), a main character (Dave Neild), an obstacle (cease and desist orders), a goal (stopping the orders), and events (students sharing files and the university running the TippingPoint test). This has all the indicators of a story.

Narrative #3 (Oral Care): Not a story — This one is tricky. It's exactly the kind of narrative professional salespeople use all the time, and they might easily refer to it as a story. But let's look at the criteria. There are time references to February and Christmas, but most of the text doesn't involve those times. There is no place mentioned. It's confusing who the main character is. Sometimes it appears to be "you," and sometimes it appears to be the shopper. It goes back and forth. The obstacle appears to be the current merchandising practices, and the goal is clearly to sell more toothbrushes. But the events are a hodgepodge of things the shopper does, things the buyer did, and things the buyer and seller did together. This one meets two of the six criteria well, and it's muddled at best on the other four. This narrative is best described as a persuasive sales pitch, and it's a pretty good one at that. But it's really not a story.

Narrative #4 (wood watches): Story — This is perhaps the easiest narrative to identify as a story. It's a narrative about something that happened to somebody. Even a 10-year-old would recognize this as a story. It has a time (last week), a place (the elevator in the loft), a main character (the unnamed author), an obstacle (difficulty meeting the woman in the elevator), a goal (to finally meet the woman in the elevator), and events (all the activity and conversation on the elevator).

So, now we know what a story is and how to recognize it. That was the hard part. Now for the easy part. What's a sales story?

A sales story is any story that's used in the process of earning a sale and maintaining a customer. That's it. As you'll see in Part I, stories can be used in any phase of the sales process, from stories you tell yourself prior to the sales call, to building rapport with the buyer, to the sales pitch itself, to negotiating price, to closing the sale, and even after the sale to manage the customer relationship. For our purposes in this book, all of these are sales stories. You'll see examples of and learn how to develop all of them.



Compared to other forms of communication used in sales, storytelling has a number of unique abilities. It can help capture your buyer's attention and build your mutual relationship. It connects with the decision-making areas in your buyer's brain and makes you and your product easier to remember. It can literally increase the value of your product or highlight your main idea by moving it to another context. Stories are contagious and spread by word of mouth. They let you be more original and stand out from your competition. And unlike a presentation, your buyers actually want you to tell them stories. Last, compared to clicking through the slides of a sales pitch, telling stories is just more fun — for you and your buyer.

This chapter briefly discusses the 10 compelling reasons why storytelling is a master sales tool. If you want to go deeper into the academic research and science behind why storytelling works, see the list of books in the Additional Reading section at the end of the book.

* * *


It's similar to the response college students have when the professor stops writing formulas on the board and starts sharing a personal anecdote or analogy. The students relax their shoulders for a minute, stop taking notes, lean back in their chairs, and just listen.

In his book The 60-Second Sales Hook, sales expert Kevin Rogers observes of most buyers, "One glance that a sales pitch is being slung your way, and your 'mental door' slams shut." Storytelling works well precisely because it doesn't sound like a sales pitch to a buyer, just like a story doesn't sound like a lecture to a student. So in both cases, the buyer and the student open up their minds and just listen.


Storytelling almost magically builds trust, which is the foundation of good relationships. A 1999 New York Times/CBS survey asked, "Of people in general, how many do you think are trustworthy?" The average answer was 30 percent. Then it asked, "Of people you know, how many do you think are trustworthy?" The average answer shot up to 70 percent! What does that suggest? It suggests that people who don't know you default to not trusting you. But people who do know you default to trusting you unless you've given them a reason not to.

Telling a story can move you from the 30 percent to the 70 percent, because it provides a personal, intimate, and perhaps vulnerable glimpse into your world. Reading the facts on your resume doesn't really let someone get to know you, and spending enough time together could take months or years. A story is the shortest distance between being a stranger and a friend.

How important is it to move from the 30 percent to the 70 percent? Apparently quite a bit. Mike Parrott, vice president and general merchandise manager at Costco Wholesale, has been on the buyer's side of the desk for 15 years. He says, "If all other things are equal, buyers will buy from a salesperson they like best and trust the most. It breaks the ties. And there are a lot of ties in this business."

Telling stories is also the most reliable way to get the buyer to open up and tell you their stories. After hearing someone tell you one of those genuine, personal stories, it's almost impossible to not share a story in return. It's like extending your hand for a handshake. It would be rude to not respond in kind.


Much of the cognitive science in the past two decades tells us that human beings often make subconscious, emotional, and sometimes irrational decisions in one place in the brain, and then justify those decisions rationally and logically in another place. So if you're trying to influence buyers' decisions, using facts and rational arguments alone isn't enough. You need to influence them emotionally, and stories are your best vehicle to do that.

Veteran salespeople know this from experience. Rick Rhine is the owner of Tailwind Marketing, an Arizona-based company that sells telecommunication services door-to-door. He says, "The least effective moment in those doorstep conversations is when my sales rep is the most factual — when they stop talking about the experience and start talking numbers. When we say, 'I'm gonna get you 20-meg Internet service for $29.95 a month and I can have a tech out here in two days to hook that up, how does that sound?' the customer doesn't care and you can see it in their eyes."


Excerpted from Sell with a Story by Paul Smith. Copyright © 2017 Paul Smith. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Mike Weinberg, ix,
Acknowledgments, xi,
CHAPTER 1: What Is a Sales Story?, 7,
CHAPTER 2: Why Tell Sales Stories?, 15,
PART I What Sales Stories You Need and When to Tell Them, 25,
CHAPTER 3: Introducing Yourself, 29,
CHAPTER 4: Stories You Tell Yourself, 35,
CHAPTER 5: Getting Buyers to Tell Their Story, 41,
CHAPTER 6: Building Rapport, 49,
CHAPTER 7: The Main Sales Pitch, 65,
CHAPTER 8: Handling Objections, 77,
CHAPTER 9: Closing the Sale, 87,
CHAPTER 10: Storytelling After the Sale, 95,
PART II How to Craft Sales Stories, 103,
CHAPTER 11: Elements of a Great Story, 107,
CHAPTER 12: Choosing the Right Story to Tell, 115,
CHAPTER 13: Story Structure, 121,
CHAPTER 14: The Hook (Transition In), 127,
CHAPTER 15: Context, 133,
CHAPTER 16: Challenge, Conflict, Resolution, 141,
CHAPTER 17: Lesson and Action (Transition Out), 147,
CHAPTER 18: Emotion, 161,
CHAPTER 19: Surprise, 177,
CHAPTER 20: Dialogue, Details, and Length, 187,
CHAPTER 21: Delivery, 209,
CHAPTER 22: Telling Stories with Data, 219,
CHAPTER 23: Stretching the Truth, 225,
CHAPTER 24: Finding Great Stories, 233,
CHAPTER 25: Practicing and Saving Your Stories, 243,
CHAPTER 26: Getting Started, 253,
Appendix A: 25 Stories Salespeople Need, 255,
Appendix B: Selling Story Roadmap, 257,
Appendix C: Story Structure Template, 265,
Appendix D: List of Sales Stories, 267,
Additional Reading, 269,
Endnotes, 273,
Index, 281,
Free Sample from Lead with a Story by Paul Smith, 292,
About AMACOM, 300,

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