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An Interview With Author Paul Smith: How to Sell With a Story

By: Teresa Weirich

July 12, 2018

We love having conversations with thought leaders, sales coaches, and prominent leaders who share similar (and sometimes wildly different) convictions to our own. Recently, we were able to talk with renowned author, Paul Smith, who has written several books on the power of storytelling in various contexts, from leadership to sales and even parenting. At Costello, we believe so much in the power of storytelling throughout the sales process, that Paul’s “Sell With a Story” book was mandatory reading for all of us—and we agree wholeheartedly with Paul’s recommendations.

Paul Smith, author of “Sell With a Story”

We loved his book so much, in fact, that we reached out to Paul to see if he would be interested in talking to us about storytelling during the sales process. Lucky for all of us, he agreed!

In this Q&A-style article, Paul candidly discusses several of the questions we had about how to effectively share stories throughout the sales process—and more importantly, how to tap into the emotion of the buyer on the other end.

What do you mean when you say “sell with a story”? Is it a methodology, a sales process, or something entirely different?

Paul explained that he doesn’t think of telling stories as a new process, and he certainly doesn’t consider it something to replace the methodology that sales organizations are using—whether that be SPIN Selling, Challenger Sale, or something entirely different. Rather, he believes that storytelling is a skill set that should be added to whatever a sales team is already doing. By itself, storytelling wouldn’t be a completely effective sales process as it doesn’t stand on its own. “I am suggesting that if you develop a good set of 25 stories that are crafted specifically to the correct points in the sales process, that your sales team will experience much more success,” Paul explained.

How do you think the storytelling mentality differs from what most sales reps do today? And how is it different from using empathy?

Many sales professionals are already using storytelling to some degree, usually in the rapport building and main sales pitch stages. What Paul found in his extensive research, however, is that most only use a small subset of stories (3-4 in most cases) rather than the 25 stories that Paul believes to be key. There is extensive opportunity to use stories across all parts of the sales process, including objection handling and even during the closing process.

He also found that even though a very small subset of sales professionals tell a LOT of stories, they could be doing a better job. For instance, a 7-minute story isn’t nearly as effective as a 2-3-minute story. Still others fail to use emotion in their stories or miss inserting the element of surprise.

Paul shared that emotion is critically important—in fact, it’s one of the defining characteristics of a story. “If I had to pick one emotion, empathy would be the one I would choose. Empathy is critical emotion to tap into and anytime you tell a story, it should generate empathy towards the main character.”

You’ve clearly spent a lot of time studying how storytelling affects people—what do you think the greatest effect is at it pertains to the sales process?

The impact that stories have on the decision-making process is just one of the reasons that storytelling works during the sales process. As Paul explained in a recent article, “Stories put the listener in a mental ‘learning mode’ versus a critical or evaluative mode where they’re more likely to reject what’s being said.”

According to training coach and best-selling author, Margaret Parkin, storytelling “…re-creates in us that emotional state of curiosity which is ever present in children, but which as adults we tend to lose. Once in this childlike state, we tend to be more receptive and interested in the information we are given.”

In short, stories speak to the conscious and subconscious parts of the brain—both of which influence as well as make decisions. “If you really want to impact decisions, then you need to speak to both parts of the brain,” explained Paul.

What elements does a good story (in the context of selling) include?

Of course, each one of the 25 stories that Paul recommends will consist of different content. However, every single story should have the same attributes, which he believes need to include these 4 elements:

  • A relatable main character
  • A relevant challenge
  • An honest struggle
  • A worthy lesson

Paul went on to describe that when telling a story about why you chose the profession you did, it will be a very personal story about led you to where you are today. However when telling a story about a problem or solution that a company solves, then it should involve customers. While the content of each story will always be different, each story should follow the structure above.

How should sales leaders think about adopting a culture of storytelling? How can they get started?

First and foremost, it’s up to sales leaders to drive the culture of storytelling within their organizations. According to Paul, a good step is to organize formal story capturing moments. For example, in each weekly staff meeting, expect someone to tell a story to the group that others can adopt into their own portfolio of stories. The stories shared can be anything from an objection response to a customer story to a story that effectively helped a prospective customer overcome the fear of purchasing. Paul also suggested soliciting stories on the company website, directly from customers, or through the use of mailers or digital communications, such as social media or email.

“The key is to make storytelling a habit so that everyone can build a solid repertoire of sales stories. If the sales leader finds it important and encourages his team to do it, it will happen,” said Paul.

What is the most shocking thing you’ve learned from your extensive research? In the same note, what surprises you when you meet with CEOs & VPs of Sales through your consulting?

When we asked this question of Paul, he immediately shared that he was surprised with a few of the types of stories that he documented during his research process. He also didn’t expect to end up with 25 different types of stories and was shocked when he discovered there was potential to tell a story at every single part of the sales process.

But the most surprising to Paul was story #22: coaching the break-up. “Before a new prospect can buy from you, often they have to fire their current supplier. That can be emotionally daunting. Stories about how other customers of yours have gracefully transitioned from an old supplier to you can help coach them how to do it without the angst,” Paul explained.

What advice do you have for sales leaders that want to adopt a storytelling mentality?

Finally, we asked Paul for some advice applicable to sales leaders that read Costello’s blog, and his response was spot on:

“First of all, set the right cultural tone by expecting all team members to share sales stories. Just remember that it’s critical to treat storytelling like any other business skillset that’s important for sales professionals to learn and develop. For example, topics like how to develop an effective presentation or business writing skills are typically taught during orientation. But for some reason, storytelling isn’t seen like that. Many believe you’re either born with it or you’re never going to have, which is why I went off to study storytelling in the first place.”

Paul went onto share that through his research, he’s concluded that telling stories is no different than learning how to paint or how to play the piano. Yes, some will be naturally gifted, but he bets if someone wanted to learn how to play the guitar, they could. How could they do that? They would take music or art lessons from someone. And that’s exactly what sales professionals need to do with storytelling. “As a sales leader, encourage your sales professionals to read a book, take a class, or watch a YouTube video. It all comes down to learning from someone who already ‘gets it’. Once they recognize that, they’ll be well on their way,” said Paul.

We hope you enjoyed this exclusive interview with Paul Smith, author of “Sell With a Story”. And if you haven’t read his book already, we highly recommend snagging a copy for yourself (or your entire sales team!)


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    Teresa Weirich

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