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Storytelling In Sales to Make Your Pitch Stick

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
13 min read

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Storytelling In Sales to Make Your Pitch Stick:

Full Transcript

In 1985, Ronald Regan mentioned the AIDS epidemic publicly first the first time. 5636 had died from AIDS in the US that year alone. Two years later, in 1987, he mentioned it again. Fast forward to November 1991, and AIDS would be elevated to a national conversation.

Magic Johnson was one of the most recognizable athletes in the world. He’d won five NBA championships, was a three times NBA Finals MVP, and a nine time NBA All Star. And now, he was on national television, announcing to the world that he had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Here he was, a symbol of health and masculinity, a well respected athlete, and a regarded leader, and he had HIV, making the announcement just six years after Regan first uttered the words HIV or AIDs.

As you know, this story has a happy ending. Magic is now 60 years old at the time I’m recording this. He joined the National Commission on AIDS that year, in 1991, a committee appointed by Congress and the Bush administration. Within four years of his announcement, AIDS related deaths began to decline quickly. Now, was that all because of Magic? No, of course not. But, his story was one of truth, and one of sacrifice, and one of vulnerability. His story brought attention to an issue that was already there, but needed a catalyst, and Magic was it.

In this episode of Modern Sales, I’ll be talking to you about the power of stories, how you can use them when you sell, and the key components that make up every winning client story.

Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast that’ll help you sell more by understanding how people buy. I’m your host, Liston Witherill, founder of Serve Don’t Sell, and I dig through academic research, interview people inside and outside of sales, and nerd out on psychology, economics, and neuroscience to figure out how people make decisions. I am on a mission to change the way 100 million people sell, so that buying B2B services can feel like an afternoon of sunshine, after a rainy April day. Wouldn’t that be nice?

If you’re listening on Spotify, hit that follow button so that you don’t miss an episode. And, if you’re listening on iTunes or Apple Podcasts, please subscribe and leave an honest review, as long as it’s five stars. It’s helps me get the word out for the show so we can, together, change the way 100 million people sell. Thank you in advance for your help. Now, to the show.

People love stories. We love to tell them, we love to hear them. One of the most precious moments you can spend with a child is to read them a story. In the Heath Brothers wonderful book, Made To Stick, they say stories provide two things, knowledge about how to act, and the motivation to act. That’s a pretty powerful thing that you can do for your clients, during the sales process. Tell the right story, and you’ll get a reaction.

More than that, you’ll make your clients’ brains light up, and produce more of an important chemical. How that works, and exactly what that chemical is, that’s coming up right after this short break.

Welcome back. Sometimes you and your clients really click. Everything you say lands well, they totally understand their own problems, how you can help them, and the value it would bring. But, not always. Other times, it just doesn’t work like that. It’s not about what you say, so much as what your clients hear and understand. Stories are simply a delivery method for your sales messages, and we’re used to hearing them. They’re easy to follow and understand. So, I implore you, deliver your sales pitch the way you sell, deliver it as a story, it’s going to make a big difference.

I’m going to get to the science in a second, but a quick note for you. Stories are emotional, and stories use common structures, which simply means they’re easy to remember. If you’re in a complicated sale, you absolutely have to find ways to simplify it, and if you tell stories, you’re going to help other people sell on your behalf, when you’re not around. You can’t be there for every part of the sales process, and stories will help other people sell for you. If you’d like to know more about sales presentations, go back to episode 122, and check out the dedicated episode on sales presentations.

Now, to the science of storytelling. Paul Zak is a neuroeconomist, I’ve never heard that title before, but it’s really cool, author, and frequent contributor at Harvard Business Review. He studies the power of narrative, and what it does to our brains. What he’s done is he’s isolated the presence of a particular chemical in the brain that leads to more trust, and therefore more cooperative behavior. That chemical is called oxytocin, and it’s synthesized by the brain when people are told character driven narratives. Oxytocin is associated with empathy. The key to elicit oxytocin production is the narrative arch.

Now, there’s lots of books about this. One of them that’s really simple, you can go read it or, God, if you only have two minutes, maybe go look up the Wikipedia page, but it’s called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, where he distills a theory about the meta plot which runs across every story, and his theory is this.

A hero is called to adventure. That hero has some success, and believes she’s invincible. The hero confronts an enemy, and finds out she’s not actually invincible. And then, it gets really bad, all hope is lost. This is the climax of the story. Eventually, the hero reaches resolution, overcoming her burdens.

Now, of course, this is not the only form of storytelling, but you can see this format in most popular entertainment. It’s basically a simplified version of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. If you’re familiar with this idea of the mono myth, it’s kind of a simplified version of that. But, if you want to go even simpler, I recommend you turn to one of my podcasting heroes, Ira Glass, host and creator of This American Life. His definition of story is that it can simply be an anecdote, a series of events naturally unfolding, one after another.

The most famous and over told, and most absolutely ridiculous myth in business is one you’ve heard over and over again. A young boy, often a young white man, drops out of college, comes up with a fantastic idea, starts to code software. Soon enough, this idea, on its own merits, becomes so successful that it takes over the world, it gets the attention of the entire world. And soon enough, that person, because of his genius, ends up to be one of the richest people in the world. Now, you’ve heard this told, of course, about Mark Zuckerberg, and basically every other young founder who may or may not also be a sociopath. But you get it, right? That story’s been told over, and over, and over again, and we know it. The reason you keep hearing it told over and over again is because we understand that story.

So, I implore you to learn the basics of storytelling, because all of the things that we want to communicate, they become stickier. Think about the sales story you’ll tell your clients as a kind of future case study, where they’re the hero, and in the future, something great happens to them, they reach the resolution of the story. So, going back to the narrative structure, your client is the hero, they’re called to adventure, she’s had some success, and she feels invincible. An enemy rises up, and it’s clear, no, not invincible, then all is lost. It gets even worse. But then, a guide comes along, that’s you, and helps the hero find her inner strength, and shows her the path to reclaiming her power. The story resolves, the hero gets what she’s wanted, and we can move on to the next adventure.

Now, there are three things that you need in place in order for this to work. Number one, you have to know what’s getting in your client’s way right now. What is blocking them? I call that the pain. Number two, you have to know what their ideal future looks like. I call that their goals. And number three, you have to know how you can enable their path to achieve it. How do you connect your solution to guide them to their goal? A big assumption that’s worth acknowledging here, you really need to intimately understand your client for any of this to work.

Let’s look at an example of a product that I really love and actually use, it’s called Air Table. By the way, if you don’t use Air Table, you should definitely check it out. I’ve included my referral code in the show notes, and it’ll give me a $10 credit if you sign up to the link, I would appreciate it. Basically, all it is, here’s what you need to know, it’s a solution that looks like a spreadsheet, but really, it’s a way to build your own databases, and extend functionality to do things like tracking anything you would want to track in a database, project management, hiring, employee Intranet. I use it for this podcast. I also use it to track all assignments to people in my business, it’s amazing.

I’m going to tell you a quick story, all about Air Table, but it’s targeted at a particular type of client. This is really important, because we need details in our stories. So, I’m going to tell you this story, using the structure I laid out. Here’s the Air Table story.

You are in growth mode. You have to hire, and you have to hire fast. You’ve brought on some amazing people, and your team is kicking butt. But, all of a sudden, you have to hire twice as many people the his year as last, your systems are breaking down, you’re losing out on some of your best candidates, and you brought on a team member who was so bad, that five other people left your company before you could fire them. With Air Table, you can build your very own hiring process, collect applications, and manage the whole thing with your team, with as much or as little detail as you want, it’s up to you. Your software shouldn’t dictate your hiring process, and with Air Table it won’t. In just a few hours, you can get up and running, and make sure you’re focused on the absolute most important part of hiring, bringing on amazing team members to help you grow.

Okay, that’s the classic hero’s journey. I’m going to deconstruct it now, break it into parts, to show you how you could use this in your own sales presentations. So, it starts out, someone’s called to adventure, right? They’re hiring, and the company’s in growth mode. Then, they feel invincible, they’ve already brought on some great people, and the company’s growing. But, an enemy rises up, systems start breaking down. Suddenly, all is lost, a costly hire causes them to lose other people, which is devastating. Enter the guide, Air Table to the rescue. Resolution, you’ll focus on the people, not the tech. Resolution, you’ll bring on amazing team members to help you grow.

Now, you can do this in any client situation. I use this exact same template in my presentations. I tend to tell the story much longer than this, because after all, it’s not a direct response ad, in the style that I just wrote that. But, it is worth noting that no matter how complicated, or how simple your sale, you could definitely do this. Even if you fashion yourself someone who’s extremely technical, selling very complex and very expensive things, I would absolutely urge you to still tell stories.

Now, you may feel like, well, wait a minute. What I sell, that’s not how people buy. I would say, prove it. Can you prove that that’s true? Because my guess is, no you can’t. What you could prove is that your company has done it a certain way for a long time, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way.

Here’s the bottom line. We know that things become stickier when they’re turned into stories. I also know you’re selling to human beings, which almost certainly means telling stories will help you and your clients understand what it is that you’re offering, what it is that you can do for them, and how they can become the hero of their own story.

Now, a dear friend of mine writes a lot about sales presentations, and storytelling in sales, and he once told me he thinks that you, dear seller, should be the hero of the story, to which I say, no, please don’t do that. The reason I say that is because we want our clients to feel like they’re the ones overcoming their problems, and we’re only there to guide them, to be helpful. We need to be the guide that they need, we need to be Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid, we need to be Yoda in Star Wars, we need to be that guide that will show them the way, but ultimately it’s up to them to do the work, and to own the success once it happens. That’s what I want to give to my clients.

So, it is an important distinction, we want to make sure that our clients are at the center of the story, which means we’re going to be telling our stories in such a way that it’s client centric. We’re putting them in the center of the story. Their problems, their goals, the value that they’re after, how our solution can show them the path to the promised land that they want to reach. That puts you as the guide, and your client as the hero.

Here are three things you’re going to need to do in order to make this work. Number one, you have to have a solid discovery. Now, I find that discovery can mean lots of different things to lots of different organizations. Some people use discovery as a replacement for qualification, so let me just take a second to get rid of the word discovery, and tell you what I mean.

You’ve already determined that your client is a fit, you’ve already determined that you’re willing to spend a good amount of time with this client. And now, what we need to understand is our client’s true motivation to do something, to make a change away from the status quo. What I call discovery is the time when I’m learning my client’s pain, goals, and value. What’s so painful that they’re thinking about making a change, because change is hard, my friend? What do that want things to look like once they make the change, what is their goal? What state do they want to be in? And, what business value does it have, for them to actually get there?

Number one, I want to figure out what’s getting in my client’s way right now. This is the pain that your client is in. We’re going to be asking questions like, what is your problem right now? Why did you come to me? What happened that changed? What problems are you experiencing, what’s causing those problems, what have you done to try to fix it? Which is code for, tell me all the things that you tried and failed, before you called me? Or, at least were inadequate, before you called me. We need to nail down what is getting in our clients way right now, what is that obstacle that’s preventing them from reaching the promised land.

Which brings us to point number two, what their ideal future looks like, this is our client’s goal. What is that big goal? Usually, it’s just the opposite of the pain. So, in the Air Table example I told you, if the pain is damn, this system is falling apart. Because of that, I’ve actually hired the wrong person, five people quit before I had the chance to fire this person. Well, okay, so our pain is the system’s falling apart, we’re hiring the wrong people, and it’s costing us some of our best employees. The opposite of that is the goal, which is I have a system that runs perfectly all the time, and is totally scalable, and ensures that I only let in the best people so that they actually stick around to help us grow this thing.

Sometimes, what you’ll find is clients come to you with just the goal in mind, so we’re going to need to work backwards to the pain. I talk about this in my sales training all the time, and if you want you can go back and listen to this episodes. But, if a client comes to me with their goal, for me that might be, “I want to be better at sales, I want to sell with more confidence, I want a system that I can document and teach other people.” Whatever it is, that’s the result they’re after. For me to tell a compelling sales story, I need to work backwards from that goal and say, “So, why can’t you do that right now? What’s getting in your way, what’s preventing you from making that happen? What kind of pain is it causing you to not have that in place?”

Number one thing you need to do, figure out what’s getting in your client’s way right now, and the second thing you need to do is figure out what their ideal future looks like. The third thing you need to do is be able to easily define how you can enable their path to achieve their goal, how you can bridge the gap from where they are today to where they want to be. Again, you’re not the hero of this story, but you are a guide, you’re the person who’s going to show them how to get there. Remember how I mentioned Ira Glass’ definition of a story? One thing happens after the next, it all just falls into place. That’s how your client’s story should go, where they are now, where they want to go, how they’ll get there, and including your role in it. What solution do you provide that’s going to enable them to get to the place where they want to go?

It’s the pain they’re escaping, the goals they’re after, and the path to get there. That’s it. You can make it way more complicated than that, but ultimately, every sales story should be told in those three very simple sentences. Of course, the more complicated the thing is that you’re selling, the more people who are involved, the more it costs, the more you’re going to have to add to the story. But basically, it boils down to that. Pain they’re escaping, goals they’re after, path to get there, that’s what we want to tell our clients in every story. That’s it.

Here are the key takeaways. Start telling stories during your sales process, especially when you present your solution. It elicits empathy and stronger emotional buy-in, and your stories are going to be easier to remember and repeat. All you need is a series of actions to tell a story, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated. It starts with a call to adventure, then an obstacle gets in the hero’s way, all is lost, a guide shows them the way, and they reach their goal. Keep in mind, when you’re selling, you’re the guide not the hero.

That’s it for this episode of Modern Sales. If you’re aren’t already subscribed to this podcast, please do so by clicking the subscribe or follow button. You can always get notified of all podcast episodes, by visiting Thanks to everyone who makes this podcast possible. Juan Perez is our editor, Mary Ann Nocum is our show assistant, our theme and ad music is produced by me, Liston Witherill. And show music is by Logan Nicholson at Music For Makers, as well as Epidemic Sound. Thanks so much for listening, I’m Liston Witherill of, and I hope you have a fantastic day.

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