My Twitter followers know I enjoy sharing professional banter with Brad Phillips, better known as @MrMediaTraining. He advises enterprise and political clients on how to present themselves in a media context (and these days, doesn't everything have the potential to show up in a media context?).
Today he posted research on how audiences respond positively to storytelling. As Brad says in the first words of his article, this is not new advice. Most presentation consultants try to increase their clients' use of engaging stories rather than dry factual recitation.
But I'm going to offer a cautionary counterpoint. Many sales and marketing professionals misuse the storytelling concept. They present a product's features, benefits, and applicability by creating a fictional use case and walking their audience through a story about people who never existed. The story is inauthentic. Audiences pick up on that and instead of becoming engaged, they tune out.
I trace this back to the popularity of "persona-based marketing," which has been used for decades. The idea is for marketing groups to sit down (often with their sales counterparts) and identify representative types of people who would be interested in the offered product or service. Each persona is labeled in terms of job functions, needs, priorities, and demographics. Then pitches can be crafted that address the unique combination of arguments that are likely to persuade that type of person to buy.
That's all fine and well. Personas can indeed be a valuable tool in the planning and creative process. The trouble comes when the marketer or sales person changes the focus from generic personas to specific persons. They craft a story that starts like this:
"Imagine Jane is a data entry clerk at your company. She is 23 and relatively inexperienced. She mostly uses her iPhone 6 to send communications with coworkers. Doug is a manager in the Accounts Receivable department. He is 52 and has been with the firm for more years than Jane has been alive. He is much more comfortable with email and his desktop computer. Jane encounters a problem with her TPS Report and needs to send an urgent message to Doug…"
What's the problem? I'm telling a story! My audience should be engaged, right?
Wrong. You have just made several errors. You introduced too much data, most of which is unimportant. Your audience is trying to guess which things they are going to need to remember later. Is it going to turn out that Jane's age is important? The make and model of her smartphone? Do they need to remember Doug by name or by position? It's like a mystery writer who throws pages of red herrings at the reader so they won't be able to pick up on whodunnit until later.
You have also signaled to your prospects that the usefulness and benefits of your product are dependent on a fictional case that you have clearly fabricated for the purposes of selling them. "Imagine" is a strong keyword that says "this doesn't really apply to you, but pretend that it did."
The way to make storytelling work is to make it feel real. You as the storyteller should have a personal connection to the people and situations you are bringing up so that you can help to communicate empathy. There are several ways to accomplish this. Consider these approaches:
"One of the customer success stories I love talking about is located right here in your part of the country. When I initially came in, I saw young data entry clerks having problems communicating with their older bosses…"
"You have young people working right here in your company who are straight out of college. How are your older managers doing at communicating with them? I would be amazed if you didn't have a horror story or two to share. I hear them all the time…"
Now you are acting as a bridge between the example and the prospect. Your personal relationship with the story helps make it authentic. The storytelling achieves the desired impact and influence.
I'll be mentioning some of this in an online presentation I'm giving next week. Onstream Media has invited me to give tips for incorporating demos into your sales webinars. I immediately thought of persona-based storyline demos as a common problem. If you want to hear about some other frequent sales demo mistakes and how to fix them, register for the July 1 session.
And if you don't attend, that's okay too! Just promise me that you'll keep your storytelling personal and authentic.