The Campfire

The Selling Power of Stories

Stories have been our chief means of communication for millennia, thus it’s not surprising youngsters adore a fairy tale just as much as adults appreciate an amusing anecdote. When you come across those highly gifted in storytelling, you’re quickly and truly hooked.

The silver-tongued few hold our attention with ease, an immensely lucrative skill when you’ve got product to shift. It’s not just largescale marketing campaigns, either. Individuals can soon learn profitable storytelling tactics.

Given a well-crafted tale, people are persuaded to invest in practically anything you have to offer. This selling power of stories lies at psychological bedrock, deep within our neural networks, so learning how to harness it can lead to very favourable outcomes.

The Science of Buying

To the dismay of marketing execs everywhere, people don’t just buy anything they see. There are clear buying phases, from the realization that you need something right up to the selection process between competing products.

Each of these stages is subject to the person’s circumstances, for instance someone who doesn’t own a car won’t be easily convinced to compare motor insurance deals on your website. However, psychological variance is just as important, where the way in which you present information has a huge bearing on how an audience responds.

The science of storytelling tells us that we react to even the smallest of stimulus. One 2009 study, conducting by the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, found that the motor cortex was activated simply when participants read sentences such as “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball”. In fact, just reading the word “cinnamon” engages your olfactory brain regions, as proven by earlier research.

What this all means is that you have to be rather considerate of exactly what you say, and how you present it. As the Heath brothers explain, in their hit publication Made to Stick, “After a presentation, 63% of attendees remember stories [while] only 5% remember statistics.

This is because storytelling is intrinsically mentalistic (LINK: Article 2), which is to say that we care more about the motivations, beliefs and feelings of characters rather than the barebones plot they operate through. Consequently, you can enhance your sales by depending on relatable, dynamic protagonists, as opposed to creating exaggerated (and usually illogical) caricatures that interact with products in ways actual people never would.

How Stories inform Consumer Habits

A lot can be learned about the selling power of stories if one looks at modern practices of product placement, especially when it comes to film.

In a 2007 experiment, participants were tasked with evaluating a donut brand, which involved watching a 90 second movie clip, in which the product had been placed. Crucially, the groups were shown different scenes; one was considered by judges (advertising professionals) as ‘humorous’ whilst the other wasn’t.

The study found that “peoples who are exposed to humorous movies scenes are likely to have a favourable attitude towards the brand… [and that] prominent appearance of a product brought better consumer recall as compared to television commercials and more-subtle appearances of the product.”
This phenomenon is exactly what was seen after the release of the 1986 film Top Gun, in which actor Tom Cruise flaunted a pair of Ray-Bans, specifically the 3025 Aviator Classic. In just a few weeks after release, sales of those flashy specs increased by over 40%.

In more recent times, the beer company Heineken had a 3.7% volume increase across Western Europe after suave spy James Bond was seen ordering a pint on screen in the 2012 blockbuster Skyfall. In fact, whiskey producer Macallan paid big just to appear on Bond’s living room table.

Connecting Products to Stories

By sheer association, beer can be as cool as the agent sipping it, while sunglasses are as exciting as the fighter pilot wearing them. Regardless of the product in question, however, this sales technique allows companies to effectively hijack the existing stories in which the products are placed.

Marketers can have a more impactful impression on their audience simply by exploiting the emotional response you have towards stories. In this sense, their product is an accent to the narrative you’ve invested in and the conclusions you’ve drawn of it. Instead of drafting out their own storyboards, these brands simply find stories that exemplify their values and/or identity.

It’s precisely why Marvel’s Iron Man drives Audi, as if to say it’s faster and more convenient that soaring through the sky in a rocket suit. It’s why Sherlock Holmes uses an Apple cellphone in the most recent series of the TV adaption, implying the device is powerful enough to keep up with his superhuman mind.

How to tell Stories that Sell

Aside from jamming your product into hugely successful movie franchises, there are many ways of using the underlying principles of storytelling to sell. When it comes to delivering your message, people appreciate simplicity and honesty.

Cultivating empathy is crucial for stories, thus sales. Neuroscientists have long observed that, as far as our brains are concerned, there’s little distinction between listening to stories and actually experiencing them. This is particularly apparent when we consider metaphorical language.

Emory University research studied such, finding that textural phrases like “velvet voice” and “leathery hands” aroused the sensory cortex, whereas the similar phrases of “pleasing voice” and “strong hands” didn’t. The implication is that our brains respond to stories as if we are living them.

For this reason, personal stories have profound effects on an audience. These types of narrative basically offer listeners access to your psychological roadmap, which allows them to trust you, after which they are happy to walk along the presented buying journey.

By presenting a problem that you personally faced, and how your product rectified that situation, you are portraying genuine emotion. This is going to be vastly more effective than just saying “You can use x to help you with y.”

Further personal touches, including humorous digressions, dramatic pauses, and even emotive fluctuations in tone, increase audience empathy too. A personal account is fundamentally more engaging, as they tend to produce oxytocin, the trust hormone, resulting in a far stronger connection between speaker and crowd.

Driving Sales through Storytelling

Finally, here are some essential tips to take on board for driving more sales in presentations and pitches, and practically anywhere else:

Get to the point: Stories are captivating until they aren’t, which is to say that irrelevant details and needlessly confusing plots will destroy any tale you tell. It’s paramount to only include that which directly relates to your audience’s needs, along with the appropriate emotive devices for establishing a connection.

Be sensorial: As previously mentioned, sensory words and phrases stimulate the associated brain areas. Therefore, including rich language is a sure-fire way of transporting your listener to the narrative world you’ve built. Don’t be afraid to describe things in a sensorial manner, including lots of visual imagery, as it is empirically more stimulating for an audience.

Make them laugh: humour releases dopamine and oxytocin, the feel-good hormones. Thus it follows that making your listeners laugh should be at the top of your agenda. However, there’s a huge difference between telling a story humorously and littering your narrative with jarring jokes. The old mantra “It’s funny because it’s true” is all you’ll need to inject a little laughter into your speeches.

Don’t over-embellish: if you’re selling something, it’s obviously important to let people know the purpose that product or service fills, in essence how it can help them. Though, you shouldn’t exaggerate to a point of deception – be humanly enthusiastic, not robotically insistent.

When a friend tells you they’re reading a good book, your first question isn’t typically about the number of pages, the thickness of the paper, or the specific font used. No, it’s almost always the same three words, “What’s it about?”

To an extent, the selling power of stories also rests upon those three words. Specifications and features are pretty ineffective at connecting with people, thus it’s the job of storytelling to elevate those material products and intangible services beyond what’s possible through mere facts and figures.

After all, the human mind evolved to feel, which hasn’t changed at all through the ages. Marketers that understand this fact are able to reach that psychological bedrock, to dig down to our neurology, to wield the selling powering of storytelling.

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