7 Secrets for Telling a Great Sales Story

By Julie M. Hansen

Prospects are used to being told things in a sales presentation. Stories are an effective way to shake things up and show your prospects, rather than tell them. A relevant, well-told story can gain your prospect’s attention, soften her position, drive home a key message, and differentiate you and your solution.

On the other hand, a poorly crafted or executed story can cost you credibility, attention, and ultimately the sale. With so much at stake, you want to make sure that your story delivers on all counts. Here are seven tips for crafting and delivering a successful story in your sales presentation.

  • Add conflict. Too many stories fail to hook the listener because nothing real is at stake. Drama needs conflict in order for your prospect to care what happens. Give your story the “So what?” test. If it doesn’t pass, you need to escalate the dramatic tension. At each turning point in your story, ask yourself, “And then what would happen?” Just like in your presentation, the tension should be at a peak before you reveal the ending.

  • Connect the dots. Much of a story’s power comes from the fact that it lets your prospect come to a conclusion on her own. Too much backstory or an attempt to explain every little plot twist quickly loses a prospect’s attention. People like to be drawn in and not have everything spelled out for them. Provide only enough context to frame your story and trust that your prospect is smart enough to connect the dots.

  • Use descriptive terms. Allow your listener to experience the story in a three-dimensional way by using words that engage her through multiple senses. Think in terms of drawing word pictures, but be careful not to go adjective crazy.

  • Highlight specific details. Bring your story to life by emphasizing a few key details. Pick and choose only those descriptions that help provide context and advance your story. Irrelevant or too many details can confuse your listener. Be specific and quantify when you can. For example, “85” rather than “a lot” or “three” instead of “some.”

  • Keep it short. Busy prospects don’t have time or patience for a long-winded tale. Two minutes is about the max you can expect to hold their attention. If you’ve followed the previous suggestions, fleshed out a few key details, and eliminated all unnecessary prologue, your story should be fairly concise. If it’s not, consider whether you’re trying to get too much across and take the time to edit your story to the essence of what you want to say.

  • Hold the last beat. When a film actress delivers a powerful line, the camera usually lingers on her for a few seconds in silence while the actress remains motionless. This is called holding the last beat. This slight pause and hold of the actress’s expression and body allows the impact of what she’s just said to sink in with the audience. Apply that concept to your story and avoid rushing on to the next item on your agenda. Hold that last beat for a count of one . . . two . . .three . . . before moving on.

  • Rehearse. A story is only as good as the storyteller. It takes practice to refine a story and tell it in an engaging and succinct manner — even if you’re familiar with it. After you get the storyline down, allow yourself plenty of time to practice. Keep these tips in mind when you rehearse:

    • Practice it out loud. Often what sounds good in your head doesn’t work as well when you verbalize it. There’s no substitute for practicing your story out loud.

    • Set the stage. You want to position yourself in the same way that you plan to deliver your presentation so that you can explore gestures and movements before you’re in front of your prospect.

    • Time yourself. Be rigorous and keep it under two minutes, cutting where necessary.

    • Record yourself. Listen to see if you missed any important plot points or if you added some that you want to be sure and include. Look for body language and movement that supports your story or detracts from it.

    • Test it. After you think you’re performance ready, test your story in front of a live audience — a roommate, a spouse, a co-worker — and ask for honest feedback on these points.