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Leveraging the science of storytelling

Beverley Glick

As a sales director in the real estate industry, Gavin (not his real name) was a nervous presenter who felt uneasy spouting what he thought of as ‘flashy’ sales speak. However, after working with Ginger to develop his leadership communications style, he grew in confidence and discovered a way of selling that was authentic to him.

Shortly after finishing his training, he went into a high-stakes pitch meeting with just a pen, a whiteboard and a couple of great stories. And guess what? He won a multi-million-pound contract that “by rights” he shouldn’t have landed (his words). All of Gavin’s competitors used expensive 3D modelling technology but, in the end, Gavin was told that his pitch beat the hi-tech presentations because it was simple, human and resonated with his buyers.

As Gavin discovered, when it comes to sales, there’s no better way of connecting with your audience than by telling well-formed stories. He understood that storytelling is a vital business tool that builds trust and wins hearts and minds. And in these turbulent economic times, when there may be reduced demand for your products and services in a highly competitive market, the success of sales and business development teams becomes more important than ever. 

Why? Because people buy people. 

Here comes the science bit…

The law of sympathetic vibration

It’s all about creating resonance. If you hit a tuning fork and hold it near another, similarly tuned fork, the sound waves emitted by the first fork will induce vibrations in the unstruck fork even though there’s no physical contact between them. This is a phenomenon known as sympathetic resonance or vibration.

Resonance between two human beings can be thought of in the same way – you ‘hit a note’ that the other person recognises in themselves, which causes them to have the same feeling about something as you do. 

This is what storytelling does – it creates emotional resonance, which makes us buy into your product or service and transforms your ability to be persuasive and convincing with your ideas.

The neuroscience of storytelling

When you think of stories and storytelling, you might be taken back to bedtime fairy tales, a cosy fireside chat or more of a ‘performance’. While that’s all great in a different context, what we’re talking about here is the power of storytelling in a business context. You might be surprised at how much research has been done into the science of storytelling. Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson says that, “By simply telling a story [you] can plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into listeners’ brains.”

So how does this work? There’s a phenomenon known as neural coupling, which takes place in the brain of the teller and listener. When you tell a story, your brain synchronises with your audience’s brains, which is how you can plant your ideas. It sounds a touch sinister but it happens all the time! Hasson adds that “a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.”

Being immersed in a narrative also activates the brain’s mirror neuron system. The listener ends up mirroring the emotions experienced by the characters in the story. And scientists are also discovering that when we’re told a story, chemicals such as cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin are released. Why does this matter? Because if we are trying to make an idea stick, cortisol assists with formulating memories, dopamine keeps us engaged and oxytocin (the ‘empathy chemical’) helps us to build, deepen or maintain good relationships.

However, to create emotional resonance in this way, you need to tell a well-crafted story (not just an ineffective ‘business story’) – and in order to do that, you need a clear structure that helps you avoid certain pitfalls.

Three storytelling pitfalls to avoid

  1. Waffle
    It’s doubtful that anyone sets out to speak at length without sharing any useful information or clear answers – but that’s exactly what might happen in a sales pitch or client meeting if you don’t follow a narrative structure. Even before you start focusing on a specific story, if you think in a storytelling way it gives you the clarity to map where your audience are now, where they want to get to and how you can take them there.
  2. Boring case studies
    We’re often asked, “What’s the difference between a case study and a story?” The answer is that a compelling case study will always feature a customer story but a boring one might just share information and data or simply not focus enough on people. For example, “Our software has increased one client’s sales conversion by 32.5%,” without saying what that meant to a specific individual or group. Case studies are often presented within a simple problem/solution framework but well-told stories take the audience on a journey that delivers the outcome they’re seeking.
  3. The wrong hero
    This is related to boring case studies in that they often fail to make the customer, client or stakeholder the hero of the story. Rather than tell a story that people can believe in, it focuses on how brilliant your company’s product and service is. That approach doesn’t meet the audience where they are – it simply alienates them. If you make yourself or your company the hero of the story, it comes across as egotistical boasting. 

Over the past few years, Ginger has delivered storytelling training to data people, sales and business development teams across the globe. On our Storytelling Mastery and Amplify programmes, our trainers teach delegates a simple narrative structure that helps them avoid waffle, transform their case studies and make sure they choose the right hero.

Like Gavin with his whiteboard, pen and well-told stories, Ginger can help you and your teams hit that tuning fork and create the resonance you need to build relationships and win sales in tough times.

Beverley Glick

An award-winning public speaker and storytelling expert, Beverley is an experienced lead trainer who specialises in TED-style speaker coaching and training.

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