Using storytelling in sales

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 24, 2006
Filed in Selling

Ford Harding has written two useful articles on using anecdotes to overcome common selling challenges. In Harding case he’s focussed on professional firms but the suggestions hold true for anyone wishing to improve their sales. The first article describes some ways to use anecdote in a sales environment. Here are the article headings.

  • Create Tangible Value
  • Demonstrate The Value Of Process Benefits
  • Use As An Indirect Probe
  • Politely Disagree With Your Client
  • Demonstrate Your Personal Strengths

Harding article is full of anecdotes (it would be silly without them). Here’s one that caught my eye under the heading of ‘Create Tangible Value’ which illustrates the value of experience to a prospective client.

What we bring is experience in data center consolidation. Most people get involved in these issues only once every 10 years or so, but we do every day.

For example, we recently completed a consolidation analysis for a large insurance company which had plans to consolidate the small data center run by its non-insurance subsidiary into its main center. The analysis showed a three-year payback.

The head of the subsidiary brought us in to evaluate the consolidation because the center was so critical to his operations. We went through a step-by-step review of what it would cost to consolidate and run the center. Because of our experience, we were aware of many costs that hadn’t been taken into account in the original analysis, and showed that the consolidation would cost four times the original estimate and had an actual payback of over six years. The consolidation was scrapped.

We weren’t any smarter than the people who did the original analysis; we just had more experience.

I think a couple of improvements could be made that would increase its impact.

  • Find out the exact date the consolidation occurred and give that date. Rather than saying “we recently completed …”, say “In February last year we completed…” An exact date let’s the listener know that this is a real account of what happened not just a generalised version.
  • Find out who did the consolidation analysis and use their name and role. We like to hear how the protagonist achieved their goals.

Harding should have taken his own advice because in his second article he says, “Perhaps the single most common weakness of anecdotes is the absence of the character.”

The second article has many good points. Here is the outline version of Harding’s guidelines. There’s only one point that made me a little uneasy—see the point in red.

  • Make It Relevant
  • Select An Anecdote With Which The Listener Can Relate
  • Emphasize The Similarities
  • Every Good Story Has A Plot, Character, Action, And Outcome
  • Use Only One Plot Per Anecdote
  • Use A Character With Whom Your Prospect Identifies
  • Tailor Your Character To Your Listener

Regarding the character in the anecdote, Harding suggests the following:

Each time you tell an anecdote, consider reformulating it to make it more relevant to the current listener by changing the character. If I’m speaking to the CEO, I would like to have a CEO or other line manager as the hero. If I’m speaking to the head of human resources, I would like the human resources professional as the hero. We work with many people in a client organization, allowing us some leeway in the choice of character for different versions of an anecdote.

This is the beginning of a slippery slope. It’s vital that the anecdotes you tell actually retell what happened as far as you know it. It’s important not to change the characters simply to suit the situation.

Here are the rest of Harding’s guidelines.

  • Describe Actions
  • A Good Story Must Have A Clear Outcome
  • Practice Your Stories

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Ford Harding says:

    You recently summarized two article, adapted from my book “Creating Rainmakers.” I want to clarrify one point. I recommend adapting an anecdote to the listener by selecting a character to describe in it with whome the listener will identify. If speaking to a CEO, use a line manager. If speaking to the head of human resources, include an HR exec.
    You cautioned that this was a slippery slope, implying that changing the story this way will require bending the truth. I meant no such thing and agree that an anecdote tell what actually happened.
    All anecdotes are short (usually five or six sentences) summaries of what could be told in a much longer version. Because they are short, lots of things get left out, including many of the people involved in what happened. I am simply recommending that differnet participants in the event be featured for diffent audiences. That means you must tell the anecdote from slightly different perspectives, but it will still be accurate.

  2. Paul Lanigan says:

    Regarding your slipper slope comments I feel this has more to do with your discomfort rather than what is effective storytelling.
    The great thing about stories is that they don’t have to be factually correct to have integrity.
    Intent is vital. If the intent is to deceive then it’s morally wrong. But if the intent is to illustrate, illuminate and convey a message then the storey can be a story.

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