Do Stories Really Sell, Or Does It Just Sound Good?

Stories sell. It’s catchy, isn’t it? You certainly hear it and read it a lot (including on my own Website). But can you really sell anything with a story? And if you can, why?

Stories DO sell, and the main reason is this: Humans aren’t hippos.

Hippos Don’t Need Stories

The hippo. It’s a pretty cute animal, star of hungry, hungry board games and about a hundred children’s books. But they’re not really so cuddly. They’re actually considered by many experts to be the deadliest of all the animals in Africa. Forget that lioness in the tree. The hippo is the one you want to look out for. And for that reason, it’s okay that, relative to their size, hippos brains are not so formidable.

We humans are different. We’re weak, thin-skinned (literally and figuratively), and slow. We have no special super strengths, which is why our brains evolved —thank goodness—to provide us with a special super-power: storytelling. Brain expert John Medina (author of Brain Rules) explains that it’s our storytelling skills, which allow us to solve problems, understand and predict other humans’ behavior and learn from mistakes, that keep us alive.

Because stories are so important to our survival, our brains also evolved to dump dopamine into the body when it detects an emotionally-charged event. That dopamine not only signals that a reward is ahead, but it also punches up our ability to think and remember.

What does all that mean? Give someone a story that plucks an emotional chord and that reader will remember what you’re telling them.

How to Use Story to Sell

You have something to sell. Why would anyone buy it? Because it solves some problem they have. It helps them do something that they need to do. And now you just need to them to see that. Here’s how.

Define your protagonist. In marketing lingo, we call this your “buyer persona” or your “primary target audience.” You need to get to know this person from every angle. You need to understand who this person is, what motivates her, and, most importantly, every detail about the problem you’re offering to solve for her. (It could easily be a “him” too, of course, and that’s important. But let’s just all agree that saying “him or her” every time is annoying.)

Make your buyer the star. You may be in love with what you’re selling—and I hope you are—but whatever it is, no matter how cool or fascinating, it is not the star of your story. Your buyer is the star. That means that the first thing your buyer needs to see in any piece of content, whether it’s your Website, an article, an email or a brochure, is herself. She needs to recognize herself, her problems, and her needs. She needs to think, “It’s like they read my mind!”

Show the solution. Your reader knows that she’s in the right place. She sees that you get her and her needs, and that has triggered the dopamine that will prepare her to remember the next part: the solution. That’s your product or service. Here’s where your idea gets to shine.

Repeat, repeat, repeat some more. The “Rule of Seven” is a longtime fav of marketing gurus, and it’s basically the idea that a buyer needs to see hear your message or see your product (called a “touch”) seven times before buying. That number may or may not be accurate, but we all know that we remember things more readily when they’re repeated. But even more effective is when we see something appear not simply lots of time but lots of different places. We start to think “XYZ is suddenly everywhere; maybe I should be paying attention.” So, when you find your story, find a lot of ways to tell it and tell it in a lot of places.

Find your story. If you’re ready to increase sales, it’s time to find your story. Start with your protagonist. If you’re not sure who that is, go and talk to your best customer. (Hint: it can’t be your mom). Ask a lot of questions. Get personal.

Or get an expert. I know one who’d love to help!