Before salespeople can convince a potential customer to buy their product or service, they have to convince the buyer of the need for change. And to persuade their customers to change, most sellers arm themselves with rafts of facts and figures packaged up as PowerPoints, brochures, and whitepapers.
But facts and figures that are devoid of emotion struggle to convince. Why? Neuroscientists have discovered that "emotions determine the meaning of everything." Every time we experience something, our Stone Age brain is hardwired to ask the emotion-fueled question, "Will it hurt me, or will it help me?"
In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, authors Chip and Dan Heath argue that stories are powerful persuaders because of their ability to simulate and inspire. When writing that book, they read hundreds of stories to search for templates of stories that would motivate, energize, and drive productive action.
The Heath brothers identified three basic story templates: the challenge plot, the connection plot, and the creativity plot. Those plots are based on Chip Heath's research at Stanford University. I've added a fourth, called the cautionary plot.
Each of these four approaches can, depending on the specific circumstances, convince the buyer to accept change—i.e., be come amenable to buying the seller's product or service.
1. The Challenge Plot
The challenge plot is especially popular with B2B salespeople because its essence is a story of business success against the odds. Variations include the underdog story, the rags-to-riches story, and the triumph of sheer willpower over adversity.
Challenge plots make us want to try harder, to go the distance, to hang tough. We draw courage from ordinary people like ourselves who summon up the courage to tackle formidable challenges and eventually triumph, achieving extraordinary results.
David and Goliath is the classic challenge plot. Rushing toward Goliath, David took a stone and launched it with his sling. The stone pierced the slight gap in Goliath's helmet. Struck on the forehead, Goliath fell face down, dead on the ground. David then raced forward, grabbed Goliath's sword, and cut off his head.
In the story, it is only after David has slung the stone do we appreciate that the boy's experience with a shepherd's sling is a strength, as is his agility and speed. Then we appreciate that David has discarded wearing armor because it would have slowed him down. Finally, when the stone hits Goliath's forehead, we discover Goliath's critical weakness.
The insight is that giants are not what they appear to be. The same factors that make them strong can be their sources of greatest weakness.
2. The Connection Plot
Where challenge plots involve overcoming obstacles, connection plots are about the way we use relationships to bridge gaps with other people.
Lego Ninjago fan seven-year-old Luka Apps spent all his Christmas money on a LEGO Ninjago Ultra Sonic Raider set. But the thing about LEGOs... those small pieces are easy to lose. Against his father's advice, young Luka took his new Jay ZX shopping. And then, he lost it. Luka decided to write a letter to LEGO to ask for a replacement.
A short time later, Luka received a reply from Richard, a LEGO customer service representative. Richard wrote that he had spoken to Sensei Wu, a master from the Ninjago line.
"Luka, I told Sensei Wu that losing your Jay minifigure was purely an accident and that you would never ever ever let it happen ever again.
"Just remember what Sensei Wu said: keep your minifigures protected like the Weapons of Spinjitzu! And of course, always listen to your Dad."
Connection plots encourage us to care more, to be more tolerant and helpful, and to love our neighbors.
3. The Creativity Plot
The third type of inspirational story identified by the Heaths is the creativity plot.
When you think creativity, it's tempting to think of the story of Archimedes shouting "eureka!" and running around the streets of Syracuse naked, or the story of the apple falling on Newton's head and sparking his theory of gravity.
A few years back, Toronto-based goldmining company Goldcorp (GG) was in trouble. Strikes, lingering debts, and an exceedingly high cost of production forced the company to terminate its mining operations. The gold market was contracting, so most analysts assumed that the company's 50-year-old mine in Red Lake, northwestern Ontario, was dying.
Chief Executive Officer Rob McEwen needed a miracle. Frustrated that his in-house geologists couldn't reliably estimate the value and location of the gold on his property, McEwen did something unheard of in his industry: He published his geological data on the Web for all to see and challenged the world to do the prospecting. The "Goldcorp Challenge" made a total of $575,000 in prize money available to participants who submitted the best methods and estimates.
The fact that McEwen went open source was a stunning gamble. But McEwen wasn't hamstrung by the mining industry's conventional wisdom. McEwen wasn't a miner, and he didn't think like a miner. As a young man he had worked for Merrill Lynch in the investment business.
The contestants identified 110 targets on the Red Lake property, more than 80% of which yielded substantial quantities of gold.
In fact, since the challenge was initiated, an astounding 8 million ounces of gold have been found—worth well over $3 billion.
Creative plots work because they push us to be innovative, to fire up our imaginations, to try out fresh approaches.
4. The Cautionary Plot
Whereas challenge, relationship, and creativity plots inspire listeners to be courageous, bold, and innovative, there are times when a customer needs to be warned about a danger or cautioned against making an unwise decision.
Cautionary tales of course have been the staple of children's stories for many years. "Little Red Riding Hood" has been used as a cautionary tale for well-bred young ladies, to warn them against talking to strangers.
When caution is the watchword, it's time to use a cautionary tale.
Wealth advisers typically begin their relationship with a client by agreeing on an investment and retirement plan, and then meeting regularly to review progress and take investment decisions that will optimize returns, largely based on a client's appetite for risk.
When the share market has been falling or flat for a period, it is not uncommon for impatient, frustrated clients to start looking at bargain stocks that have the potential to produce spectacular returns.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Zero Resistance: The Science and Secrets of Supercharging your Sales by Eliminating Buyer Skepticism and Mistrust by Harry Mills.