How can you persuade someone to buy your complex product when 90% of your presentation is forgotten within 72 hours?

The short answer is you can't. Unless you dramatically change how you engage with customers, they won't understand why they should buy your complex product because of the limitation of our short-term working memory.

A salesperson's 88-page PowerPoint product dump presentation will not flow directly down through a pipeline into the customer's long-term memory, according to memory experts. Instead, the information must first travel through our limited short-term working memory, which is capable of remembering only three to four items of new information at a time.

Now, I'm not saying that all customers are pinheads. But getting information into customers' heads is more like threading a needle than pushing it down a pipeline. That's why telephone numbers are limited to chunks of 3-4, and it also explains why the best public speakers limit themselves to covering only 3-4 points. That's all we are capable of remembering.

But what happens when you can't dumb down your message to only 3-4 points?

Why You Need to Share a Customer Story

If you want customers to fully appreciate the complexity of your product, you will also have to share a customer story. Because a story presents a scenario that allows the customer to form their own conclusion, without feeling pressured, your message can now bypass the conscious mind's limited ability to absorb new material.

You don't think a story—you experience it. As a result, your message is directly absorbed into the automatic subconscious mind.

That is important because it's below the surface of our conscious mind where many of our complex decisions are made. You've had this experience. You're thinking hard to try to find the answer, but it just won't come. In frustration, you go for a walk to take your mind off it, and then, as if from nowhere, the answer suddenly pops into your head.

What was really happening was that all that time your unconscious mind was processing in the background, and once it arrived at the answer, it communicated the answer to your conscious mind through an emotion. In this case, the emotion was certainty. Today, with EEG machines that measure brain activity, researchers are now able to prove that puzzles can be solved 8 seconds before the conscious brain is aware of it.

But even though we can now prove that complex decisions are often made subconsciously, we prefer to think that major decisions are made for rational reasons because that makes us feel like we are more in control. And yet, our conscious-controlled processing in our cortex only came onto the scene around 40,000 years or so ago. So it's weak and buggy like new software compared to our subconscious automatic processing that has had 600 million years to iron out the bugs.

That explains why we have inexpensive computers that can solve logic, math, and chess problems better than any human being can, but none of our robots, no matter how costly, can walk through the woods as well as the average 6-year-old child. It also explains why my 10-year-old son can't divide 180 by 12, and yet he can create a perfect parabola when he throws a ball from 50 yards precisely into the center of my glove?

A Thought Experiment

So, let's do a thought experiment on controlled vs. automatic decision making. Let's say you are about to take on a risk, and you are presented with two options:

  1. You think it's right, but it feels wrong.
  2. It feels right, but you think it's wrong.

What would you be more likely to do? Ideally, you'd have both. And that's what you can do by sharing a customer story. They have been able to prove with fMRI scans, for instance, that a story lights up the region of the brain that processes sights, sounds, tastes, and movement. Thus, a salesperson can share a story with a customer, and due to the transportation effect of story, it feels real. It’s the next best thing to experiencing it live. It's as if the customer took the salesperson's offering out for a virtual test drive and experienced it for themselves. Contrast the ability to potentially experience unlimited new information compared to the conscious mind's limited ability to absorb an 88-slide PowerPoint product dump.

In conclusion, to fully appreciate your complex product, the customer has to also experience it, and that often can only happen through a story.

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image of Michael Harris

Michael Harris is CXO of Insight Demand, a sales-training company that helps sellers take the shortest path to more revenue—through the power of storytelling. He is also author of Insight Selling.

LinkedIn: Michael Harris