Bestselling author Paul Smith reveals how to tap into power of storytelling in your sales efforts

6 Differences Between a Sales Story and a Sales Pitch

by Paul Smith

Author of Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale

It’s 8 o’clock on Monday morning, a week before a big sales call with a new prospect. The whole team is in a conference room to start planning the sales pitch. At 8:02, the boss walks in, puts her hands down on the table, leans out over the surface, and says, “Okay, people, what’s our story?”

Do you think she’s asking for an actual story in the traditional sense? Almost certainly not. She’s probably asking for the logical series of facts and arguments and data the team should lay out for the prospect, probably in a PowerPoint presentation, that will have the greatest odds of leading to a sale. That would certainly be a reasonable thing to ask for. But it’s not something anyone would have called a story 10 years ago. It would have been called a message track, or talking points, or presentation slides, or simply a sales pitch.

Storytelling is all the rage in the business world, and for good reason. It works. But riding on the coattails of that success, it’s become common today to consider just about any meaningful series of words a “story.” Our strategy document is a story . . . the mission statement is a story . . . our co-marketing programs are stories . . . our brand logo is a story . . . and so on.

If using the word story for all those purposes helps people find or create more meaning in their work, then that’s obviously a good thing. But let’s not kid ourselves. Those aren’t stories. Not every set of words that has meaning is a story, just like not all collections of words constitute poetry. A story is something special.

Real stories have a unique power to educate, persuade, inspire, and influence that other forms of communication will never have, because stories relay human events. And nothing is more interesting to human beings than things that happen to other human beings. You can polish your memo all you want and it will never have the impact of a simple story because it simply isn’t a story.

Hi everyone, I’m Paul Smith. I’m a keynote speaker and corporate trainer on business storytelling, and the author of the book Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust and Close the Sale. I’ve conducted over 250 in-depth one-on-one interviews with CEOs, sales people, and other interesting people around the world documenting over 2,000 leadership and sales stories in order to uncover what makes some stories work and other fail. Before that, I spent 20 years working in both finance and consumer research at Procter & Gamble. I’m looking forward to spending the next 60 minutes with you talking about the difference between a sales pitch and a sales story. Log in and let’s go!

How can you tell the difference between an actual story and any other form of narratives? What characteristics can identify a narrative as a story? I’ll give you my answer in 5 minutes. But let’s hear what you think first.

 

A proper list of what differentiate a story from non-story could include many things. Some differences, like the level of emotional impact and a surprise ending, I would describe as separating great stories from average or poor stories. But a narrative can still be a story without a surprise ending. So, here’s my list of six things that help you recognize a real story when you see one:

  1. A time - Words like “Back in 2012” or “Last month” or “The last time I was on vacation” are indications of when something happened. And since in a story something has to happen, these time indicators are a clue that something is about to happen.
  2. A place - A story sometimes starts with words like “I was at the airport in Boston” or “on my way home.” Again, since stories relay events, those events have to happen somewhere. Try telling a story about something specific that happened to you without mentioning where it happened. It’s not impossible, but it feels awkward, which is why most stories have a place indicator.
  3. A main character - This should be obvious, but as mentioned above, much of what passes for “a story” these days are things like mission statements or talking points that have no characters at all. For a narrative to be a story, there has to be at least one character, and usually more.
  4. A goal - The main character in a story must have a goal. They have to be trying to accomplish something unusual or interesting.
  5. An obstacle - This is the villain in the story getting in the way of your main character’s goal. It’s usually a person, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a company that’s your main competitor, the disease you’re designing medicine to combat, or the faulty copy machine you finally got your revenge on. No villain? No story.
  6. Events - If there was a single most important identifier that a story is happening, this would be it. For a story to be a story, something has to happen. Statements about your product’s amazing capabilities or your service commitment, or testimonials about how awesome your company is, are generally not stories because they don’t relay events. Nothing happens in them. They’re just someone’s opinion about something. If nothing happens, it’s not a story. Those kinds of narratives can be very compelling and effective and are an essential part of any salesperson’s tool kit. They just aren’t stories.

If the words coming out of your mouth or being typed on your screen don’t have these six attributes, please stop referring to them as “a story.” They’re not. Those words might be a great speech, or a compelling argument, or an interesting memo, or even a successful recommendation. But they’re not a story.

You can’t tell better stories until you know what a story is and is not. Now you know.

 

Let’s give these criteria a test drive and see how they work. Following are three sales narratives that may or may not be rightly called a story. Your job is to decide which are and which are not stories, and why, based on the criteria we just discussed.

Narrative #1: Are your teeth stained or yellow? Are you embarrassed to smile at parties or in pictures or videos, especially next to your friends with movie-star smiles? Have you tried teeth whitening systems but given up after a few days because they made your teeth too sensitive? If so, Ultra-White is right for you. It’s the revolutionary new teeth whitening system designed by Hollywood dentists to give you star-quality whiteness without all the pain and discomfort. Ultra-White involves a two-step process that alternates applications between a high-impact whitening paste and a desensitization gel. The result is sparkling white teeth without any discomfort that would keep you from showing off your new Hollywood smile.

Was that a story or not? How many of the six criteria do you see? Which ones?

 

Narrative #2: A couple of years ago, Dave Neild, the network service leader at the University of Leeds in the UK, realized he had a problem. He was getting cease and desist orders and copyright violation notices from all over the world as a result of students using file-sharing services like BitTorrent. In addition, many of the students were showing up in his office with computers infected by viruses. It took his staff up to an hour to clean up each one. Dave agreed to do a test with Hewlett-Packard’s TippingPoint network security device to see if that could help. When the test was over, he told us, “As soon as we installed Tipping-Point, we instantly stopped receiving copyright notices. That protected our students from getting threatened by lawyers, and it protected the reputation of the university.” The university also got about 30 percent of its lost bandwidth back from the reduction in file sharing.


Was that a story or not? How many of the six criteria do you see? Which ones?

 

Narrative #3: You should be using your shoppers’ planned purchases of toothpaste to sell more toothbrushes. Currently, shoppers buy toothbrushes only about every six months, despite the fact that dentists suggest replacing a toothbrush every three months. But your shoppers are already in your Oral Care aisle every two months to buy toothpaste. If you co-merchandised toothbrushes with toothpastes, you could close more of your shoppers with toothbrushes. And toothbrushes help sweeten the profits for you as a retailer. The average toothpaste category profit margin is only X percent, but the profit margin on toothbrushes is usually double that. And your own sales data show a dramatic increase in toothbrush sales when merchandised with toothpaste. Our February co-merchandising event delivered a 22 percent sales increase on toothbrushes over three weeks. That was $YY million in incremental sales. This was by far the best toothbrush sales month of the year. Even bigger than Christmas!


Was that a story or not? How many of the six criteria do you see? Which ones? 

 

A sales story is something you can tell in place of a sales pitch. More often, however, it will be something you tell as part of your overall sales pitch. But now you at least know how to recognize a story when you see one. It has a time, a place, a main character, a goal, an obstacle, and events.

What questions do you have?



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Comments

46 comments
  • Hi Paul,

    I am unable to attend though am looking forward to hear the 6 Differences Between a Sales Story and a Sales Pitch.

    My question is related to getting the attention of perspective clients in order to have the opportunity to give the sales story.... Currently I try to give hopefully useful information before asking for the sale. Trying to establish credibility particularly if it is a cold introduction.

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  • Hi everyone,
     
    Welcome to today's Insightly Insider. We're excited to have with us bestselling author, speaker, trainer, and consultant Paul Smith! Paul is here live, online with us to share his knowledge and tips. Please refresh your screens during the hour as we post new sections of Paul's discussion article.
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  • Melissa – Sounds like your question is about how to get that initial sales call. Correct? In my research, I found sales people using storytelling at every step of the sales process, from introducing themselves to the buyer, to building rapport, to the main sales pitch, to resolving objections, to negotiating price, to closing the sale, and even service after the sale.

    I think the kind of story you need is in that first phase of introducing yourself to the buyer in a way that will make them interested in sitting down with you for a proper sales call. The story you need to tell at that introduction moment is a story about how you’ve helped a client in the past who is in a similar industry to the prospect you’re talking to. That way they can see what it is that you do and how they might benefit from doing business with you. A couple of examples are given in Chapter 3 of Sell with a Story.

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  • Welcome, Paul. :-) It's a pleasure to have you here. We're excited to learn from you!

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  • Thanks Brenda. Happy to be here. This is my first time doing a live Q&A in the comments section as opposed to on audio or video. I hope my keyboard skills are up to the task!

     

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  • Hi Paul,

    I could really use this stuff! Just read your bio and am curious to know -- how did you get started in the business of storytelling? And of all the people you've interviewed for your books, what have been some of the most memorable?

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  • Thanks Bengt.  I got started in this space because after 15 or so years in the corporate world, it finally dawned on me how important storytelling was as a leadership skill. But when I tried to learn more about it, I was frustrated with how little was available in books and courses to take to learn. So I just started interviewing CEOs and executives all over the world, which quickly turned into a book idea instead of just my own personal learning journey. . . 

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  • I have a feeling your keyboard skills may be better than ours, Paul :-)

    Everyone -- The characteristics that identify a real story have just been posted!

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  • Hi Paul,

    Great to have you in this live Q&A session. In your book you talk about capturing attention. I often found myself doing a presentation in front of a bunch of potential clients, feeling that they don't really follow what I'm saying.

    Do you have any concrete tips about storytelling that can be used when doing a sales pitch or a sales presentation in front of a group of people?

    Thanks a lot,
    Riccardo

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  • Bengt. .. and by now I've interviewed almost 300 people from all walks of life and 25 countries around the world. So, pretty tough to pick favorites. Some of them include the former CEOs of Procter & Gamble, Dunn & Bradstreet, and Kellogg's. But some of my favorites were artists and scientists and comedians. Everyone has at least one good story in them. You probably do, too. :-)

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  • Hey Paul. What's a way to ensure my stories come across authentic and not just part of my sales pitch?

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  • Scientists and comedians. Ha. Very cool. 

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  • Ricardo, great question, but a very big one. That is the primary purpose of my new book. The main idea is to tell individual stories throughout the presentation or sales pitch. Those will be far more memorable than your list of features and benefits. People will remember the stories and pass them along to others in the company. But they won't remember the bullet points on your Powerpoint slides. 

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  • Thomas, I asked dozens of professional buyers that very question as part of my research. I asked, "What is it that makes a sales pitch sound like a sales pitch?" One of their answers was that they sounded like they were scripted and memorized. So my advice is to not memorize your sales stories (or the words to your sales pitch). And the best way to not memorize them is to never write them down word for word in the first place. Just write them down in bullet point form, in chronological order of the events in the story. That way, each time you tell it, it will sound genuine and authentic.

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  • Hi Paul. Thanks for being here to take our questions! I was curious -- Perhaps this is to formula based but is there an ideal length on how long a story should be? And can there be such a thing as too many stories? I feel like I would just be talking about myself.....

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  • Lily - Yes, there is an ideal length. Of the hundreds of sales stories I documented, the average length was 2 minutes, and they ranged from about 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Or around 300 words long. Leadership stories were twice that long. When your stories get longer than that, they become less effective. 

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  • Hey everyone. Paul's given us a little exercise so we can test our knowledge on what is really a story. If you'll refresh your screens you'll see the first of three Narratives Paul has provided.  

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  • Ah. Thanks for that answer about length. Now I don't feel so bad about asking! 

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  • Lily. . . I think about 15-20% of your conversation with a buyer should be stories. The rest will be the normal conversations, facts, figures, presentation slides, etc. Also, not all of your stories should be about you. In fact, very few of them should be about you. You should have stories in your repertoire about other customers, competitors, people who use your products, people who wish they'd used your products but didn't, etc. 

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  • Thanks Paul for replying to my question. I think your last comment to Lily kind of adds to what should be done during a sales presentation :) (or better, what types of stories should be told).

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  • Hey Paul,

    I heard somewhere that a surprise can take a story from OK to great. Can you give us an example of story with a surprise in it?

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  • Right, Riccardo. In my research I found 25 types of stories that sales people should have in their repertoire. The ones to use in the "Rapport Building" phase of selling should be about you and the company you represent. But all the other stories will not generally be about you. 

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  • Everyone -- The second narrative has just been posted in Paul's main article above. See if you can pick out the 6 characteristics that make up a story! 

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  • Paul, how interactive should the story be, should we be involving the audience?

     

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  • Here's the list of all 25 types of sales stories. Each is covered in the book.

    Introducing Myself to New Prospects

    1)   Explaining what I do simply
    2)   Whom I’ve helped and how I’ve helped them
     
    Stories I Tell Myself Prior to the Call
    3)   My personal motivation story
    4)   To relax and take the stress out of the call
     
    Building Rapport With the Buyer
    Stories About Me
    5)   Why I do what I do
    6)   I’ll tell you when I made a mistake
    7)   I’ll tell you when I can’t help you
    8)   I’ll go to bat for you with my company
    9)   I’m not who you think I am
     
    Stories About My Company
    10) Founding story
    11) How we’re different from our competitors
     
    The Main Sales Pitch
    12) My product’s invention or discovery story
    13) Problem stories
    14) Customer success stories
    15) “Two roads” story
    16) Value-adding stories
     
    Handling Objections
    17) Objections response stories
    18) Negotiating price
    19) Resolving objections before they’re brought up
     
    Closing the Sale
    20) Creating a sense of urgency
    21) Arming your sponsor with a story
    22) Coaching the breakup
     
    After the Sale
    23) Service after the sale
    24) Loyalty building stories

    25) Summarizing the call: Great sales calls

    Source: Sell with a Story, by Paul Smith

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  • Here's my answer to the first quiz. . . 

    Narrative #1 (Ultra-White): Not a story— Let’s walk through all six criteria. There is no time and no place mentioned. There’s also not a clear main character, although “you” is mentioned several times. There does appear to be a main obstacle (yellow teeth and the discomfort of most teeth whitening systems). And there is clearly a goal (whiter teeth). Finally, and most tellingly, there aren’t any events that occur in the narrative. Nothing happens. Net, this narrative contains only two or three of the six criteria. It might make for a good advertisement. But it’s not a story.

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  • Thanks Paul. One more thing, I'm also curious to know what's the best way to transition to a story during my sales pitch?

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  • Fredrik - Here's an example of a surprise ending that demonstrates a good technique for creating surprise endings in stories that you don't even think are surprising. . . 

    One evening, a nine-year-old boy named James was in the kitchen with his aunt having tea. While his aunt was enjoying her tea, James stood at the stove watching the tea kettle boil. It seems he was fascinated with the steam coming from it. He held a silver spoon over the jet of steam and watched as drops of water formed on the spoon and ran down the handle. Over and over again he studied this simple phenomenon. Frustrated with his apparent laziness, his aunt barked out at him, “James, I never saw such an idle boy! Take a book or employ yourself usefully. For the last hour you have not spoken one word, but taken off the lid of that kettle and put it on again. Are you not ashamed of spending your time this way?” she scolded.

    Fortunately, the boy was undaunted by her admonishment. Two decades later, in the year 1765, the now 29-year-old James Watt invented a new kind of steam engine that helped usher in the Industrial Revolution. I first read that story in a book titled James Watt, written by Andrew Carnegie in 1905. To me, it was no surprise the story was about James Watt. But to you, it probably was. Why? Because I didn’t tell you his last name. In my version, I simply moved his last name from the beginning of the story to the end. Presto! Surprise ending.

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  • Jeff - The time to involve interaction with a story is after you've told it. Sales stories should generally only last about 2 minutes. Tell the story, then let your audience react to it. Find out what they learned from the story and how it's affected their thinking. Invite them to share a similar story. There should be a lot of interaction. But it's at the end of the story, generally. Not during. 

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  • Wow. What a story. I really like how you told it. Now, I get it. :-) I just need to come up with stories as good as that one. 

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