How Sellers Can Combine Storytelling and Data to Win

By Ben Taylor

Many businesses collect lots of data. The problem is that these volumes of information rarely add up to anything meaningful or useful. In fact, 75 percent of CFOs and CIOs say they have trouble using the data to make decisions.

Sales professionals have an opportunity (and an obligation) to leverage the value of data when selling to decision makers. What we’ve found is that data is necessary for legitimizing the solution, but a story is also necessary for promoting the solution.

First, Find Data That Resonates

Sales professionals need to understand the customer’s needs to determine which data is relevant and will most effectively convey the value of a solution. Doing so is important because sales professionals today need extra firepower to incite action from the buyer.

Overcoming the buyer’s inertia often means articulating the upside value of a solution. The reason: Customers aren’t always seeking to solve a problem – often, they’re reaching to capitalize on unrealized opportunities. Identifying the relevant data involves three steps:

  1. Develop a clear understanding of the customer’s circumstances
  2. Understand what data will best communicate unrealized gains
  3. Determine what data most effectively underpins the value of the solution

When sourcing data, sales professionals must remember to right-size the information. Too much data creates a burdensome cognitive load. “Analytic thinking requires more effort and puts greater demand on attention and memory,” explains research published by the American Psychological Association. The solution: Sift the meaning from the noise by considering the three factors that build persuasion:

  • Strong Evidence

Evidence persuades. Participants in one study were shown to dramatically change their preconceived opinions when presented with research-backed findings.

  • Predisposed Learning

Sometimes a customer is only half sold on a solution. In these cases, they’ve seen evidence to support the value of the product, but they’re not moving forward. Here, sales professionals need to provide a nudge; they must offer some additional (but concise) findings to move the customer over the line.

  • The Boomerang Effect

Statistics can backfire. If someone has an opinion, then sees questionable or incomplete statistics that support that same opinion, they may change course. The takeaway: Ensure the statistics represent sound science and come from reputable sources.

Second, Organize the Data

Sourcing the right data is only part of the process. Sales professionals must focus the customer’s attention on the salience of the findings. After all, the data is not the story – the data is a part of the story. Putting this idea into practice requires acknowledging the customer’s data tolerance.

Sales professionals can identify the data that will focus and compel customers by considering “iconic memory.” This is the stage of memory that’s ultra-short term. Here’s an example of how it works. Imagine standing in a field at night. Everything is dark. Then, a bolt of lightning illuminates everything for just one second. This fleeting image is our iconic memory.

Sales professionals must understand that the data they use is a lot like this flash of light. While it may have taken days to prepare, it’s just a glimpse to the customer. Therefore, it’s important to use visual cues to underscore the data and make the message and meaning clear.

Sales professionals can maintain this clarity with an understanding of cognitive load theory. This area of research explores how well we absorb and retain information. Three critical components of cognitive load theory are intrinsic load, extraneous load, and germane load. Adhering to these three concepts can, respectively, be summarized as:

  • Presenting material that accounts for the customer’s existing knowledge base
  • Avoiding nonessential information that complicates the solution
  • Segmenting information to make absorption easier

Third, Communicate the Data

As educators at Johns Hopkins University explain, “In simplest terms, a business plan must tell a compelling story.”

Good storytelling in sales follows a logical progression. While narratives differ across various genres, each adheres to the same core structure. What’s important is that each stage of the story leads to the next. This flow is important because the sales professional needs the solution to fit seamlessly into the story.

Story structure keeps listeners engaged because it moves. Therefore, sales professionals should not labor over one part. Rather, they should make their point, then move to the next piece. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Mamet explains, the basic format of a story is:

  1. Once upon a time – (The business entered a new market.)
  2. And then one day – (They started to grow and take market share.)  
  3. And just when it was going so well – (Unforeseen technical challenges upended customer implementations.)
  4. When just at the last minute – (They partnered with a provider to rapidly fix the issues and scale.)
  5. And they all lived happily ever after – (They reached ROI performance goals and improved customer satisfaction.)

The simplicity of this five-part format is its greatest feature. Why? Because business challenges – and the solutions – are increasingly complex. Therefore, a simplified story structure helps keep the discussion focused.

Conclusion: Success Must Combine Data with Storytelling

Success in selling belongs to the sales professional who can balance the role of analyst with storyteller. Doing so requires the ability to source, organize, and communicate data in a way that connects the solution to the challenge. Like the progression of a good story, these three pieces fit together in a logical succession. Click here to learn more about why – when it comes to selling – data is the fuel and the story is the engine.

Ben Taylor is the content marketing manager at Richardson. He has an MBA in finance from LaSalle University and more than a decade of business and writing experience. He has covered content for several brands, including Nasdaq, Barclaycard, and Business Insider.