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ATD Blog

Build Storytelling Skills to Boost Sales

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Business data is vast and easily accessed, but it’s also disparate and often lacks the contextual power of a narrative. Sales professionals are uniquely positioned to turn this challenge into an opportunity when they learn to combine the persuasiveness of data with the familiarity of story structure in selling.

Building the skills to use storytelling in sales conversations is a process that can be broken down into three parts:

  1. Sourcing the right data to position a solution.
  2. Organizing the data for a focused approach.
  3. Developing a strong narrative to illustrate the meaning behind the numbers.

Learning to Source the Right Data

More decisions today are made with the use of data because in an increasingly risk-averse business climate solutions must satisfy rigorous review from numerous stakeholders. Finding the right data means asking incisive questions that reveal the customer’s needs. Incisive questions reveal which measurements will offer the most authority when it comes to illustrating the upside of a solution. Sales professionals must focus on collecting concise, research-backed evidence to support the value of the solution.

Learning to Organize the Data

Sales professionals must consider not only what data they’ll bring to the table, but they also must ensure that they can provide a clear and compelling analysis of that data. Organizing data is best understood through the lens of managing the cognitive load placed on the audience.

Cognitive load theory asserts that learning falters when it demands too much working memory capacity. The Journal of Instructional Science has provided some guidelines for preventing this overload.

  • Intrinsic load: Intrinsic load is low when the concept can be learned in isolation. Choose data points that don’t require a complex foundation of preexisting knowledge.
  • Extraneous load: Extraneous load refers to the medium used to convey the idea. Some concepts are made clear with visuals. Using pictures or short animations helps make complex information clearer.
  • Germane load: Germane load is the degree to which the learner must interpret and classify the information. Break up material into pieces so that the learner can more effectively absorb the content and find its meaningful place among what they already know.

Developing a Strong Narrative

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. This skill alone will set a sales professional above the rest because today, information often is dispersed without coherence, analysis, or meaning. It comes fragmented, rarely coalescing into a whole.


To rise above this problem, a seller must use conventional story structure to tie their data together into a continuous presentation. Each piece relies on what came before. As Johns Hopkins University explains, “Business plans that seem to ‘jump around’ between topics will create a disjointed narrative in your story and confuse your audience.”

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. Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Mamet explains that every scene should be able to answer three questions:

1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don't get it?
3. Why now?

This template is as relevant to the sales professional as it is the playwright. In fact, research from economic professor Bruce Wydick shows that identifiable stories incite action more often than statistical stories. Bottom line: data is necessary for legitimizing the solution, but story is necessary for promoting the solution.

About the Author

Ben Taylor is the content marketing manager at Richardson, a global sales training and performance improvement company focused on helping you drive revenue and grow long-term customer relationships. Our market-proven sales and coaching methodology combined with our active learning approach ensures that your sales teams learn, master, and apply new behaviors when and where they matter most — in front of the buyer.

Ben has an MBA in finance from LaSalle University and more than a decade of business and writing experience. He has covered content for brands, including Nasdaq, Barclaycard, and Business Insider.

1 Comment
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I completely agree that "good storytelling in sales follows a logical progression." When humans listen to a story, the same areas of both the speaker’s and the lightener’s brain “light up”—even though one is producing information and the other is receiving it. Creating trust and connection with prospects can be more effective than a sales pitch, this post goes into more detail why this is true --> [].
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