This guest post is by Johnny B. Truant, of JohnnyBTruant.com.
When I was in high school, I witnessed the most impressive sales job I have ever seen.
One afternoon, the entire student body was called to the auditorium for an assembly. Nobody knew what the assembly was about. We were just told to attend.
The presenters were two guys, dressed casually. As they began, instead of telling us why they were there, they started telling us jokes. They told us a few stories, too—funny stories involving their own families (who were as clueless as our own, since we were teenagers and knew everything), and stories that empathized with us about how ridiculous school was and made gentle fun of our principal and teachers. We liked these guys. They thought like we did. Their stories were interesting and fun. We settled in and relaxed.
We stopped caring why we’d been called to the assembly. Someone had made a mistake and had booked pure entertainment, but we weren’t about to complain.
Halfway through the presentation, the mood of the two guys up front changed. It was like a sneak attack: it was on us before we knew it was coming. Suddenly, the presenters were talking about AIDS. And abstinence. And how it was bad to drink a lot and do drugs. It was all the stuff that adults usually try to talk to teenagers about—the stuff teenagers usually roll their eyes at.
But we weren’t rolling our eyes. We were listening. We’d been transfixed.
Instead of saying AIDS was bad, they’d tell us about the girl who we’d met in one of those funny stories toward the beginning of the presentation, and how she got sick after contracting HIV and died.
Instead of telling us not to drink and drive, they told us about the kid we’d heard about earlier, but now the tale turned to him being in a wheelchair for the rest of his life after being hit by a drunk driver.
When 1200 high school kids filed out of that auditorium at the end of the assembly, nobody was jaded, skeptical, or mocking the message we’d been told. Most of the kids who streamed past me were silent or crying.
Those presenters came to our school to sell us on the idea of being careful, and making smart choices, and staying safe—all ideas that teenagers usually aren’t even a little bit interested in buying from well-meaning adults and parents.
But because they did their selling through stories, we’d bought it all.
Persuasion starts with a story
When you blog, you’re often trying to convince people to do something. You want them to start reading the post. You want them to read until the end of the post. You may want them to buy a product or a service, or sign up for a newsletter or RSS feed. You might want them to leave a comment, take a survey, or be convinced of your point of view.
To convince readers do anything at all, you have to sell them. And one of the most powerful ways to sell is through a story—I call it “storyselling.”
Stories are disarming. Stories interest people on an entertainment level first, which causes them to lower the guard they usually have in place to keep people from pushing things onto them.
Back in high school, at that assembly, we didn’t want to be told anything contrary to what we already believed to be true. We were having fun, and nobody knew better than us what we should be doing. Teenagers are the hardest people to convince of anything—the hardest sale any presenter will ever try to make.
But these guys succeeded because they entertained us first. They got us to drop our guards. They got us to like them, and relate to them. And after they’d done that, when it came time for them to “sell,” we were defenseless. We never had a chance.
Four ways to sell your ideas (and products) with stories
Want to give storyselling a try? Here are some things to keep in mind as you do so.
1. Tell a story that demonstrates a need for what you’re selling or advocating.
The goal of storyselling is to cause the reader to recognize a need for a certain course of action (or a certain product or service) through allegory. Rather than explaining rainforest destruction, tell the story of your trip to stripped plots of land. Instead of outlining features and benefits of your new workout plan, tell the story of how you used to be overweight and how you developed the workout that got you thin.
2. Show, don’t tell.
Always try to lead your reader to conclusions by demonstration rather than by beating them with brute force persuasion. You know who was great at this? The ghosts in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. They didn’t tell Scrooge about how his life would stink if he kept doing what he was doing. Instead, they took him there and let him see it for himself.
3. Keep it relevant.
A common mistake with this approach is to string out a long tale that may be a great story, but which never gets around to selling the product or idea at hand, or loses the audience before it does so. You always have to keep your main “selling point” in mind, and keep bringing the story back to it. It isn’t just a story—it’s a story that shows the reader why they should do X or buy Y.
4. Be honest.
Everyone has a real, true story, and every product or movement has a reason for existing. Somehow, you became convinced to get involved, so it’s your job to pull that desire and motivation out, and to use your own story to convince others. There’s no need to make anything up—the truth always sells better.
Give storyselling a shot the next time you’re looking to persuade. No matter what you’re selling, you may just find that telling a tale will get you past the skepticism of many more readers than a bulleted list of benefits will.
Johnny B. Truant is the creator of Storyselling 101. (He also .)