Paul Smith Teaches You How To Sell With A Story

This is a great week. Because, Thursday, September 8 brings the official release of Paul Smith's new book, Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale.

I'm a big fan of Paul's earlier best-sellers, including Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story. And, the newest installment in the series is equally good, informative, practical and actionable.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews with procurement managers, Paul teaches you how to:
  • Select the right story
  • Craft a compelling and memorable narrative
  • Incorporate challenge, conflict, and resolution
  • Use stories to introduce yourself, build rapport, address objections, add value, bring data to life,  and create a sense of urgency
Storytelling definitely works in sales, explains Paul, "because a great story changes everything. It causes buyers to put down their defenses. It helps them relax. It engages their minds and their hearts by appealing to both their intellect and emotions. A great story builds credibility and properly positions you in the eye of the buyer."

Storytelling is a skill. A skill like any other skills needed for successful selling. Salespeople should, therefore, invest the time to learn how to do it well, and then practice it, so they can master it.

Paul's new book includes:
  • Model stories
  • Skill-building exercises
  • Enlightening examples from Microsoft, Costco, Xerox, Abercombie & Fitch, Hewlett Packard, and other top companies.
Today, Paul kindly answered the following questions about his new book:

Question: What drove your decision to write this book?

Paul: Unlike my first two books, Sell with a Story was actually a commissioned title, meaning my publisher asked me to write it. (The first two books were my idea, which I had to pitch to them.) Specifically, the idea came from someone in the sales department who’s in touch with the market and booksellers and what kind of books they think readers want. Also, I think after publishing my first two books, Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story, they thought sales was the next logical place to leverage storytelling skills. 

Paul Smith

Question: Which of the three books (Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, Sell with a Story) was the most challenging to write and why?

Paul: Lead with a Story was the most challenging from a time and effort standpoint. But that’s only because it was my first one. I was just learning how to write a book. Plus, I still had a full-time job, so I could only work on it nights and weekends. The whole process from idea to seeing it on a bookstore shelf was 30 months. By book number three, I had that down to 18 months.

But this most recent one, Sell with a Story, was the most challenging in other, perhaps more interesting, ways. Since it wasn’t my idea, I had to generate interest in and passion for the project. Writing a book is a labor of love, and it’s a lot easier to love your own idea than someone else’s idea. And I’ll admit, I had some initial hesitancy about this particular idea.

My first barrier was that if I was going to write a second book about how to craft a business story, I had to admit that I hadn’t done that perfectly well already in the first book, so there would be room to improve on it. There was plenty of room, of course, but I had to get my writer’s ego there. (It didn’t take long).

What took longer was actually convincing myself that writing a book teaching salespeople how to be better storytellers would make the world a better place. Storytelling is a powerful tool. And like all powerful tools, it can be used or misused. Putting that tool into the hands of business leaders to make them better leaders, or parents to make them better parents, seemed like obviously places to make a positive difference in the world with low risk of misuse.

But for some reason, the thought of arming salespeople with that powerful tool gave me pause. In my worst-case scenario, I imagined in some corner of the world I would be better equipping an unscrupulous charlatan to fleece unsuspecting widows out of their life savings. And I had to consider if I wanted to be a part of that.

As I thought about it more, I realized that I was worrying about the small fraction of salespeople who might be unscrupulous, when I hadn’t worried at all about the same small fraction of business leaders and parents who might also misuse the power of story. That wasn’t fair. I was writing my books for the vast majority of leaders, parents, and salespeople who would do wonderful things with what I was teaching them.

That realization went a long way to allaying my fear. But it didn’t eliminate it entirely. I still had some lingering doubt. After more thinking, I concluded the most likely cause of storytelling being used in ways that I would not be proud of was not intentional misuse. It would be unintentional, because most people just haven’t thought much about the ethical and unethical uses of storytelling. Including me. So I did.

Then I decided to make that one of the topics covered in the book, spanning two different chapters. I dedicated one entire chapter to the dangers of embellishing a story to the point that you’ve stretched the truth too far, and how do you know how far is too far. I provide a simple litmus test to decide, plus several solutions to avoid crossing that line. 

And in the chapter on emotion, I address the other major area of storytelling abuse: emotional manipulation. If you’ve simply told your listener a sob story to get them to buy what you’re selling, it might work. But if that distracts them from more important decision criteria, then you’ve abused the power of story. In that chapter, I discuss several tools to help you legitimately enhance the emotional content of your story, and several techniques to make sure that emotion doesn’t become unfairly manipulative.

I think most people who want to learn to be better storytellers want to do so in a respectable way. By including those two additional chapters, I felt like I was giving them a powerful tool, but with the training and wisdom to use it responsibly.

After that, I thoroughly enjoyed writing the book, and am convinced it’s my best work on the subject. 

Question: How has social media influenced the landscape for salespeople and storytelling?

Paul: For the kind of sales storytelling I’m talking about, I don’t think those changes are very relevant. For the purposes of this book, I’m talking about the kind of stories a salesperson tells a prospective buyer either face to face, or over the phone. I’m not considering things like television ads here. That’s marketing, not sales. Similarly, social media is generally the work of the marketing department, not the sales department.

Most real selling still happens in those face-to-face meetings with the buyer or over the phone. Sure, that face-to-face meeting might happen over Skype from a thousand miles away, or that phone call my technically be carried over the Internet instead of a phone wire. But it’s still an oral story told from one person’s mouth to another person’s ear.

The exact same tools and techniques I teach in the book for how to structure and craft a great sales story will work just as well for the marketing and social media folks. I just haven’t included those as examples and haven’t structured the book around that audience. 

Question: Why is capturing attention and building trust so important today versus a decade ago?

Paul: It would be easy to answer by claiming that today people are far more distracted, have shorter attention spans, and are much less trusting than they were a decade ago. And I think that’s definitely true. But if my answer ended there, it might suggest that if that trend reversed itself, storytelling would no longer be as important. And I don’t believe that. It’s the oldest form of communication known to man. We’ve been telling stories since we were drawing pictures on cave walls. I advocate better storytelling because it works, not because it’s trendy. 

Question: What's the best way to tell a quick story in a cold-call email to help gain the attention of a prospective customer?

Paul: In the research for the book, I concluded there are 25 different kinds of sales stories that all salespeople need to have in their repertoire. Those stories span the entire sales process from introducing yourself to a buyer, to building rapport, to the main sales pitch, to handling objections, to negotiating price, to closing the sale, even to service after the sale.

That cold-call email is a good place for two of those 25 stories: 1) an “Explaining what I do simply” story, or 2) a “Who I’ve helped and how I’ve helped them” story.

The first one is a very short, simple, hypothetical story to illustrate what you do instead of confusing and boring your reader with management speak like this: “I represent a company that’s best in class at optimizing the distribution channels between the core manufacturing center and the desired consumer experience.”

The second one is a more detailed, true story about a current customer of yours. It provides a specific example of a problem they had and how your product or service solved that problem. This will be a far more compelling thing for them to read than a list of features and benefits. 

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of three books on harnessing the power of storytelling for some of the most important work we do as humans: Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story. He can be found at  


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