Michael Bosworth: How Storytelling Helps You Sell

If you’ve been in sales for more than a week or two, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Mike Bosworth. He’s the author of two huge and highly influential best-selling books in the sales training field: Solution Selling and Customer-Centric Selling.

Mike has recently gone through a major transformation in how he trains people to sell — an approach that I honestly believe can help most sales pros to sell more quickly and easily. Yesterday we spent some time talking, and here’s the high points of that conversation:

  • Geoffrey James: Why have you changed your approach to sales training?
  • Mike Bosworth: When I worked at Xerox in the 1980s, I heard about the 80/20 rule, where 20% of the sales reps were booking 80% of the business. That was the genesis of my work in sales training, which has been focused on trying to make that other 80% more effective. However, rather than helping the bottom 80%, I discovered that what I was teaching, as well as what many other sales trainers were teaching, tended to improve the performance of the top 20%. In fact, it appears that the main effect of decades of sales training has been to turn the 80/20 rule into a 87/13 rule!
  • GJ: What was the reason for the failure?
  • MB: It has to do with the types of skills that make the top reps successful. In many firms, top management promoted their top sales reps to sales managers, in the hopes that they could transfer their skills to the rest of the team. However, these top reps bombed as sales managers because they did not really understand what they were doing right, an therefore were unable to teach theirs successful methods to others. Most sales training suffered from the same limitation. It tended to teach a set of skills that only worked when applied by somebody who was selling in a particular way, which is what these top reps had mastered.
  • GJ: What was the critical difference?
  • MB: At a basic level, the top reps were selling more intuitively. They had a better sense of the customer and were better able to connect with the customer’s emotions about purchasing. More specifically, it turns out that they were able to achieve this level of rapport largely through a skill that not only wasn’t taught in sales training, but which has been largely ignored in the business world: storytelling.
  • GJ: Storytelling? You mean like fairy tales?
  • MB: Actually, you’re not far from wrong. For most of the 190,000 years that humans have been alive on this earth, they’ve learned their most important information, including survival skills, culture, religion, etc., through stories. The human brain, in fact, is wired specifically so that stories, and storytelling, have a much stronger emotional impact than information that’s presented quantitatively or according to some other emotionless structure.
  • GJ: Is this a right brain/left brain thing?
  • MB: Correct. As you probably remember, neuroscience tells us that the left side of brain is always looking for a right or wrong answer it doesn’t tolerate shades of gray. It tends to be analytical, linear and skeptical and emotionally neutral. It also tends gets “paralysis by analysis” because it can never get enough information to make what it feels will be an entirely correct decision. By contrast, the right side is creative and imaginative. The ‘big picture’ right side interacts with the feeling power of the limbic or emotional brain. The emotional brain is where the ‘aha’ moments happen. Where the “I want that” or “I need that” feelings happen. The buyer has “gut reaction” and an image that allows them to make an emotional decision, such as the decision to trust someone or buy something. They can feel it and see it rather than quantifying.
  • GJ: How do stories relate to this?
  • MB: Stories appeal immediately to the right side of the brain. As soon as somebody hears “once upon a time…” or “I’d like to tell you a story about the time…”, the listener relaxes and knows that no decisions need to be made immediately, but instead all that’s needed is to go along for the ride and listen for what might be important in the future. When it IS time to make a decision, the right side of the brain (which actually makes the decision) draws upon the stories it’s heard in order to judge whether or not a decision makes sense. The story can actually engulf the listener and the teller. The connection during the story can remain between the two people after the story is over, leaving the top sales reps with a connection that others can’t achieve.
  • GJ: That doesn’t sound much like the typical sales presentation.
  • MB: No, it doesn’t. Unfortunately, the corporate world tends to get left brain thinkers to create PowerPoint presentations that are intended to provide left brain information to the left brain thinkers. So you end up with these incredibly long sales cycles, with committees and endless analyses because, even though people make emotional decisions, they’re trying to find a way to make a decision logically. This isn’t to say that left brain information isn’t useful; but it doesn’t drive buying behavior unless framed in a story that makes sense to the right brain.
  • GJ: What do sales pros need to become great storytellers?
  • MB: Great question. First, they need to respect their own storytelling ability. I’ve found that most sales professionals are much better at telling stories from their personal lives – the sort of anecdote you tell to your friends and family – than they are at telling stories from their business lives. People tend to be more relaxed when relating personal anecdotes, but then get all formal and stilted when they tell business stories. So the first step is to learn to adopt the same style of storytelling in business that you use in your personal life. Top sales reps are always naturally good at this. Top sales reps are also willing to share themselves as humans not supermen. Buyers are human and so many sales people feel they have to be ‘perfect’. That isn’t reality, and top sales people sense that.
  • GJ: What else?
  • MB: Secondly, sales pros need to be great story listeners. This is important because customers, being human, are also going to be telling you stories – about their career, their company, their motivations, goals, desires, and so forth. Since their story is likely to be hidden between the lines of the normal left brain chatter, it takes listening skills and some intuition to extract the real stories that lie behind the “facts.” It’s a little like watching a foreign film, where you can read the subtitles, but most of what’s important comes from the expressions, body language, tonality, and so forth, of the people on the screen.
  • GJ: Then you feed that story back to the prospect?
  • MB: Exactly. You use your storytelling ability to retell the customer’s story, and then confirm – by asking – whether you’ve actually got the story right. Then, and only then, are you ready to sell, because then you can retell the customer story with a different ending or a new sequel, with your offering playing a role in the story. It’s also useful to have a quiver of “here’s how I’ve helped other people” stories, so that you can help the prospect visualize a future that includes you and your offering.
  • GJ: But do people have time to listen to long stories?
  • MB: One of the skills that I’m teaching is the ability to build a 30 second version, a 3 minute version, and a 10 minute version of your stories. This requires deciding what’s essential about the story, and what’s an optional anecdote, side plot, or detail. It’s really a matter of adapting the story to the circumstances, whether it’s a formal presentation or just an informal conversation at a social gathering.
  • GJ: Thanks for the great conversation, Mike.
  • MB: You’re welcome.
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