How Stories Move Hearts and (Literally) Change Minds in Sales Presentations

Watch this six-minute video by Dr. Paul Zak to learn how stories can change people’s behavior by changing their brain chemistry—as long as those stories are told using a proper narrative structure. Zak's findings offer insight into how we as entrepreneurs can tap into the power of story to more effectively sell our ideas, products and services, which we'll unpack in this article. 

The Overview

Dr. Paul Zak produced an animated story about a two-and-a-half-year-old boy named Ben who is suffering from brain cancer, and his Dad, who is dealing with the inner turmoil of knowing something that Ben doesn’t — that Ben is dying. 

Zak’s research discovered that this story elicited two primary emotions from viewers: distress and empathy. And those emotions corresponded with the blood test that Zak performed on viewers before and after watching the story.

He found that the brain produced two chemicals:

  • Cortisol. This hormone focuses our attention on something important. It correlates with our emotion of distress. The more distress you feel, the more cortisol you release. And the more you pay attention to that stimulus. 
  • Oxytocin. This is associated with care, connection, and empathy. The more oxytocin released, the more empathic (and connection) you feel.

And here’s the kicker: Those viewers who produced both cortisol and oxytocin were more likely to donate money generously to a stranger. In fact, the amount of oxytocin released predicted how much money people would give.

But for the narrative to be effective, it needs to follow a universal story structure that elicits both distress and empathy. In the video, Zak goes into detail of what this universal story structure looks like and how such a narrative performs versus one that is boring and doesn’t elicit similar emotions. 

The Application

Now, after you've watched the video, let's apply some of Zak's findings to sales situations... 

You're preparing to demo a new product for a big potential customer. And in the back of your mind, you know the stakes are high. Landing this customer could give you the market traction that changes the trajectory of your business. 

But, so far, your demos have elicited the polite "Sure, this could be useful" or "We might be interested; get back with us in a few weeks" responses. 

Often this can happen when we treat a sales demo not as a story but as a "feature dump," where we go through a laundry list of features touting everything the product does (because, of course, we don't want to miss anything that could be important, right?). By the end of the presentation, we've covered all our main points, but we've lost the prospect—mentally and emotionally.

Whether she articulates it or not, she's thinking, "Yeah. O.k. So what? How is this relevant to how I would use this?"

That's because the demo didn't make an emotional connection, where you create distress—that triggers the release of cortisol in the prospect's mind to grab her attention—and then produce empathy—that releases oxytocin in the brain to produce the feelings of goodwill toward you and your offering.

So, how do we apply this knowledge to a sales demo?

Organize the presentation into a story format.

  • Cast the prospect into the role of the hero in your story.
  • What are her most pressing frustrations, concerns, or challenges that your product can help her overcome?
  • Tap into that pain—so that she feels the distress of the status quo if she doesn't take action to change her circumstances.
  • Then walk her through your demo, taking her on a "journey" where she can envision, with concrete examples, how she would use your product to overcome her challenges (to eliminate the feeling of distress) and fulfill her aspirations (in a way that triggers the release of oxytocin).
  • By the end of your story, you've brought her to the point—both mentally and emotionally—where she wants to know..."O.k. How and when can I get this?"

The Bottom Line

As entrepreneurs, our biggest barrier to new sales is customer apathy—they don't see why our products matter. But when we structure our sales demo as a compelling story, we're able to get customers to deeply care about what our products can do for them.

And at that point, we can stop selling; they're ready to buy. 

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, a Strategy and Storytelling consultancy that helps entrepreneurs tell their story in a way that grabs attention, garners trust, and grows their business. 

The Next Step

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