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How to marry data and storytelling for sales success

9th May 2018

Sales professionals often need to use data to help customers make buying decisions. But data can often just cause confusion. The secret is to combine the persuasiveness of data with the familiarity of story structure. 

Savvy customers expect sales professionals to come armed with data to back up their position. Unfortunately, these same customers can be easily confused by data, which can stall or even end the sales conversation.

In fact, 75% of CFOs and CIOs at global organisations say that they have trouble using data to make decisions. This challenge stems from a business setting in which data is vast and easily accessed but also disparate and lacking the contextual power of a narrative.

Sales professionals today are better able to engage their customers when they learn to combine the persuasiveness of data with the familiarity of story structure in selling.

The process of marrying data and stories can be broken down into three parts.

  1. The importance of sourcing the right data to position a solution.
  2. How to organise the data for a focused approach.
  3. How to develop a strong narrative to illustrate the meaning behind the numbers and make data compelling.

Here we examine each step in greater detail.

Sourcing the right data to position a solution

Finding the right supporting 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. In this case, articulating the gains to be realized creates momentum toward a purchase.

Identifying the most relevant data requires the sales professional to gain a clear idea of the customer’s challenges, understand how well the data communicates the gains offered by the solution, and search for in-depth, relevant information that speaks to those challenges.

Sales professionals must focus on concise, research-backed evidence to support the value of the solution. Strong statistical evidence shapes opinions. However, remember that statistics can backfire. Even if the customer agrees with your position, they may recoil if supportive information comes from a dubious source. This outcome is called the “Boomerang Effect.”

Organising the data for a focused approach

Sales professionals must consider not only what data they’ll bring to the table, but they must also ensure that they can provide a compelling analysis of that data without overwhelming the customer.

How can sales professionals accomplish this? The answer is monitoring cognitive load.

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. As some researchers have illustrated, learning a list of words exhibits low intrinsic load, whereas learning the syntax and grammatical rules that connect those words represents high intrinsic load. Sales professionals can put this to use by limiting the intrinsic load of information shared. 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 descriptive language to explain how a propeller works, for example, demands a greater extraneous cognitive load than simply showing a picture or short animation.
  • Germane Load: Finally, 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 and data to fit seamlessly into the story.

Following a conventional story structure to tie data together into a narrative is a best practice because it keeps the customer engaged and the logical flow makes it easier for the customer to absorb the information presented.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Mamet details the basic format of a story as:

  1. Once upon a time … (The business entered a new market).
  2. And then one day … (They started to grow and take market share).
  3. And just when it was going so well … (Unforeseen technical challenges upended customer implementations).
  4. When just at the last minute … (They partnered with a provider to rapidly fix the issues and scale).
  5. And they all lived happily ever after … (They reached ROI performance goals and improved customer satisfaction).

Success in selling belongs to the sales professional who can balance the role of analyst with storyteller. Doing so requires the ability to source, organize, and communicate data in a way that connects the solution to the challenge.

Like the progression of a good story, these three pieces fit together in a logical succession. Click here to learn more about why when it comes to selling, data is the fuel and the story is the engine.

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