Storytelling for Profit & Growth (David Gilliam Commentary)

Many of today’s successful companies and business leaders are using storytelling effectively in marketing and sales.

A story basically is a discourse dealing with interrelated actions and consequences in chronological order. Most stories are about the past, a very few are about the present, and a surprising number are about supposed future events and told in future tense, especially in sales encounters.

You might tell a future-tense story about the vacation you are planning or how a new factory your firm is opening will affect a certain product attribute:

“Currently our software is loaded on a customer’s hard drive. Next month our new server facility in Texarkana will come online. This will allow real-time collaboration between your employees worldwide via cloud computing.”

These are not random facts but causally related, chronologically ordered events. Note, too, that sales and marketing stories are typically very brief. Note the beginning state, the middle process of change and the end state. Chronology implies causality and causality gives stories their power.

At about 3 years we begin to understand story grammar and spend the rest of our lives vicariously learning about how the world works from stories. Many psychologists believe that our memories and our view of ourselves, others and our environment are largely made of narratives in our minds.

You may have noted widespread employment of stories by executives, religious leaders and politicians. These stories typically tell “who we are” and “how we do things”; they tend to be repeated often and become guideposts over the years. Branding stories often do the same thing.

Advertising stories aimed at current promotion occupy a middle ground, while stories in sales encounters tend to be ad hoc and not meant for constant repetition.

One company that has embraced storytelling is New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins, Colo. This firm has grown rapidly in a famously competitive industry that is dogged by both slow growth and gigantic competitors. By telling the stories anytime, anywhere, to anyone who would listen, it has created a new brand with a loyal following. New Belgium’s favorite story is how its founder became interested in brewing while touring Europe.

My own research indicates that business-to-business and retail salespeople use stories to open conversations, build personal and business relationships, establish credibility, show past product success, predict future customer success with a product, explain company processes, describe the company’s founding and tell why problems occurred and how they will be solved.

Customers know the causality of a story tells us why something happened, which makes them plausible. In fact, research shows that even stories people know to be fictional can be very persuasive if the hearer thinks the story could have actually happened.

This may be because we use narrative processing on stories. A story attempts to describe an ambiguous, murky world where we always operate with partial information. We discard the incongruent parts of the story and form the most plausible gist as our takeaway.

With lists of facts or arguments we use analytical processing in which one questionable fact negates the conclusion. Consequently, research in advertising has demonstrated that stories can overcome negative aspects of products while arguments cannot.

Relevance to the hearer is very important when telling stories. For instance, in a brief retail sales encounter it is best to focus on stories about the product. Story quality will also affect receptiveness: The story should be concise yet have all necessary background info, have clear chronological order and event descriptions and use vivid adjectives, adverbs and action verbs.

Another key is to stick to the facts as you know them — embellishment is a two-edged sword that increases interest on one side and damages plausibility on the other. Humor can be useful but may also backfire. My advice is to use it with great caution, especially in sales encounters.

Finally, don’t fret too much if you aren’t a natural born raconteur. Training and practice can improve your storytelling skills, which in turn will increase your ability to market your product.

David A. Gilliam is an assistant professor of marketing and assistant director of the Center for Professional Selling at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Email him at