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Let me Tell you a Story

Article published in the Institute of Sales Management "Winning Edge".

Although the term storytelling has become a business buzzword in the 21st century, the art of storytelling has been around since our ancestors lived in caves and drew on their walls.

Stories have the power to entertain, educate, preserve culture and instill moral values through accounts of imaginary or real people and events.

 

Stories also have the power to sell. You only need to look at an experiment called the “significant objects experiment” (http://significantobjects.com/) where a hundred cheap objects with an average value of $1.25 were sold for a total of $8,000 simply by adding a story to each.

 

While stories are common in the world of business to consumer marketing and sales – from the smouldering romance of the Gold Blend adverts of the 80s and 90s and the long-running Oxo family - stories in business to business sometimes need more thought. Let’s explore how the components of a story can help shape our creativity when writing a business proposal. Along the way, we’ll call on a few experts including the folk on the Pixar movie team - renowned for consistently making brilliant stories.

 

Got the plot?

 

A plot is a sequence of major events leading from somewhere to somewhere or something to something. A plot often relates to a problem that needs to be solved or a quest for a physical or emotional goal. The cause and effect of each major event drive the story forward.  

The German writer Gustav Freytag described five stages of a plot (Figure 1), to which most stories conform, in the form of a pyramid.

Pixar has a tried and trusted formula (below) for outlining a plot – by filling in the blanks, you can tell just about any story:

 

“Once upon a time there was…..Every day…..One day…..Because of that…..Because of that…..Until finally….."

 

Pixar urges us to focus on a core idea (a mother lode) to hang everything on. We can add sub-plots, but they should relate to the main plot – perhaps be a deeper dive to develop aspects of the storyline. Avoid parallel plots (like solving a crime alongside an affair between two of the characters), which only serve to dilute the main story

 

Turning to our proposal, our plot is getting our customer from a problem or ambition to an endgame or vision where they have achieved their desired outcome or result. The major events are the points in the journey we will take them on to get from start to finish – maybe checking their needs, then creating a solution, then implementing the solution and realising the benefits. We can use sub-plots to enhance different aspects – for example, our commercial and technical plots.      

 

Character-forming

 

Characters in a story are real or imaginary. They play out the events and triumph or suffer in the causes or effects.

 

To bring characters to life, their personalities need developing. Perhaps they are heroes or villains, larger than life or shrinking violets, dazzlingly handsome or sorrowfully ugly. As they unfold, we will learn to love them or loathe them – the best characters evoke strong emotions. 

 

Few of Pixar’s characters are humans – they are toys, cars, insects, fish, to name a few. They are all vividly brought to life and, without noticing, you become absorbed in their worlds and their struggles and victories.

 

When they are reading our proposals, our customers need to be entertained and influenced to love or hate the characters. We need to know our customers and what they care about, so we can write for them.

 

We can make the features of our solution the heroes, and the features of our competitors’ solutions the villains. But to be heroes, our features need to be developed from flat, one-dimensional characters into endearing multi-dimensional characters by matching them to a customer requirement and bringing out their benefits and value.

 

Theme-time

 

The theme is the message or purpose of the story, a point or lesson which the audience can recognise – not necessarily straight away, but by the end.

 

Although Pixar’s movies have big, colourful stories, there is always a theme underneath. “Finding Nemo” isn’t just about the adventures of a father clownfish dashing around the world’s oceans to rescue his kidnapped son – it’s about parenting. The “Toy Story” trilogy isn’t a bunch of toys rollicking around – it’s about loyalty, handling change and doing the right thing. Remember the old end to many a tale: “…and the moral of the story is…”

Andrew Stanton, one of the Pixar team, talks about needing a strong theme. And that’s what we need in our proposals. Our themes create the compelling reason why the customer should choose us and not our competitors.  

 

Business coach and storyteller John Bates has a great piece of advice: “Give us what matters to us. Pick three points and don’t cram unnecessary information in. Bring just the key things to the top.”

 

Hurrah to Andrew and John. Proposals that cram in every differentiator or Unique Selling Point in a pile it high fashion, won’t cut it. You will confuse and alienate. Between one and three themes, carefully crafted to express benefit and value for the customer, then woven through the proposal will beat a shedload of bragging any day.

 

A healthy dose of empathy

 

For a story to stick, we need to identify with the plot, the characters and the theme. Soundbites from Stanton - “make me care”, “tell it from the heart”, “create wonder” – emphasise the point. Pixar suggests empathy is the “third level of liking”. The first two levels are superficial, based on physical attractiveness and positive personal traits. True empathy comes when you engage more deeply and get under the surface, possibly even sharing and supporting each other’s challenges. 

 

Remember that buying is as much about emotion as it is about logical argument. As Bates comments: “None of the facts and figures matter until you have some sort of emotional connection.”

 

So, we need to create empathy on the page through emotional connection. Connect on the first two levels by using your customer’s name (or “you”) often and explaining “what’s in it for them” by describing the outcomes they will achieve either personally or corporately.  

Mirror your customer by using their language and playing back any discussions or diagrams they have shared with you. Show you care by writing from the heart and making strong, positive commitments about getting things done. Reinforce this by showing vulnerability by being open about any risks and issues you or they face and how you will deal with them together.

 

Get away from dull business-speak when you can by using vibrant, action-based language and images. And share stories of how you’ve solved similar problems before. 

Beginnings and endings (and the middle bit)

Both your “once upon a time” and your “happily ever after” need to be captivating. Stanton suggests making a promise at the beginning – one that you can come back to at the end. Freytag introduces us to the terms exposition (introduction) and denouement (resolution) – solid front and end anchor points either side of a roller-coaster of a story. Strong beginnings and endings make your story complete and fulfilling.    

 

In your proposals, remember to get to the point at the start. Don’t waffle around with please and thank you and how delighted you are to be submitting a proposal. Instead, tell them how you will solve their problem and what the outcomes will look like. Do this in the executive summary and each section of the proposal. At the end of the executive summary and each section, summarise and bring the customer back to outcomes for them.

 

The bits in the middle are where you paint the picture of the journey you will take together to get from problem to outcome, developing your characters and themes. Ensure you have a logical and balanced structure throughout your proposal. 

 

There will be times when your customer makes it hard to set out your story in a format and structure that suits you. But don’t forget, you can start a story in the middle and then fill in earlier and later gaps. Whatever constraints your customer puts forward, these are simply like the obstacles in the movie that fox the protagonists and cause some action to get back on track.

 

A cautionary tale

 

On my journey through the lands of storytelling, I have found some techniques that don’t quite suit the world of proposals. The two that get a thumbs-down are:

  • Stanton: “Give them 2 + 2 instead of 4” – meaning that you need to make your audience work hard. Sorry, no. Our job in a proposal is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to find what they need and want. They are time-poor and will much prefer the company that gives them great sign-posting.
  • Bates: “People don’t connect with your success, they connect with your mess” – akin to “bad news sells” (but good news doesn’t). Although proposal best practice does counsel us to explain how we will address relevant weaknesses, and we know that the best relationships are built on sharing and resolving challenges, we don’t want too much negativity in the document.    

There are probably more, but we want to end on a positive note.

 

And finally…

 

My narrative ends fittingly with a denouement – interestingly a word that translates as untie, rather than tie up (all the loose ends). The diagram below definitely ties things up by bringing the various strands together. 

Am I telling you anything new or different? Possibly not – the proposal suggestions are best practice, and I always counsel clients to work out their approach before they write. But the overriding conclusions from my storytelling journey on this occasion are: one, check you’ve got the component parts of the story covered, and two, stay focused.

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The Government Commitment to SMEs

The UK government aspires to procure 33% of its goods and services from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). 

Sounds good, but it can be daunting for those new to public sector bidding, who do not understand procurement rules and fear the red tape. 

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