To Persuade People, Tell Them a Story

Transmitting information and persuading people to make a change are fundamentally different goals. Human minds are not like computer storage devices. You can’t just shove a bunch of stuff in, expect some processing to happen, and a change to occur. We like to process information like a story, with a beginning that sets up the drama, a path to resolution, and an ending.

Our sales proposals should read the same way, setting up the problem, and offering a path to a solution (with the customer as the hero and the seller as an assistant, of course). They should be engaging. Unfortunately, many people write proposals the same way people write history books– take something that people would naturally feel passionate about and strip it of excitement and narrative until it’s a dry and dull as walking through the Sahara. I’d be willing to be that more people know the events in the mythical world of Game of Thrones than the real-world events the author drew from because George R.R. Martin writes them as stories, while history textbook writers present a litany of facts without real narrative.

Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard, tell the story of a purchasing manager at a large corporation, trying to convince executives to standardize purchasing. He had people on his team gather up all the different types of gloves in use in the plants, and attached a price tag to each based on what the company had paid for that particular pair. He ended up with over 400 different types of gloves on an executive conference table, with widely different prices, even for the same pair of gloves. This visceral presentation of information immediately told the story of how purchasing was being inefficient, far better than a spreadsheet with the same factual information.

Dennis Nishi wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal, To Persuade People Tell Them a Story

Mr. Atkinson suggests organizing your story into three acts and starting by establishing context. You want to let your audience know who the main characters are, what the background of the story is, and what you’d like to accomplish by telling it, he says. You might open, for example, by describing a department that’s consistently failed to meet sales goals.

Move on to how your main character—you or the company—fights to resolve the conflicts that create tension in the story, Mr. Atkinson says. Success may require the main character to make additional capital investments or take on new training. Provide real-world examples and detail that can anchor the narrative, he advises.

The ending should inspire a call to action, since you are allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions about your story versus just telling them what to do. Don’t be afraid to use your own failures in support of your main points, says Mr. Smith.

If this doesn’t convince you of the power of story telling, consider Jeff Bezos, CEO of, who forbids PowerPoint, but requires people to prepare narratives to describe a problem and recommend a solution. Jeff even insists that before starting new projects, managers create a press release describing the launch of the product to the world. If you can’t tell a good story, you’re not thinking about it right.

So when you’re writing a proposal, cut out the boilerplate that you copied from the “About Us” section of your prospect’s website. That’s not a story, it’s not even background, it’s just b.s. Start by setting up the problem. Then tell a story about how you help them solve it. You’ll enjoy writing this way, prospects will actually want to read your proposals, and you’ll find more of them want to work with you.

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