I’ve read a lot of fiction—good and bad. It’s quite literally one of my jobs.
As the founder of Invisible Ink Editing, I’ve read and critiqued hundreds of manuscripts from writers of all skill levels.
But I also run my own SEO and Content Marketing service, Inkwell Content, and this business involves no fiction but plenty of selling to keep my pipeline filled.
After years of running these two businesses side by side, I’ve come to realize something:
Many of the storytelling tactics I suggest to my fiction writing clients apply directly to the best sales methods I’ve developed.
This is no coincidence when you think about it. Humans have always loved stories, even when they weren’t much more than scratchings on cave walls.
And businesses and entrepreneurs have been using stories to sell their products and services for almost as long.
To show you what I mean, here are five pieces of advice I’ve given to writers that also demonstrate the power of storytelling in sales:
1. Develop a relatable main character
All stories have a main character (or an ensemble of them) at their heart. But all the best stories have characters that readers fall in love with because they’re so relatable.
Creating a relatable character is no easy task. They have to be likable but not perfect. Flawed but not overly frustrating or irritating. They must be believable but also unique and compelling.
To tell a good story, you must have a deep understanding of your main character(s).
When it comes to sales, the characters of your story must be someone your target audience can relate to. This could be a former character, a hypothetical version of your customer, or even yourself.
In fact, turning yourself into the main character is a great way to leverage the “why” of your sales pitch—the reason, purpose, or belief that inspires you to do what you do.
You can use your own experiences and motivations to build a compelling and relatable character in yourself. And in a very meta way, every time you interact with a lead, you’ll deepen the client’s understanding of you as the main character.
You cannot craft a compelling character for your target audience if you don’t understand your audience deeply. You must know what they want, what frustrates them, what excites them, and what scares them. And once you do, you can craft a character that will make them think, “Hey, that sounds just like me.”
And that’s a hook that readers—and customers—can’t resist.
2. Map out the arc of your story
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s the most basic explanation of a “story arc.”
Each of these story segments serves a specific purpose and must be approached and paced accordingly.
To see what I mean, let’s start by examining those segments on a deeper level, using the Wizard of Oz as an example.
Beginning: This is your moment to set the scene. Introduce the main characters and the primary conflict. This would be the black-and-white portion of the Oz story when we first meet Dorothy and learn about her dissatisfaction with life on the farm. Cue “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Middle: This is the bulk of the story when your characters go on an adventure or quest. This is when you can develop your characters’ goals and raise the stakes of the story. Dorothy lands in Oz and has to find her way home. Along the way, she encounters friends and enemies, making her quest even more suspenseful…
End: This is the resolution of your story. Loose ends are tied up, and the characters learn some sort of lesson or change in a significant way. Dorothy defeats the witch, finds her way back to Kansas, and discovers there’s no place like home.
When you make storytelling part of your sales process, you can use this same structure. Let’s say you work in sales for a financial planning app targeted at people under 25 who are new to investing.
You might tell a story like this:
Beginning: When you graduated from college in your 20s and got your first job, you had no idea how to manage your money. You spent frivolously your first few years and were so stressed living paycheck to paycheck.
👉🏽 You’ve set the scene, established yourself as a relatable main character, and introduced your primary conflict.
Middle: One day, you decided to make a change. You went to a financial counselor, but they laughed you out of their office because you had so little to invest. And your friends weren’t much help. Until one day, you had lunch with your old college roommate, who was doing quite well, and they introduced you to a small app.
👉🏽 You’ve given your character a mission and goal and introduced more challenges, new characters, and a potential solution for suspense.
End: As soon as you started using the app, everything changed. You had a grip on your money and were no longer afraid of your checkbook. You loved the app so much that you wanted to help other people your age discover it, which led you to the job you’re in now.
👉🏽 You’ve resolved the main conflict, tied up the loose ends of your stories, and demonstrated the positive change your primary character saw as a result.
Though this is just a summary, a story like the one above has structure. It follows a pattern your audience will be used to and keeps them invested in your pitch.
3. Focus more on showing than telling
Developing a story arc gives your sales pitch good structure, but you’ll need to add more to it to make it a compelling story worth paying attention to.
In the fiction world, editors often talk about “showing vs. telling.” In short, instead of telling your audience, “This happened, and my characters felt this way,” you show them what happened and how your characters felt through description, action, and character development.
Let’s use the story we fleshed out in the last tip to explain showing vs. telling. If you were to completely tell the story, it might be something like this:
“I used to be really terrified of money. It stressed me out. But thanks to a friend of mine, I was introduced to this app. It resolved my money stress quickly, and I think it could do the same for you.”
That’s a pretty boring story. But if you put some showing into it, the beginning might sound something like this:
“I remember when I graduated college, I used to stay awake all night thinking about money. I spent way too many nights eating microwaved ramen and hot dogs from a cart. I’d feel sick to my stomach when I had to log into my banking app…”
And you might say something like this in the middle:
“My roommate agreed to meet me wherever I wanted, and I chose the cheapest cafe I could find. It was some greasy little hole in the wall, but my friend didn’t seem to mind, even though she was dressed immaculately…”
Instead of simply stating just the facts of the story, you’re embellishing your sales story with more details, descriptions, and emotions. Doing this will draw your audience deeper and make your story more compelling and relatable.
There are plenty of examples of advertising campaigns that demonstrate the power of showing over telling. Here’s one from the 2023 Super Bowl—there’s virtually no dialogue but plenty of emotion, details, and a story that draws you in and tugs at your heartstrings, even if you aren’t a dog person:
4. Use real life for inspiration
Some of the world’s most beloved stories are inspired by true events. “Murder on the Orient Express” was inspired by a famous kidnapping. And authors from Jack Kerouac to Stephen King have used people they know from real life as fodder for characters in their books.
Using real life as inspiration is an excellent way to bring realism to any story you’re telling. As we’ve discussed, stories that are relatable (and realistic) are the ones that will have the greatest impact on your target customers.
As a salesperson, you can use real-life events to craft the perfect sales story as well. There are so many places you can look for this kind of inspiration: your own personal experience, social media comments, online reviews from customers, threads on Reddit and Quora, or stories from your company’s customer service team.
Look at these real-life stories for patterns and themes. What are the common things people say about your product or service? What experiences are they sharing about using/interacting with your business?
Weave details from these real-life examples into your sales story, and you’ll have a pitch that grabs your audience’s attention from the get-go.
5. Listen to feedback and edit your story
Ask any writer, and they’ll tell you one of the hardest parts of the storytelling process is receiving feedback.
Not every story will resonate with every person, and it’s likely that the first time you try out storytelling in sales will be much like a first draft—a brave attempt that needs to be refined and revised.
A good storyteller will be open-minded when it comes to feedback. If the story you tell to a potential sale falls flat, you don’t want to give up on it altogether. You want to let your curiosity and open-mindedness explore why it didn’t work as intended.
Ask your customers or colleagues who hear your sales story for their honest opinion. Take that on board and rework the story the next time you tell it. Over time, the sting of negative feedback will fade—as will the amount of feedback you get because the story will get better with each retelling.
Master storytelling in sales to stand out
Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s no creativity in the world of sales. If you want to make your voice and brand stand out, you must become a masterful storyteller.
Want more advice on how to be a better salesperson? Check out these resources: