5 Ways to Tell Stories that Sell

Although storytelling is popular in content marketing, many business owners don’t know how to tell stories that sell. They cast themselves as the hero. They confuse chronologies, conversations and curation with stories. Or they don’t make their point.

Apply these tips, however, and you’ll use your stories that build credibility and relationships, open minds and wallets and encourage people to return for the next episode.

1. Cast yourself as the mentor

2. Show me, through action

3. Apply a simple structure

4. Grab your audience quickly

5. Use personal anecdotes to support your point

Don’t Play the Hero

Many business owners want to play the hero galloping to the rescue. Get off that horse and lift your client up there.

If you make your client the hero, other people will identify. You won’t come across as arrogant.

In his analysis of storytelling archetypes, Joseph Campbell identified 22 steps involved in the hero’s journey. They can be boiled down to three: (1) the hero departs the familiar (2) the hero overcomes trials, which reveal his/her character, and (3) the hero faces more trials, which lead to his/her return.

The key to overcoming these trials is the mentor he meets on his journey. That’s the consultant or anyone who runs a business based on their expertise.

So be the guide, the Yoda, whose wisdom or magic works for the hero—and potentially others too.

Show, Don’t Tell

Campbell’s insights also underscore the need to reveal your hero’s character through action, not description, and the need for trials and tribulations to drive the plot.

I know this should make sense to anyone who has listened to a bedtime story or watched a movie. But many organizations I’ve written stories for think strings of adjectives will be believed. Or they want to avoid conflict or admit weakness.

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But if you want to tell a gripping, credible story, you need character-revealing action and plot-driving problems.

Simple Story Structures

To stay on track, you need to follow a storytelling structure. Use Campbell’s three-part structure. Or try Pixar’s movie story structure, which goes like this:

Once upon a time

Every day

Until one day

Because of this

And because of that

Until finally

Grab Your Audience Quickly

Also valuable to attract people with short attention spans is the Law and Order story structure, which you can observe in not only the show’s many spinoffs, but also almost every story-per-episode television crime drama. I talk more about this in my book and learning series Write Like You Talk Only Better.

These shows have to hook the audience before the first commercial. So they quickly introduce you to a victim you like or who you can identify with. Then you watch him violently die.

Although business owners are unlikely to kill any characters in their stories, this proven formula reinforces why they need to develop relatable characters then jump to the turning point of their plot.

If you kick off your presentation with a story that takes too long to boil, your audience will shift their attention to their smart phones. Like prime time television viewers, they will change channels.

The Moral, or Selling Point, of the Story

Just as Aesop always had a moral to his story, so should your stories. Usually the moral involves the action you want the audience to take, such as trusting you as an authority or moving to the next stage of your sales cycle.

Although the stories may be about how your service saved the hero, they can also be simple personal anecdotes that make your point. A great example is Michael Katz of Blue Penguin Developments, who sends me a lovely story every Friday. Unlike the sagas of Homer or George Lucas, Michael relates simple personal anecdotes involving family, friends and other ordinary people most of us can relate to.

They always have a point, often a few, sometimes relating directly to the book or course he’s selling. He consistently follows the structure: I’m like you, Conflict, Resolution and Lessons.

Although he emails me the script in newsletter format, I listen to the podcast. Usually I prefer to read, because it’s faster than listening. But because storytelling began as tales around the campfire and Michael’s voice entices, I’m all ears.

I’m disappointed when Michael produces a talking-head video instead of the podcast. Watching him talk adds nothing to, even detracts from, the story. Michael is good on camera, but not great, which anyone who has grown up on television and movies has come to expect.

If you’re going to tell a visual story, you need Star Wars-quality video, which only the richest experts can afford, or at least a screen presence that draws in the audience, which only the most charismatic talking head can pull off. Better still, star your hero, the client you helped, not you. But only if she has the compelling presence of a reality-show star.

This leads me to bonus tip 6: Stick to the storytelling medium that works best for you and your story.

So that adds up to six ways to tell stories that sell

  1. Cast yourself as the mentor


  • Show me, through action
  • Apply a simple structure
  • Grab your audience quickly
  • Use personal anecdotes that support your point
  • Stick to the storytelling medium that works best for you and your story


Next time you’re savoring a novel, television show or movie, think about how you can adapt techniques that will work for you business stories.

Image via Shutterstock

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