How do you sell by storytelling?

sell by storytelling

Copywriting advice is confusing. Use plain language! No cliches! Offer proof! Easy on the stats! Keep it simple! But tell a story! I completely understand why some business owners ask themselves, “How do you sell by storytelling?” because telling a story seems contrary to the advice to keep it simple.

It would be near impossible to run a small business and never have to write a word. We humans are stuck using language to connect until we get that ESP thing figured out. You can show someone a picture that displays what you sell or do, but at some point, your buyer will have questions and you’ll have to answer them. That’s why all of us who run a small business can benefit from good writing skills.

Good storytelling is the best way to invite your audience into your world, and persuade them to try what you’re offering. I’m not just saying that because it’s is how I personally attract business for myself and my clients.

Today I want to dissect how to sell by storytelling, and what I mean when I use that phrase.

Today’s Agenda:

  1. What do I mean by “sell by storytelling?”
  2. Why it works
  3. A word of warning

Let’s acknowledge an important fact first: there’s work to do before you write a word. Neuroscientists say buyers make up their minds about something new they see (e.g., your website) within 0.05 seconds. Five percent of a second. 50 milliseconds. The audience forms an opinion in, quite literally, less the blink of an eye. This tells us visual appeal and user experience are non-negotiable.

We All Sell by Storytelling

Visuals & customer experience matter, but not rejecting you isn’t the same as buying from you. That’s where the words come in. What happens after that fraction-of-a-second first impression? That’s the point at which your audience engages their higher cognitive skills. They leave or seek. If they don’t leave, they’re seeking more information.

Information through storytelling is effective as a means of persuasion. Our brains just love a good story. This isn’t a fuzzy-wuzzy anecdotal observation. I mean it is, but it’s not JUST a fuzzy-wuzzy anecdotal observation. It’s science, and I brought receipts.

The Science of Storytelling

So when I say “storytelling,” I mean positioning the information your audience needs in a format that is driven by characters and elicits emotion from the audience. Not too much emotion, but I’ll get to that in a sec.

In a 2020 neuroscientific study out of Australia’s Griffith University, researchers observed that certain messages we read or hear release a specific brain chemical called oxytocin.

Maybe you already know about oxytocin, but to recap, this is the “urge to merge” hormone that bonds mothers to their children and humans to their chosen partner.

Even if you aren’t a neuroscientist, you can probably hypothesize the effects of drenching your brain with the love chemical whenever you hear a story that resonates with you on an emotional level. We are more compliant, and more willing to take suggestion.

This absolutely correlates with our willingness to spend money on something. One Chinese study showed oxytocin levels influence certain impulse shopping behaviours. Another tracked charitable donations and found the subject who got a dose of oxytocin donated 57% more to a charitable cause.

So how do we get in on this love-fest as business owners? You sell by storytelling.

The Hero’s Saga

There is a format we have all come to enjoy and even expect when it comes to a good story. Many marketing experts and business consultants refer to this format as “The Hero’s Saga.” Hoooooo, boy do we humans love hearing stories that follow this pattern. Here’s a look:

sell by storytelling

It goes like this. You have a hero. You instinctively root for this person. They have a problem, desire, wish, goal, whatever. They run into all kinds of bullshit while trying to solve this problem. They meet a guide (spoiler alert: it’s YOU!) who has the answer to their problems. They learn from the guide, and through a little more effort and exploration, they get to the top of that mountain.

This story arc covers practically the entire Western canon of literature, not to mention every episode of Paw Patrol. No one describes this better than Dr. Martha Beck in her book Finding Your Own North Star,

“A good Hero’s Saga never goes easily: ‘So Hercules was given the twelve labours…he found all the labours really easy, finished them in about 10 minutes and went home to whip himself up a mess of baklava.’ We aren’t interested in stories like this, because this isn’t how we experience life.” (Finding Your Own North Star, p. 250)

True when it comes to Marvel movies, true when our customers are reading to learn more about our product or service. We want action, dammit!

Good Stories Sell

The Griffith University study cited an experiment where scientists scanned the brains of subjects who read two different versions of information about an oil company. One was an emotional heartwarming story of how the oil company was working to save endangered turtles. The other was a “just the facts” account. The people who received the information in the “story” format were substantially more likely to cultivate feelings of trust toward the oil company. They also spent almost twice the amount of time reading the story.

The amount of time spent engaging with the story is the key to why this works for sales. Perhaps surprisingly, the people who read the emotional story version of the information were less likely to retain what they read. We see this effect when we watch a TV commercial that makes us cry, but forget what the ad is for. Not ideal. You need the emotional story to draw in the audience, but if you want them to remember what you are telling them, you’d better follow that up by appealing to their cognitive brain.

Here’s what business owners need to know about learning to sell with storytelling:

  1. “First impression” is a killer. We must appeal to our audience in a fraction of a second;

  2. If you make it past that Thunderdome of the subconscious, good storytelling is your best tool for converting them into buyers. A well-told tale has the power to trigger neurotransmitters that make your audience far more attracted to you; and,

  3. You better have something to back up your good story. It will catch your audience’s attention in a way nothing else will, but in order to close the sale, you still need credible information about an offer that is relevant to them if you want a sustainable relationship.

The Secret Ingredient

There is one last finding in this study that fascinates the hell out of me. It found that if the emotionality of the story is too much; if it moves from charming to cloying, your audience will feel contempt for your brand. Yikes.

We may be manipulated, we may even KNOW we’re being manipulated, but no one responds well to feeling manipulated. Let me tell you, that’s a hard line to walk. I was a reporter in local news. The land of “person talking about their horrible loss…zoom in tight to their face…cue the single tear rolling down their face.” Gag. I never wanted to be that reporter.

I can’t say I was always on the right side of that equation, but I can say I learned what makes people endlessly tolerant of what otherwise might seem cheesy or distasteful.


The best advice I have for telling your audience what you do, and why you want them to choose you is to find a way to tell it in story format, and be scrupulously authentic.

Now that you know the science behind the power of a good story, the next step is learning how to turn your information into a story that sells. That’s coming next week in Part 2.

picture of author bridget brown