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The Three Pillars of Storytelling for Sales Professionals

Improving win rate

using storytelling in sales

ben-taylorApril 17, 2018Blog

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Today, information is often dispersed without coherence, analysis or meaning. It comes fragmented, rarely coalescing into a whole. These disconnected pieces are a problem because a narrative flow is critical to the sales professional articulating the value of their product. The solution is an effective story.

This idea is hardly new. In fact, it has long been the accepted format of most business plans. As educators at Johns Hopkins University explain, “In simplest terms, a business plan must tell a compelling story.” Johns Hopkins continues, “Business plans that seem to ‘jump around’ between topics will create a disjointed narrative in your story and confuse your audience.”

However, to trace the earliest roots of persuasive storytelling, we must return to the time of Aristotle, who coined the terms ethos, pathos and logos. These three concepts underpin every effective story ever told. Sales professionals can use them to support a strong story that instills action on the part of the customer.

Here, we look at how using storytelling as a sales professional can leverage these concepts to rise above the competition.


Ethos, Greek for “character,” represents the ethical appeal, the credibility of the storyteller. Credibility matters because every piece of information from the sales professional is either supported or diminished by the customer’s perception of the storyteller. Credibility is the first trait a customer judges in their earliest interactions with the sales professional.

Effective sales professionals build credibility themselves by developing insights that illustrate their conscientiousness. Conscientiousness starts with thorough, careful planning that keeps the customer at the center of all decisions. Sales professionals who are conscientious succeed because "highly conscientious employees do a series of things better than the rest of us," as University of Illinois psychologist Brent Roberts explains.

In fact, an 80-year study tracking the entire lives of its participants found that the most conscientiousness people had “the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person, like a scientist-professor — somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree.”

When sales professionals slow down and take the care to do something right, it pays off.

Additional research supports this notion. Organizational studies starting in the 1990s “found that people displaying these traits tend to succeed in management roles.” Simply put: conscientiousness = credibility.


Once a sales professional demonstrates their credibility (ethos) in the first conversation, they can begin to develop their emotional appeal — their pathos. Here, the sales professional is attempting to elicit an emotion from the customer, namely, resolve. How does the sales professional do this? The answer is empathy.

The word empathy is derived from pathos. This connection is pertinent because research tells us that empathy is both “the single most important skill that salespeople can possess” and, at the same time, “one of the most important reasons that salespeople are unsuccessful.” Empathy is critical in developing a story because it helps overcome the status quo, an increasingly common challenge for sales professionals today. Additionally, many customers face complex problems with a sense of anxiety. Storytelling that considers pathos and empathy seeks to ease this emotion with one of comfort and trust.

Develop empathy by engaging the customer’s hesitations or even their objections when crafting your story. Doing so helps one rise above the designation of “seller” to that of a trusted advisor who is offering more than a solution; a trusted adviser offers support throughout implementation and beyond.


Logos, an appeal to logic, engages the analytic side of customers. Analytics like ROI and other measurements often underpin the value of a solution. However, what’s meaningful to one group may not be to another. Therefore, it’s important for the sales professional-as-analyst to know their audience. They need to know the customer’s data tolerance.

To understand the customer’s capacity for analytics, the sales professional must limit the finding not only to what’s relevant, but to what is interesting. Then, they must focus attention on key areas by using visual cues that draw the customer’s attention where it’s needed. That is, create a call a call to action that’s communicated through data.

Making this concept work involves a dual process that former Google Analytics Manager Cole Knaflic calls “exploratory analysis” and “explanatory analysis.”

  • The exploratory phase involves combing through data to determine what’s interesting and what people will care about.
  • The explanatory analysis occurs when specific information is identified, and the researcher begins to consider how they will communicate it to a person or group.
Sales professionals can identify the data that will focus and compel customers by considering “iconic memory.” This is the stage of memory that’s ultra short-term.

Here’s an example of how it works: imagine standing in a field at night. Everything is dark. Then, a bolt of lightning illuminates everything for just one second. This fleeting image is our iconic memory.

Cull the data to only the most relevant findings, then communicate the numbers succinctly.

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