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Beyond Story-Telling and Selling: Role in Your Prospect’s Reality Show

John Tabita

I’ve been talking about using the power of stories to persuade and, in particular, to sell your services. But in my last article, I said that it takes more than just telling a few good stories, that you must become a character in the drama of your prospect’s life. But exactly how do you do that? I’m glad you asked.

To answer that, I have to take you back in time a little—or perhaps a lot—to your high school literature class. You may recall that a story contains certain elements, such as characters, setting, and of course, a plot. The plot has the following parts:

i. Goal: What the character wants or needs
ii. Obstacle: Something that stands between a character and his goal—a problem
iii. Attempt: What the character does (or does not do) to overcome the obstacle
iv. Outcome: What happens as a result of the attempt
v. Final Outcome: What the character does or tells about the achieving or not achieving the goal

Perhaps that looks strangely familiar to you. It did to me when I first rediscovered this. It reminded me of the “needs analysis” questions I asked prospective clients in the fact-finding stage of my sales process:

  • Why do you want a website and what do you hope to accomplish?
  • What positive results would this produce?
  • What stands in the way of achieving this?
  • Why aren’t you doing this yourself?
  • What is your vision of success?

You see, your prospect has a goal, something he wants to accomplish—otherwise, you wouldn’t be sitting in his office discussing your services. This is item number one on the plot outline of our real-life drama:

The Goal. What does the character (your prospect) want or need?

But here’s the problem: Your prospect has encountered an obstacle. In Business Planning 101, you may have learned the acronym SWOT—Strengths, Weaknesses, Obstacles, and Threats. Businesses face numerous obstacles, but the one you and I can affect is helping them reach new customers, more customers, or better customers. Selling is about finding people who have a need you can fill. If there’s no obstacle to overcome, then there’s no problem. If there’s no problem, there’s no need. We’ve now arrived at item number two:

The Obstacle. Something that stands between your prospect and his goal; a problem.

Next, what has your prospect done to overcome the obstacle? Perhaps they have some type of marketing in place but are struggling to figure out how the add the web into the mix. Maybe they’ve tried something on their own and failed. Or perhaps they’re simply not sure where to start and are looking for expert advice. The bottom line is, they’ve encountered an obstacle they can’t overcome. You job as a consultant is to get your prospect to tell you his story. That’s what a needs assessment is for—to discover what your prospect wants and what’s preventing him from achieving it. So, item number three in our drama is:

The Attempt: What has your prospect done or not done to overcome this obstacle?

This is where you come into the story. If your prospect could solve this problem himself, he wouldn’t need you, would he? But what part do you play? What character are you, exactly?

Here’s where most of us get it wrong: we think we’re the hero. We want to be the knight in shining amour who rides in and saves the day. But just as we’ve suited up, sword in hand, ready to swoop down with our solution, our prospect hesitates. Suddenly, his problem is “not that bad,” and he’ll “have to get back to you.”

If that’s the wall you keep hitting, it’s because you’re not recognizing a fundamental element of the unfolding plotline. Your client is the hero … not you. (After all, it’s his story, isn’t it?) And here you are … trying to be the star and take all the glory. No wonder he’s resisting.

If you’re not the Hero, then who? One aspect of the story we didn’t talk about is the role of the mentor. Think about some of the great heroes in literature. Luke had Obi-Wan. Frodo had Gandalf. Gilligan had the Skipper. In the hero’s journey story archetype, the hero always has a mentor, someone who gives the hero the resources, knowledge, and confidence required to overcome the obstacle he faces.

But the hero must ultimately face his struggle alone. Gandalf didn’t accompany Frodo into Mordor. Luke went on to destroy the Death Star and confront Darth Vader without Obi-Wan. Your prospect will go on to achieve his hopes, dreams, and desires without you. When he retires to a villa on some remote South Sea island paradise, you can be sure you won’t be invited along. As he lounges on the beach with all the other rich retirees, the story he wants to tell is his story, how he succeeded. Your part in the story is that you played a small role in getting him there, whether he acknowledges it or not. But do that enough times, and you’ll get to be the hero of your own story.

You can get anything you want in life by helping others get want they want. – Zig Ziglar