Business Strategy | Leadership / Management

Quit trying to sell stuff. Tell stories instead.

When it comes to getting your message out, traditional marketing and advertising don’t cut it anymore.

Tell a good story, though, and you’re golden.

So says Wharton professor Jonah Berger. An expert on marketing, advertising and social influence, Berger was on hand at the 2014 Sage Summit with a no-nonsense message for brand managers, marketers and advertisers everywhere:

“People don’t share advertising. They share stories,” said Berger, author of the best-selling Contagious: Why Things Catch On. “Good stories are like a trojan horse. They carry brands and their messages along with them.”  

Let’s face it: CPAs are data-driven folks, and all of that information serves a hugely useful purpose. It helps us see trends and make good decisions.

On its own, though, information is largely forgettable. It doesn’t stick.

You know what sticks? A good story. And why? Because it’s compelling and emotional. Find the story behind the data and it will be nearly impossible not to sell.

How do you find those stories? Berger has a few ideas:

  1. Keep it simple. Accounting, auditing, taxes and finance are complicated issues. Don’t try to explain them to an uneducated audience. “If your audience remembered only one thing you told them, what should it be?” Berger asked. “How can you strip out unnecessary details and keep it simple?”
  2. Find your triggers. These are the things that make people talk about or share something. Case in point: Geico’s viral “Hump Day” ads. If I had to guess, I’d say most people would share an ad that features a camel shouting “Hump Day!” on Wednesdays, and according to Berger, I’d be right. Think of it another way, says Berger: “Peanut butter” triggers thoughts of “jelly.” If you’re selling jelly, what’s your peanut butter?
  3. Share a secret. People like to feel like insiders. Make your message sound important and off-limits. Share a secret and your audience will, too.
  4. Be remarkable, like Blendtec. How else can you describe a video of a lab technician pulverizing an iPad in a blender?

Here’s the deal: We’re all salespeople today. Just ask Dan Pink. We’re not talking about your parents' sales jobs, though. We’re talking about “non-sales selling.” We’re talking about telling stories, finding triggers, sharing secrets and being remarkable.

This stuff isn’t easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it. But to out-sell the competition, it’s absolutely essential.

And it all starts with this:

What problems are your clients trying to solve … and how can you help solve them?


Bill Sheridan