The golden age of storytelling in business is upon us, and that's a good thing. When it comes to building your brand and making sales, or -- at the risk of getting a little meta -- reading stories about it, this ancient human art form is everywhere.

The best salespeople have always told stories, because -- much more than a set of facts -- they can have a powerful effect on a potential customer's emotions, which often make the difference between deal or no deal.

But what stories should you tell? You might be tempted to start with the "brand narrative," in which your product or service is the protagonist who saves the day. Obviously, this is an important story for the world to hear. But is it your most effective choice?

It's not about you

Let me suggest an alternative narrative: the client as hero.

This mantra came into focus for me a few years ago when my company was training sales reps for a global social media company. They had a slew of exciting new advertising products to pitch, and this group -- many of whom were early in their careers -- was eager to hone their storytelling skills.

But when we began to hear the stories these folks wanted to tell, something was off. While they were passionate about their products, and the benefits and value they were extolling were impressive, when I put myself in the shoes of a potential buyer I was unmoved. I asked the group what they thought was missing.

As luck would have it, in the class that day was a new manager at the company who was also a veteran salesperson, and she identified the gap.

Your supporting role

"It's not about us," she said. "This isn't about bringing our own story, or the brand story, into the relationship. The client already has a story, and we're coming into it as a 'supporting character.' The client is the hero, and we're there to help them succeed."

This insight came as a revelation to the sales team, with far-reaching consequences. Armed with the understanding that their job is to help the client-hero to succeed, it became clear that they would have to change the point of view of their stories.

Whatever the story, it had to be told from the client's perspective, which meant learning more about the client's pain points and needs. They had to create meaningful conversations with the client through open-ended inquiry, instead of going on about their brand's innovations and greatness.

Building the story

To help the sales team with their new client-as-hero narratives, we developed a framework that turns every sales call into a kind of story itself. And like good stories since the beginning of time, these have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

  • Part I: A compelling opening. Describe the world as it is today, with the client portrayed as the hero who faces great (and specific) challenges.
  • Part II: A clear build. Then, show how the world will be changed by the brand or product. Provide important facts and rising action to paint an indelible picture of the ways in which working with your brand overcomes obstacles, diminishes pain, and makes the hero's success inevitable.
  • Part III: A powerful close. Here, you make the ask that will provide resolution to the story -- a signed contract, a down payment, or the scheduling of a future meeting. As an epilogue, you can provide a flashback to the world "as it could be" in partnership with your brand, in which the client's heroic status is memorialized for all time.

The irony is, of course, that by making the client the hero of your sales stories, you'll also be making yourself the hero -- of your own.