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Selling Complexity Through Stories

How can you persuade someone to buy your complex product when 90% of your presentation is forgotten within 72-hours?The short answer is you don’t. Unless you dramatically change how you engage with customers, they won’t understand why they should buy your complex product, because of the limitation of our short-term working memory.

According to memory experts, a salesperson’s 88-page PowerPoint product dump presentation unfortunately doesn’t flow directly through a pipeline into the customer’s long-term memory. Instead, the information must first travel through our limited short-term working memory that’s capable of remembering only three to four items of new information at a time. Now I’m not saying that all customers are pinheads. It’s just that getting information into their heads is more like threading a needle than pushing it down a pipeline. That’s why telephone numbers are limited to chunks of three or four, and it also explains why the best public speakers limit themselves to covering only three to four points. That’s all we are capable of remembering.

Stories Are Memorable
But what happens when you can’t dumb down your message to only three or four points? If you want customers to fully appreciate the complexity of your product, you will also have to share a customer story. Because a story presents a scenario that allows the customer to form their own conclusion, without feeling pressured, your message can now bypass the conscious mind’s limited ability to absorb new material, because you don’t think a story, you experience it. As a result, your message is directly absorbed into the automatic subconscious mind.

This is important, because it’s below the surface of our conscious mind where many of our complex decisions are made. You’ve had this experience. You’re thinking hard to try to find the answer, but it just won’t come. In frustration, you go for a walk to take your mind off of it, and then, as if from nowhere, the answer suddenly pops into your head. But what was really happening was that all of that time was that your unconscious mind was processing in the background, and once it arrived at the answer, it communicated the answer to your conscious mind through an emotion. In this case the emotion was certainty. Today, with EEG machines that measure brain activity, researchers are now able to prove that puzzles can be solved 8-seconds before the conscious brain is aware of it.

But even though we can now prove that complex decisions are often made subconsciously, we prefer to think that major decisions are made for rational reasons, because it makes us feel like we are more in control. And yet, our conscious controlled processing in our cortex only came onto the scene around 40,000 years or so ago. So it’s weak and buggy like new software compared to our subconscious automatic processing that has had 600 million years to iron out the bugs. This explains why “we have inexpensive computers that can solve logic, math and chess problems better than any human being can, but none of our robots, no matter how costly, can walk through the woods as well as the average 6-year old child.” It also explains why my 10-year old son can’t divide 180 by 12, and yet he can create a perfect parabola when he throws a ball from 50-yards precisely into the center of my glove?

So, let’s do a thought experiment on controlled vs. automatic decision making. Let’s say you are about to take on risk, and you are presented with two options:

  • You think it’s right, but it feels wrong
  • It feels right, but you think it’s wrong

What would you be more likely to do? Ideally, you’d have both. And that’s what you can do by sharing a customer story. They have been able to prove with fMRI scans, for instance, that a story lights up the region of the brain that processes sights, sounds, tastes, and movement. Thus, a salesperson can share a story with a customer, and due to the transportation effect of story, it feels real. It’s the next best thing to experiencing it live. It's as if the customer took the salesperson's offering out for a virtual test drive, and experienced it for themselves. Contrast the ability to potentially experience unlimited new information compared to the conscious mind’s limited ability to absorb an 88-slide power point product dump.

To fully appreciate your complex product, the customer has to also experience it, and this can often only happen through a story.

Michael Harris is CEO of Insight Demand, a sales training provider, and the author of “Insight Selling.”