How to engineer stories that sell for you

George Brontén

An interview with Mike Adams, author of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell

What do a wiring diagram, a brain, and a story have in common? More than you might think.

Twenty years ago, Mike Adams was an engineer aspiring to be a rock physicist, when his employer, the world’s largest oilfield services company Schlumberger Limited, transferred him to Norway and into an unwanted career in sales.

Despite his preference for keeping company with rocks and oil well fluids, Adams found he had a knack for selling software to humans. But his engineer’s mind wasn’t satisfied to simply perform well at the job–he wanted to know why he was doing well.

“We want to know how something works exactly,” says Adams about engineers. “And then once we know how it works, we want to use it. We want to apply it.”

It turns out that Adams’ success had a lot to do with the stories he was telling. His inquiries and the resulting discoveries would eventually lead him to write his bestselling 2018 book, Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell.

In his search for understanding, Adams didn’t stop at the realization that stories were helping him–he wanted to know why the stories worked, how they were impacting the brains of his buyers, and how to construct the right stories for the right scenarios to get buyers consistently to move and to close.

So, naturally, he started with a wiring diagram for the human brain.

The most interesting picture in the world

The human brain, once believed to be a mass of wrinkly “gray matter,” we now know is composed of billions of neurons, interconnected in a deeply organized and somewhat flexible manner.

Neurons, also known as nerve cells, in the largest part of our brain look like miniature tree bushes with a root system at the base of the cell body (called basal dendrites), a trunk, called an axon, and more branches of dendrites above the trunk (called apical dendrites). The axon and dendrites operate like antennae, sending and receiving electrical impulses to and from other neurons. The basal dendrites receive direct firing signals from other neurons but the apical dendrites are predictors. They receive signals from other neurons which collectively ‘suggest’ ‘you’re going to fire next’ - a prediction.

Adams has a poster hanging on his office wall that he calls “the world’s most interesting picture.” It’s an artist’s enhancement of thousands of microscopic photographs of the brain. 


The print hanging in Adams’ office (Image credit: Greg Dunn)

If you want to be specific, and Adams always wants to be specific, it’s a “sagittal view of the human brain - a front to back cross section, photographically enlarged and with 500,000 neurons drawn to scale from microscope images and etched onto gold plate by the artist.” 

It is, to the engineer’s mind, a wiring diagram.

After all, when reduced to its physical functioning elements, the brain is simply a 3-dimensional, organic, electrical circuit board.

Good stories bypass the brain’s natural inclination to resist new information.
Mike Adams

Adams explains that the basic wiring of the human brain is the same for all of us.

For instance:

“This is the olfactory bulb here,” he says, pointing to a network of neurons near the front of the brain wiring diagram. “This is where our sense of smell is first processed. And then it’s passed back by neurons to be processed in this little bit of cortical tissue here. And then the connection goes here, to the frontal lobe of the brain. It’s the only sense we have that connects directly to the cerebral cortex.”

Studying the brain in this manner and reading journal articles at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and computer simulations of neural networks led Adams to a deep insight about why stories work like they do, and how best to use them.

What stories do to the brain

While the basic wiring of the brain is similar among most humans, it is also flexible and changes, over the course of a person’s life.

This flexibility is necessary to learning and reacting to the environment.

The largest part of our brain, the cerebral cortex, is especially interesting. What your cortex is doing, all the time,” says Adams, “is trying to find patterns in your environment, both your internal body environment, called interoception, and your external environment. When it finds patterns that repeat often enough, it memorizes them by adjusting its wiring. Then it uses those patterns to predict what’s going to happen next.”

Once a pattern is memorized, and as long as that pattern continues to repeat and the brain’s predictions are met, the prediction runs automatically, usually unnoticed by the conscious brain.

In other words, you’re not even aware of the majority of what you do, and think, during the course of your day. Your brain is on autopilot.

But what happens when the brain’s prediction fails?

“The vast majority of the time, your cortex is just happily predicting away, and you’re not taking any notice,” explains Adams. “For instance, you’re going up an escalator. To stay on the escalator, you have to move your body in a particular way. You learned this as a kid, and you’ve forgotten that you actually learned it, because you just do it automatically. But if the escalator switches off suddenly, then you notice. You get that kind of horrible feeling of falling. Why? It was a failed prediction. And now you’re paying attention.”

What does all this have to do with stories?

A story, by definition, is a sequence of related events that the cortex takes in and attempts to associate with a known pattern. As you listen to a story, your brain is constantly predicting what will happen next.

Good stories start by giving the brain notice that it can expect a story. If we say ‘once upon a time’ we’ll expect a fairytale, but when Adams says “In 1996 when I moved to Norway,” we expect a true story – and because stories usually contain something unexpected, that signals the brain to start paying attention. Then, at some point, something unexpected does happen in the story. This keeps the conscious brain turned on and tuned in, ready to take in the new information and process it effectively and adjust its predictions accordingly.

This is one key to why stories are so important to the sales process. They keep listeners alert and tuned in. But there’s more.

A sense is a sense is a sense

From the standpoint of what the cortex is made of and how it processes information, there is no difference between the sense of smell, the sense of hearing, the sense of sight, or the sense of taste. It’s all just data that gets translated into electrical impulses.

In fact, from that perspective, there’s no difference between an external sense such as sight or hearing, and the processing of internal data including the operations of internal organs, the body’s location in space–and the thoughts you have about the things that are happening.

What this means is that, from a physical perspective, the brain treats the events of a story exactly the same way it treats physical information about the world.

Because good stories revolve around a character we are able to imagine ourselves as that character and our cortex will predict what the story character sees, hears and feels. We construct and feel the character’s emotions as a prediction in our cortex in exactly the same way that we construct a mental image of the story’s events.

In short, as far as your brain is concerned, the events of the story are as real as the smell of the cologne of the person telling it.

And because unpredictable stories make the brain pay attention to new sequences and patterns, they bypass the brain’s natural inclination to resist new information.

Telling a good story causes the brain to pay attention, lowers its defenses against new information, and causes it to rewire in response to the unpredicted events of the story.

When the story is carefully crafted, it can rewire the listener’s neurons to be more receptive to a particular course of action.

And that’s what the seven story types in Adams’ book are designed to do.

The seven stories

Armed with his insights into how stories impact the brain, Adams then set about to apply those insights in the practical setting he found himself in sales situations.

He uncovered and described the anatomy of seven types of stories that are critical for selling. Each story type revolves around a character type that has a particular influence on the listener, and should be used in specific circumstances during the sales process. Adams uses a fishing metaphor to categorize the story types, from the “lure” to the “hook” to the “fight” to “landing” the deal.

The book also describes Adams’ strategy for collecting, crafting, organizing, and perfecting these stories for use by his clients’ sales teams. Each story concept in the book is explained with sales story examples from all over the world.

It’s a hugely insightful book, full of detailed instructions for leveraging the power of storytelling across entire sales teams to improve performance. You can buy it here or connect with Adams to learn more.

I wouldn’t be a good salesperson myself if I didn’t point out that our technology provides great tools for executing on the strategies in Adams’ book. Our new content hub is the perfect tool for collecting, organizing, and serving up the right stories to your sales teams at the right time, so they can use them effectively and consistently to land more deals. Get in touch with us for a demonstration today.

 

mike_adams_headshotAbout Mike Adams

Engineer turned salesman, Mike taught himself storytelling while selling and managing sales teams throughout the world for international corporations Schlumberger, Siemens, Nokia and Halliburton. With each industry change landing him on the wrong side of a steep learning curve, Mike learned to seek out and share specific persuasive stories.

Now he finds stories and teaches storytelling for a consulting client base as diverse and international as his own sales career.


 

George Brontén
Published December 12, 2018, written by

George Brontén

George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills and processes.

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