How to use the hero story narrative to sell your product – Richard Mulholland

Profmed, South Africa’s largest restricted medical aid scheme for professionals, is producing an eight-episode vodcast series that explores how we can take care of today while simultaneously building a positive vision of the future. The eighth and final episode features renowned speaker and co-founder of global presentation powerhouses Missing Link and TalkDrawer Richard Mulholland. He explains the concept of ‘story selling’ as a way to get people to want what your company is offering. “Nobody cares about your story. They care about their own story. So what you actually have to do is move from being a storyteller to being a story seller. You’ve got to figure out how I can sell my audience a new version of their own story in which I play a better part.” – Claire Badenhorst

Richard Mulholland on the importance of story selling:

The question I want to answer for you and for anyone watching is: how do I tell my story in a better way? Because it’s something I get asked time and again. The problem is that that assumes that people care about your story and they don’t. Nobody cares about your story. They care about their own story. So what you actually have to do is move from being a storyteller to being a story seller. You’ve got to figure out how I can sell my audience a new version of their own story in which I play a better part. So if we can figure that out, then we do well. Then we both win.

There are two kinds of stories in sales, yours and those that matter. The Aha moment of that idea is that it’s not your story that matters. It’s something else. That’s what brings us to this idea of the hero’s journey. For those who don’t know, the hero’s journey is basically a narrative structure that many, many, many films, almost all films and books and things that we’ve seen follow. It’s the basic basis of a story that people understand from Star Wars to Harry Potter to The Hunger Games. They all follow the same narrative. This was observed by a guy called Joseph Campbell in a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He said there are many, many, many heroes. They have all different faces, but it’s essentially the same hero on the same journey.

This is something I say to people in public speaking and presenting all the time. Speakers come to us and say, I want to tell my story. No, the champion is in the chair, the sage is on the stage. When I’m doing a presentation to somebody, when I’m delivering a presentation to an audience, it’s not my story that matters. It is theirs. All I am relative to their story is I’m just a guy on stage. In the movie of their life, I’m just ‘dude who was on stage one day’. My job then is not to be the hero but it’s to audition for a better part. And that’s the fundamental premise of almost any sales story. We go and we present our companies as if they are the hero. This is who we are. This is what we do. We spend all this time selling these ideas, but we forget that actually we’ve not interrupted their story, and until we do that, nothing happens.

On how to sell your product using the hero story arc:

All these stories and these stories’ arcs have something in common, and that is that they have the hero, the champion, but they have the villain or the baddie. In our methodology, we refer to this as the dragon and the idea is that every narrative has a dragon. You’ve got to decide before you get on stage what is the dragon that my audience is facing? One of the mistakes that people make is they think that the audience understands the dragon. And there’s two parts to this. Why I like the dragon analogy is that the dragon both represents the threat, but it also represents the opportunity, because behind the dragon is the loot and the treasure and things like this. And the two big motivations for human beings are fear and greed. So if we can tell a story that includes a version of the fear – the dragon – and a version of the greed – the loot – and we can explain to people what they hope to achieve, what is in front of them, and then if we can put ourselves there as the weapon to try and help them get through that, then we win.

When I explain this to people, I’ll often say to them that when sales professionals come up to you, they’ll say to you, don’t sell features, sell benefits. No, that doesn’t matter. If I’m selling an ambulance, if I sell you the features or the benefits of the ambulance, it doesn’t matter. You do not want to ride in my ambulance. But if I can sell you the accident, then the ambulance will sell itself. So that’s what we have to figure out. We have to figure out what the dragon is in our story, what the treasure is, and we’ve got to help our audience beat that. So the elements for me are, there is a hero, there is a dragon, there is a weapon, and then there is an action – that call-to-action. We should think that our primary job is to help our audience slay their dragon. That’s kind of true, and that is ultimately true, but what most sales professionals and speakers and presenters fail to understand is it’s not job number one. Job number one is to help your audience see their dragon because most people do not understand that bad thing that’s in front of them that you see and your job is to make sure they see it. If they see the dragon that your company is uniquely positioned to help them slay, you win.

We always say to businesses that marketing professionals talk a lot about a USP, a unique selling proposition. I think what’s more interesting is figuring out what your UPS is, and your UPS is a unique problem that only you can solve. If I can convince you that the problem in your business is one that only being better at public speaking can help you solve, if that’s the most important problem that you’re facing right now, the most important solution to that problem would be working with us and helping you do that, then I win.

On highlighting the ‘dangers’ for your audience:

To some degree, when the alternative is as bad as it could be and it could really, really kind of rip a family apart if something terrible happens, then it is worthwhile making sure we shine a light on the reality. I think that, yes, we don’t want to be purveyors of doom, but we need to be purveyors of reality. There are alternative futures. There is one future in which X happens and one future in which Y happens. It’s very important that we understand that we have both those futures presented ahead of us. Once we do that, then we allow our audience to focus on the one that feels good for them, and we just simply make sure that we are there at the crossroads, helping them find that direction. But I do think it is okay, without being all doom and gloom, to make sure that your audience does understand the reality. Maybe a better way to phrase it is that your audience understands what’s at stake.

On how to set up your sales pitch for success: 

So here’s something I realised a while ago, is that any time I have a meeting with somebody, they took it for a reason. So we talk about the importance of the Dragon Hunter question. I usually will start a meeting and I’ll sit there and I’ll set the agenda, say, hey, we’re going to be together for 30 minutes, I’m going to just ask you a couple of questions, understand your reality and what’s going on right now, then I’ll take you through maybe five minutes on our business, five to 10 minutes on how I think we can help you, then we’re going to flip it over to you, answer any questions you have, and finally, we’re going to decide if we’re going to do business today. I always want to plant that seed because I want audiences or my prospects to understand that this is a sales conversation. People will pretend it’s not, but both parties know it is. So I say to them, at the end of this, we’re going to decide if we’re going to be working together as partners going forward – does that sound reasonable to you?

We’re trying to drive towards a condition of victory for both parties. The condition of victory for me is that we go onto the next step, the condition of victory for them is that a problem is solved for them. So what I then do is I introduce this Dragon Hunter question. I say, so before we get into it, I just want you to answer one particular question. Out of interest, what made you decide to take this meeting? And you ask that question, and you know what happens? People will tell you. They’ll say to you, well, you know, the truth is when I got your email, the fact is my wife and I have actually been quite worried of late about this or, you know, and we have been thinking about that in some way. Then all you do is you ask a couple of more questions, making that small dragon in their head, make them sell the doom and gloom story of what that is.

Then I chase up with: so if I’m hearing you correctly, if I’m understanding what you’ve said to me, you’re saying that- and then I reposition the story and I re-tell it using all of their bits in a way that makes sense, that introduces the UPS that I have – the unique problem that only I can solve. Too many salespeople sell the category and not them uniquely. So if I was selling the category of, say, presentations, I could go out there and say why presentations are so important and why this matters and why you need to do them better. I’ve just done a sales pitch for every single one of my competitors. I’ve sold the category of ‘you need better presentation people’. I’ve got to sell the part of the problem that separates me from anybody else they might be meeting. So I get to that point of the question, and then I will introduce the construct of the presentation component.

On PowerPoint presentations:

Blaming PowerPoint for a bad presentation is like blaming the pan for a bad meal. PowerPoint is a fantastic tool, badly used. It really is just a linear sequencing engine that gets to one idea after the other, and I don’t think they need to be fancy. In fact, we’re doing less and less and less slide design because the key is that you write a good presentation before you design it [and] before you deliver it. Your ovation will be earned primarily in your preparation, more than your presentation. And it’s understanding that there is a structure and a narrative structure that you’ve got to go through to do it. However, that said, I do believe a good slide or good tools and visual aids can help you get your message across. The problem is rubbish in, rubbish out. Presenting fancy slides isn’t going to make your crappy presentation better. It’s just going to make it different or deliver it in a different way. You have to solve the problem at the core. You need to put a fence at the top of the cliff, not an ambulance down in the valley.

On how to overcome a fear of public speaking: 

It depends on what your particular fear is. Generally speaking, people aren’t scared of presenting. What they’re afraid of is looking silly in front of lots and lots of people. The primary way to combat that is to be so confident in the information you’re delivering and importantly, confident that you’re going to make a positive impact on the audience. If I fundamentally believe that the end of me delivering a presentation and some material to people can actually make those people better, and I wholeheartedly believe this, then I’m going to be a lot more confident in delivering that message. So the number one thing you’ve got to look at and ask yourself is, do I believe wholeheartedly in the material that I’m about to deliver? Then you just got to constantly go through and make sure you’re comfortable in delivering it and make sure that, is the work that I’ve done here the best work that I could put forward to present today?

As a rule of thumb, I always say to people, look at a slide and say, is there anything left I could take away to make the message clearer? Not, is there anything else I can add? Then remove things until you’ve got only the bare bones of the message that you want to get across. When you have that, then you will feel more comfortable because you know that the preparation work was done well. If you just stand up the night before and write a document and you’re presenting that, well, then you’re just going to be reading something through and no preparation is required on your side. That’s why you’re going to stand up there and appear nervous. One last little thing – it’s a sport you can only practice in public. If you have a big presentation six weeks from now, present every week some different topic leading up to that. You get more and more comfortable the more you do it.

Previous episodes in the series: