As you develop your sales presentations and stories, one factor you’ll want to give consideration to is the arc. This is more than simply the length of the story, although long arc stories are, as one might surmise, longer than short arc ones.
Stories are usually told in self-contained units. “Here’s the beginning. Here’s the middle. Here’s how it wraps up.” Certainly nothing wrong with that and from a practical perspective most of your stories will be in this self-contained, short arc format.
However, some of the most successful sales stories, especially those that are used in presentations are in a long arc form. What this means is that the story is introduced early in the presentation. However the speaker or writer may leave the story periodically only to return to it later on. The long arc story provides bookends for the entire story although there may be shorter stories that are interspersed within the overall presentation.
The long arc story traces its roots to television. Historically TV episodes were self contained units. In the space of 30 or 60 minutes an entire story was told from beginning to end. The next week a brand new story was told. Aside from the main characters there was little continuity from week to week.
The television show “Wise Guys” in the 1980s is largely credited with introducing the concept of the long-arc series. The season opener introduced a plot line that was not resolved until season end. Some shows made no reference to the long-arc plot line while other episodes advance the plot incrementally. It was a tribute to the writers that they were able to maintain audience interest for an entire season while also including numerous single-show plot lines that were entertaining for the casual viewer. This long-arc format is now successfully used by many shows and has also been incorporated by some of the most successful sales trainers and presenters.
Let me share an example. In my presentation on Unique Sales Stories that I deliver to groups, one of the key points I want to make is that people remember stories, they don’t remember facts. It’s my belief that one of the reasons why people don’t get as many referrals as they ideally would like is that they aren’t top of mind. When they describe what they do it isn’t memorable. Why? One of the main culprits is that they use facts to describe what they do rather than telling stories. Thus if you want more referrals you need to tell more unique sales stories.
OK, simple enough. One way I could get that message across is to simply communicate it as I have here. That would probably work but since I’m in advocating using sales stories as a tool for getting more referrals I ought to do exactly just that. Thus to make this point I use a long arc story.
I start the presentation by saying, “I went to Washington University in St. Louis.” Pause. “Fun fact to know and tell.” Longer pause.
I then go into my presentation during which I share that as the son of a university professor when it came time to apply to colleges, that was a big deal n the Satterfield household.
I applied to three schools. Since I always loved to read and write, one of them was Princeton University which was the school of f. Scott Fitzgerald. Plus, if you’ve ever visited it, Princeton looks exactly like what you would imagine, ivy covered walls, a university straight out of central casting.
I also applied to UCLA, the University of California at Los Angeles. Growing up in New England in the late 1960s I wasn’t too much different from many other guys in that if you couldn’t be James Bond, you wanted to be a really cool surfer dude. Thus the appeal of UCLA.
I also applied to Washington University in St. Louis (you always have to describe it that way since there are so many schools with the name “Washington” in them.) Dad was from St. Louis which is how it originally got on my radar screen, but what was most appealing to me was that it offered co-ed dorms. Quite the cutting edge in dormitory living circa 1973.
Anyway, Princeton sent me a very nice letter, “In the effect that hell does freeze over, we would be more than happy to reconsider your application.” However both UCLA and Washington University in St. Louis let me in. That led to a short conversation with Dad (who was financing this experiment in higher education) who said to me that he thought that if I went to UCLA I would probably become a pretty good surfer and flunk out my sophomore year. (Apparently he hadn’t noticed the mention of co-ed dorms in the Washington University materials.) Thus off I went in May of 1973 to St. Louis.
At this point in the presentation I stop and ask the audience to take out a pen and piece of paper. I ask them to write down the name of the school I went to and then the names of the two schools I applied to but did not go to. I then ask them to turn the paper over and tell them that we’ll return to it a bit later on.
My presentation then goes on to talk about other applications for using Unique Sales Stories. At one point I mention again that it’s my premise that people don’t remember facts, they remember stories and that we’ll find out if that is really true shortly. What I’m doing here is seeding and reminding the audience about the long-arc story which is about where I went to college.
I’m now about to wrap up the presentation so I ask the audience to find the piece of paper that they wrote down the answers to where I applied to school but not to turn the piece of paper over. I ask them to write down on the back of the paper the name of the school that I went to. I then ask them to write down the names of the other two schools. Finally, I ask them to compare what they’ve written down on the back of the paper to what they wrote down on the front.
Here’s what typically happens. Virtually everyone gets the names of the schools right the first time I ask them to write the down. That’s to be expected. But here’s what’s very interesting. Typically 85-90% of the audience gets the answers correct the second time as well. This is the tangible proof that people remember stories. If I had simply said that I went to Washington University in St. Louis and by the way, I also applied to Princeton and UCLA, 10 minutes later no one would remember. (And I’ve actually tried this and the recall results are pretty depressing.) By telling a story people remembered what they would otherwise likely forget.
This story is introduced very early in my presentation, referred to briefly in the middle and then concluded at the end. It’s one of my signature long-arc stories and does an outstanding job of making a specific point. Since I refer to it and make the cryptic statement of “We’ll see if I’m right a bit later on”, interest and curiosity is increased. That’s one of the benefits of the long arc story. Especially if you’re preparing unique sales stories for a speech you’ll want to incorporate a long arc story into your presentation.