Storytelling has long been a foundation of the art of persuasion. Why? Because it is one of the oldest, most effective forms of human communication.

In a previous post, I introduced the concept of “situational persuasion success stories” — prepared retellings of how you previously helped improve somebody’s condition in given situations. Click here for a primer on those kind of stories.

Now, I’m going to present five key elements — along with examples — of all effective situational persuasion success stories:

1. The story should have a point

Whether it’s how a colleague overcame professional limitations and rose to the executive level or how a client decided to take a risk despite the economy’s ambiguities, you tell situational persuasion success stories to fit a particular set of circumstances. That’s the point, and your stories should have one, too.

Example: A former colleague used to ask so many questions that we jokingly referred to him as “the reporter.” He took all the answers he received from people — his cubicle neighbors, co-workers in other departments, his boss, the custodian — and came up with new and more effective ways to do things. His co-workers initially thought he was just a pest, but they soon came to rely on him as their go-to guy whenever they had a problem at the office. His credibility soared. The lesson I took away from that? Sometimes it pays to ask questions.

2. The story should contain telling, vivid details

Describe the type and time of day, maybe the main character’s fashion sense and one flattering physical trait. Recount the way in which that person considered an idea, and then relate a contrasting detail or complicating factor.

Example: She was the quintessential corporate executive: well-dressed, articulate, comporting herself as if about to call to order a board of directors meeting. And she was eyeing up a radical custom-painted, candy-apple-red Harley-Davidson Super Glide with one of the most sinister skull paint jobs I’ve ever seen.

3. Beginnings are crucial

Don’t open your situational persuasion success story with a cliché. Instead, develop creative ways of getting started. If your prospective buyer says this:We just don’t know what’s going to happen with our industry and the economy,you might begin your situational persuasion success story like this: That’s exactly what Steve Buyer said, not more than two months ago.

Bingo! Your target is listening — because he wants to know who Steve Buyer is and how he managed to overcome a similar situation.

4. The story should use a repeatable phrase, for emphasis

Phrases like “You can’t save your way to success,” “Lead, follow or get out of the way,” and “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you don’t move” all work. In your next persuasion conversation, try working in just one of these phrases at the end. Chances are, your target will repeat it.

Example: A buddy of mine didn’t know the first thing about how to do his job — he even told me he wasn’t sure why he was hired. But the guy paid constant attention, asked lots of questions and immersed himself in his job, deciding to learn five new things about his job every single day. Now he’s CEO. He had to start somewhere, didn’t he? And so do you. 

[Wait for the echo.]

So do I.

5. The story should contain at least one unexpected element

People love to be surprised. Think about the plot turns in books, movies and even songs. If you know exactly how things are going to turn out, why stay tuned in?

Let’s pick up the Steve Buyer story: That’s exactly what Steve Buyer said, not more than two months ago. His company was struggling, its stock value had sunk, key managers ditched the organization, and all rational indicators told him not to make any big decisions. Then, his firm experienced a product recall. That’s when Steve and his colleagues decided to invest in their business, instead of cutting back. We put together a performance initiative designed to keep revenue flat but increase margins. Morale improved, the company attracted some talented new people, and now, although not completely back to business as usual, it’s well on its way — all because Steve and his team turned left when his competitors would have turned right.

Next time you find yourself in a tough persuasion situation, consider turning left instead of right and try out a situational persuasion success story. Develop ones that will involve client acquisition, engagement and recovery, and you’ll have a story for just about every persuasion situation. Then practice, practice, practice.

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