From cave paintings to campfire horror stories, storytelling has played a key part in human communication throughout history. However, stories aren’t just for entertainment: they are a valuable sales training tool.
In 1850s America, there lived a man called George Crum who used to work as a chef at in a New York restaurant. French fries were a popular dish there, but one day a customer complained that the fries were too thick. In an attempt to please them, Crum made a batch of thinner fries, but the fussy diner was still not happy. Out of pure spite, Crum created some fries that were too thin to eat with a fork. Instead of being annoyed, the customer was delighted. On that day, George Crum had invented what we now call crisps (or as Americans call them, potato chips).
After reading this, you’re unlikely to forget how crisps were first invented. You didn’t learn the facts in a bullet-pointed checklist; you heard them linked up with a narrative. Storytelling is both an art and a science that has an incredible power to activate the memory by piecing information together in an engaging way.
The remarkable thing about storytelling, however, is that it activates areas of the brain that allow us to process information and events as though we are experiencing them, even if they did not happen to us. Neuroscientists have proved that when we listen to, or witness, stories the parts of our brains that we use when experiencing events become active. This deep connection can change future behaviour.
Stories also allow us to explore the cause and consequence of certain paths of action. Think about fairy tales. Each one of them was created to communicate wisdom on morals and behaviours to children in an enjoyable, memorable way. So what does all of this have to do with sales training?
The best trainers and facilitators are the ones who have had years of experience in the industry, and therefore have a host of anecdotes up their sleeve. These short stories bring techniques and models to life. Anecdotes are often treated as a digression from the main course content, but learners recall them more clearly than they do what was on the slides or in the course notes.
This is why simulation exercises are increasingly being used in sales training. Simulations provide a storytelling experience where learners get to interact with the narrative and pin certain techniques to specific characters and interactions within the simulation. The memories that learners create through simulated encounters will stay in their heads for a long time due to the realistic processing of events.
Virtual simulation exercises are the strongest form of learning; in fact, there is evidence to show that ‘practice by doing’ has a 75% retention rate. In comparison, the retention rates for reading and demonstration are only 10% and 30% respectively.
The most successful sales trainers understand how the human mind works. Although humans like to think we’ve evolved a lot since the days of cave painting, we haven’t. Our brains still work in the same way, and learning methods that are enriched through experience and interaction – not just memorising charts and tables – are by far the most effective. Simulation lends itself particularly well to sales training, as anyone with a career in sales will know: you interact with numerous characters with differing motivations.
Simulated experiences with real effects
Simulations and stories may not be real, but they have very real effects on learner behaviour. As mentioned before, the brain can’t tell the difference between simulating a story and experiencing it first-hand in reality. Therefore, through simulation, learners gain experience and memorise complex techniques without even realising. TLSA International’s sales training simulations are written based on decades of experience in B2B selling at all levels, and participants leave the training room having received an injection of new sales wisdom and practice.
Interactive, story-based learning presents learners with engaging scenarios that they need to navigate. Proven to facilitate higher levels of engagement than other forms of learning, storytelling has an important role to play in professional situations. In working environments where we’re so used to bullet points and dull presentations, stories and simulations have the power to captivate and engage our full attention.
The final, overarching benefit of scenario-based simulations is that they contain a cast of diverse characters who you interact with at a faster pace than you would in real time. One and a half hours of simulation play can represent a year in the life of a strategic account manager, and can give learners the chance to resolve numerous business challenges ahead of time. The advantage of this is that learners can quickly get to grips with potential pitfalls and obstacles that derail sales cycles, ending the simulation with knowledge on how to pre-empt issues in real business.
Sit down and let me tell you a story…
Some companies load up their learning management systems with passive learning methods like videos, but audio-visual learning has only a 20% retention rate and although this style of sales training may be convenient for the company, it’s a waste of time. On the flip side, simulations that involve story-based learning provide an enjoyable experience and a valuable opportunity to test new skills in a safe environment.
The most remarkable thing about story-based learning is that when we’re watching a story unfold, we don’t even realise we’re learning at all. We haven’t made an active effort to remember anything, and yet we’re able to recall information from stories easily. If you don’t believe me, can you at least tell me how crisps were invented?
Brett Lyons, MD, TLSA International