Best-selling Author Paul Smith Shows How Stories Affect Sales

June 29th, 2016 | Matthew Chung, Manager, Communications and Content

Here’s a short story about the role stories play in increasing the value of products.

Corus Event

Recently, Cincinnati, Ohio-based Author Paul Smith and his wife were at an art gallery when his wife fell in love with an odd piece of art. Smith, however, was less impressed and in fact baffled by the close-up photo of a pig swimming in the ocean, so he asked the exhibitor to explain it to him.

It turns out the pig in the photo was one of about a dozen that live on Big Major Cay (or “Pig Island”) in the Bahamas. Rumour has it that sailors had left the animals on the secluded, sheltered island, planning to return for a meal. But the sailors never returned and the pigs thrived, feasting on food scraps tossed from passing yachts. Rather than wait and hope for scraps to wash up on shore, the pigs swim out to greet passing boats, which is why the little piggy in the photo had swam so close to photographer Chris Guglielmo’s camera.

By the end of the exhibitor’s story, Smith was reaching for his credit card. It’s a real-life example of how a story can enhance the value of a product and help make a sale, Smith told an audience of marketers, media and agency execs this month during his keynote presentation at the Corus C-Suite Conference at Corus’ corporate headquarters in Toronto.

Smith then ran through a list of other reasons stories are so potent – they’re timeless, demographic proof, contagious and they inspire – before quoting a study that found facts are up to 20 times more likely to be remembered if they are embedded in a story than if they are just given to people in a list. To prove is point, he challenged the audience to try retelling the “Pig Island Story” a few months from now.

“All of you know that by this time tomorrow, none of you are going to remember this list, but everyone will be able to tell the ‘Pig Island’ story and get most of the facts right,” he said as many in the crowd nodded. “And next week and next month and even a year from now, most of you will probably be able to tell the Pig Island story and get most of the facts right.”

But what makes a great story great? And how does that translate to the creative for a brand’s next 30-second spot or 15-second clip?

Smith said that every great story has three key elements:

  1. A hero people care about (or in marketing terms, a relatable hero)
  2. A villain the hero is afraid of (a relevant obstacle)
  3. An epic battle between them (an honest struggle)

Put another way, the story must answer the following questions:

  1. Why should I listen to the rest of this story?
  2. Where and when did this happen?
  3. Who is the main character and what do they want?
  4. What is the opportunity or problem they ran into?
  5. What did they do about it?
  6. How did it turn out in the end?

Once those questions have been answered, Smith says, the story should also provide a lesson and let the consumer know what action they should take next.

These storytelling opportunities go beyond sales and marketing, Smith noted.

Setting a vision for your organization, leading change, making your recommendations stick, getting people to be passionate about their work, getting an organization to collaborate better together, setting the values and culture of an organization, getting people to understand your consumer. These are all storytelling opportunities, Smith said.

Smith’s presentation kicked off the half-day event that included engaging presentations from marketers at Wal-Mart and Johnson & Johnson. Research was presented by Mike Bloxham
SVP, Frank N. Magid Associates about the importance of context, by Kevin Mahoney from Corus Consumer Insights about linking a brand’s story to the path to purchase, and fresh recent on advertising ROI from Chris Bacon, of the ARF.

Each speaker referred back to Smith’s presentation, particularly his advice to not start a story by telling people you’re going to tell a story. That’s a rule a few speakers caught themselves breaking (and one we broke at the beginning of this article).