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  • Simon Boardman

Science Vs Stories in B2B Marketing

The latest dilemma in B2B Sales & Marketing

According to the latest thinking B2B sales and marketing is all about "story-telling" these days. We can better relate by aligning with the human's natural pre-disposition for stories, achieve greater levels of empathy, communicate feelings and hawk more of our stuff. We've become hardwired to receive stories. We always have been, from sitting around the fire outside caves or in ancient villages listening to the tribal elders, to the modern-day dinner time discussions and watching TV. From Neanderthals to Netflix, if you will.

Maybe this is another predictable arc of the pendulum swing, back from the scientific lurch of the last fifteen years as we have sought to reduce marketing to an engineering problem. We have been hell-bent on trying to measure everything in B2B marketing - building marketing machines, divining intent, using repeatable methods, creating digital exhaust, digesting data and examining it under the microscope of science. So, being totally predictable, what's the next thing we would do? Well, get everyone around the old campfire and tell a few stories of course. You couldn't get much "less" scientific than that or much further away, as the pendulum swings.

So, what's a modern B2B marketer and sales professional to do? Reach for the behavioral data report and all those number-centric infographics OR dust off the old storybook? Other than pleading for moderation and balance we do wonder when our species will stop the lurch from one extreme to the other? In this case, it doesn't even seem like we're finished with how much science to apply to marketing before we're off chasing our feelings of the right brain over the rainbow. Hey... where did I put that pot of gold anyway?

The Story of the Story – Where They Came From

The story is nothing new, but it is a bigger story these days. From fake news to advertising masquerading as stories to sponsored content, to stories in business. Business, was (still is actually) all about the numbers. Although there's a story there too. For the last 40 years we have moved into a bizarre-o-world where finance majors are taught how to "get creative" with numbers, so they "tell a different story." Armies of accountants and finance chaps at corporations across the world pour over numbers inventing ways to re-classify them allowing them to be counted twice or not at all, immune from taxation, and even make one plus one equal three.

However, man's love affair with stories has been around for 60,000 years, pretty much since we learned to communicate via speech. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, emphasizes the importance of stories in man's crawl out of the swamp and to become the supreme species of the planet. Harari maintains that humans are unique precisely because of our capacity to relate to one another through storytelling which promoted cooperation, the determining factor in the struggle for supremacy. He writes: "Sapiens rule the world because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We can create mass cooperation networks, in which thousands and millions of complete strangers work together towards a common goal. The real difference between chimpanzees and us is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively. This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes."

The Story of the Story – What they Are and Why They Matter

Stories fulfill multiple roles and take multiple forms. From Harari's belief that they were (are) a force that bound tribes into communities promoting collaboration, to the trivial and humorous variety designed to distract and entertain, and many points in-between. Modern marketing theory seems to be encouraging us to create another new form of the story.

There are many forms of stories. Eric Barker's "Barking Up The Wrong Tree" delves into stories in a different way. He argues their role as a determining factor in success and failure, as a component within that much-prized characteristic of "grit." "Jews and Christians have parables. Hindus and Buddhists have sutras. Nearly all religious leaders give sermons. Stories, stories, stories. They remind us how to behave and help us persist. Even if we're not religious, popular culture fills the gap. UCLA film school professor Howard Suber describes movies as "sacred dramas for a secular society." Just like with religious parables, we act like the heroes of the stories we tell. Studies show that when we relate to characters in fictional stories, we are more likely to overcome obstacles to achieve our goals." Barker goes on; "…where does grit really come from?

The answer is often stories." Don't underestimate the power of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world around us and our role within it. Barker maintains that optimists are just that because they tell themselves more positive stories. Barker references American psychologist and educator Martin Seligman. Seligman promotes the theories of positive psychology and well-being. "…he found that when you shift your explanatory style from pessimistic to optimistic it makes you feel better and you become grittier."

Stories also help us impose some order on the chaos we see around us. Eric Barker maintains; "Our brains are wired to try to make sense of things. Meaning is part of our operating system. We need to think the world makes sense and that we have control. The brain doesn't like randomness. So, what is meaning? Meaning, for the human mind, comes in the form of the stories we tell ourselves about the world."

Kimberly A. Whitler's Jan 27th, 2019 article; "5 Ads That Tell Great Stories: Insight From A Pixar Movie Writer," asks questions like "What makes a good story? Can commercials tell great stories?" Whitler interviews Matthew Luhn, a Hollywood insider who spent roughly 20 years writing for Pixar Animation Studios. There's also a self-serving TEDxUCSB talk in there that Luhn gave. It’s all fairly nauseating stuff (demonstrating that just because it has “TED” in front of it doesn’t guarantee it’s any good). Other than talking about himself (telling the story of “him”, perhaps?), Luhn spends some time describing the story's role as "reaching people with feelings." One example is the Mercedes Benz teenage snow date commercial. You know, the one where the kid's dad drives him to the Cineplex in a snowstorm, ‘cos he has a first date. It's a nice story and all that. You'd have to have a heart as cold as the weather in the ad to not like it. But therein lies the problem. Yes, it's a nice story that conveys a good feeling, but isn't it obviously taking advantage of that same feeling to hawk a car and doesn't that blatant hi-jacking of the "feeling" leave a bad taste in your mouth? Narrative and characters connected through dialogue are better at communicating that internal landscape of feelings. Written stories and poems are the most effective way of achieving this, followed by movies and in a distant final place, it's commercials. Commercials don't have the time to explore the details and consequently come off as superficial and inauthentic, or as my kids would say…FAIL.

Stories are universal. We use them to pass on knowledge and preserve myths and legends. They connect us, impart feelings, demonstrating how we differ and what we have in common. We can process and communicate information better-using stories. We can recognize meaning better. Great ideas well expressed through stories are more substantial to us. Maybe stories have become more critical because we need them to help us find clarity by filtering the deluge of information, to which we are subjected. So perhaps stories are currently fulfilling a different role in helping us make sense of this onslaught of information. In other words, if you can't hang it on a story, chances are I'll miss the point and move on.

The Story of the Story – The Darker Side of Storytelling

Storytelling all sounds great, natural even, but you'll forgive us if we're a little skeptical. It seems that the potential for abuse or at least "misuse" looms large (such as in commercials). We know that storytelling isn't and never has been all "motherhood and apple pie." As we've said, telling stories has and continues to serve, a range of purposes some of which are not the purest. We are not here to debate the broadest of these implications, but we are here to ask questions and seek the truth on storytelling in B2B sales and marketing.

So, is story-telling just another "quick fix" in business, as if becoming great storytellers will help us close more deals. It conjures up images of wide-eyed, prospects mesmerized (almost hypnotized) into buying truckloads of our stuff. Telling yourself this story might convince you to adopt more story-telling!

Is it just another example of our quest to find the key to success in B2B sales and marketing (and if so, is there anything wrong with that?) Telemarketing, email, content, search, social, referral, events, networking, behavioral intent, mind reading…none of these methods are satisfying the insatiable appetite for immediate success in B2B, so we keep searching for the next big thing. We've hardly finished with "science in marketing" (buyer intent being a great example) before we're moving onto something that couldn't look more like art than science if it tried – storytelling. In the end, aren't we just talking about being more thoughtful and effective communicators?

The Verto Verdict

The Holy wars in sales and marketing continue, and that's ok. This one is the science of process and technology that marketing is becoming versus the old school of emotional connections through good old-fashioned storytelling? These types of "wars without casualties" demonstrate our willingness to search for answers. To improve, to be more effective. To search for the truth, if you will.

Here's our advice

  • You need "stories," and you'll already have several. You need them to be about different aspects of the business, and they need to be coherent, consistent and follow the themes of your company. You need to be able to communicate relevance, expertise, and experience. These stories provide credibility across all stages of the buyer journey, and particularly the early stages when you're seeding and creating demand. The buyer cannot trust you at this point (people get indignant when we say this) …but how can they? They don't know you. However, they can start to trust your expertise, and you demonstrate this with "stories" about the challenges you see in the market and at a high level, how you've worked with clients to overcome them. By doing this, you will begin to bridge the ignorance gap.

  • Proceed with caution. Oversimplified and clumsy storytelling will inhibit your success by insulting your prospect. The biggest problem with "stories" is that again we think we have found the key to sales success to convincing people. This idea conjures up words like genuine, authentic, honest and trustworthy but we also have visions of sales people standing there saying to themselves, "I'm in stage 5 of the process I now must tell story a3 and story b5". That's anything but natural.

  • Storytelling is just about the importance of communication. Stories are vehicles to communicate certain things; whether they hold cultural meaning, historical significance, or whether they are myths, parables, analogies, epics, metaphors, similes or fictions. You use them today when talking about company history, founding principles, mission statements, purpose-driven philosophies, and customer case studies. This latest trend in propelling them to the forefront is about their place in the natural order of buying and selling. You must understand them and the role they play in this natural process. Even Mike Adams in his book "Seven Stories Every Sales Person Must Tell" counsels to "use your stories with the intention of getting the best outcome for your client, and only then for yourself." In other words, don't use them cynically as just another barrel to get the prospect over. Oh, and stop overusing the word "narrative”. It's getting right up there with "pivot" in terms of being overused and misunderstood.

  • Finally, Mike Adams also talks about the importance of listening to other people's stories as opposed to "becoming a story bore." Stories should be used to help find common ground between you and your prospect, and for helping to build and solidify an authentic business relationship, building and preserving trust. They should be used to help you, and your prospect better understands one another. It's an old saying in sales, "you have two ears and one mouth…use them in that order."


The reason we gravitate to stories is that we look for validation of our ideas and thoughts. We look for stories to explain the world to us, to make sense of that world and our place in it. We want stories to help us find meaning. Stories can unite us and help us feel like we belong while simultaneously preserving our sense of individuality. Stories communicate our shared experiences, beliefs, hopes, fears and feelings, as Matt Luhn, the Disney writer and animator rightly points out. But, maybe, we're looking for someone to tell OUR story, because that would validate our place in the world – the story of us. We don't seem to have yet realized that the only person who can tell our story is us, and the only person who will really understand that story is also us.

Ultimately, we feel that we must find meaning and therefore that our story has fulfilled us. In the end, maybe the challenge of our lives is to make our story count, such that when we depart, we can know that we left the place in at least marginally better shape than how we found it.

The typical human response in business is to buy into the latest fashionable thinking and to over-embrace it, typifying the swing from one extreme (the recent race to reduce marketing to an engineering process) to another (the even more recent art of “story-telling”). Finding that right combination is the challenge and it’s one that requires real thought, commitment and discipline in business as well as in life. Perhaps that's the real story.

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