Book Digest: What Great Salespeople Do

In What Great Salespeople Do, Michael Bosworth and Ben Zoldan argue that sales is not primarily a rational process. As a result, attempts to discover needs through diagnostic questions and pitches based on ROI analysis miss the mark. Instead, the central sales hurdles are emotional: The prospect has to admit that the status quo is not good enough and become receptive to the idea of change.

The best way to overcome these hurdles is through storytelling. With well structured stories, the salesperson can make the prospect comfortable discussing difficult problems and can supply proof in a manner that the prospect will find easy to process.

Bosworth and Zoldan propose a method for generating stories and using them as part of your sales efforts that relies on using the right type of story at the right stage of a sales process and on structuring stories to maximize their impact.


  • The authors used to think that selling was a logical enterprise about diagnostic questions. But they changed their minds.
  • People decide who to buy from as much as they decide what to buy
  • The best salespeople communicate in a way that gets people to share information about themselves
  • Logic based methods like Solution Selling and SPIN selling didn’t change the 80/20 rule that 80% of sales come from 20% of reps. If they worked, they should have evened the playing field.
  • Selling is about influencing people to change. That’s an emotional, rapport based enterprise.

Chapter 1: The Old Paradigm

  • People don’t want to be interrogated as in the solution selling approach, they want to understand what you do and why they should care
  • Stories make that happen

Chapter 2: Earth Is no Longer the Center of the Universe

  • The authors’ old theory was that sales success is based on a logical and linear model of how buyers make decisions
  • Modern cognitive science holds that our decisions are the result of a complex interplay between logic and emotion
    • We are not thinking machines, we are feeling machines that think
  • The three part structure of the brain
    • We evolved a brain with three parts, corresponding to the phyla from which we evolved (1) the reptilian survival brain, (2) the limbic emotional brain, (3) the neocortex thinking brain
    • Information flows from the inside out – from the survival to the emotional to the thinking parts of the brain
    • Emotions come before thoughts
  • Mirror neurons: When we observe behavior, we instinctively emulate it

Chapter 3: The Hidden Power of Vulnerability

  • When people exhibit vulnerability, others are tempted to reciprocate
  • Selling requires that the buyer admit that they need to change. That involves exhibiting vulnerability.
  • Appearing too perfect causes people to close off and be unpersuadable
  • Being resilient to feeling shame enables one to be simultaneously confident and authentic
  • Being somewhat vulnerable allows you to influence others
  • Exercise: Write down three mistakes you have made, your company has made, and your clients have made. Share these with your family and friends.
  • Emulate therapists. Therapists practice:
    • Inclusion and presence
      • Putting yourself in the experience of your patient
      • Being willing to engage in self-disclosure
    • Commitment and surrender to the between
      • Don’t be committed to any predetermined outcome
      • Therapists are also changed by the session
  • Being vulnerable in sales:
    • Overcome survival instincts
    • Persuade buyers to create narratives around feelings they don’t share with others
    • Open yourself to the connected space between two people
    • Create a “who I am” story. How did you end up across the desk from the buyer representing this company and this product?

Chapter 4: Our Brains on Story

  • Pitches make us reactive, not receptive. They engage our survival brain because we feel threatened.
  • Stories make listeners receptive because they are not threatening and we feel that we might learn something
  • We make decisions based on emotions and come up with the reasons afterwards

Chapter 5: Story Building

  • Change is the heart of a story and catalyzing change is the heart of sales
  • Story Structure
    • First, the why
    • Second, the how
    • Third, the what
  • You have to have a point to have a story
  • Sequencing/Elements
    • The Setting: time, location, context. Provide understanding of the context and make the characters relatable.
    • The Complication: encompasses most of the events and explains the conflict at the heart of the story. They are the obstacles that the character faces between the beginning of the story and the turning point. Stories are more compelling when they involve characters who are vulnerable and in conflict with themselves.
    • The Turning Point: the emotional peak. The main character has an aha moment. Look for the moment when the main character changes the expected outcome of the story.
    • The Resolution: the final outcome that untangles the events and addresses the complication
  • How to build a story
    • 1: Decide the point
    • 2: Define the resolution
    • 3: Define the setting
    • 4: Define the complication
    • 5: Define the turning point
  • The language of emotion
    • External narrative of events
    • Internal narrative of the characters emotions
    • Write down the key emotion that applies to each of the elements of your story and remember that word when you are telling that portion of the story. This will make your style consistent with the emotion you’re trying to convey.

Chapter 6: Stories for Selling

  • The story ladder
    • Getting a buyer to purchase requires that they climb a ladder consisting of a series of beliefs that each build on the beliefs that they came to hold before
      • Curiosity
      • Trust
      • Expressing needs
      • Brainstorming ideas
      • Seeing value
      • Making a decision
  • Build an inventory of stories to influence buyers at each of these levels
  • Connection/Trust Stories
    • Who am I story: your journey to your current job and why you care
    • Who I represent story: the journey of the company you represent including the why
    • Who I’ve helped story: a story about a customer you helped
  • Prospecting stories
    • If you offer a story, people often say yes rather than hanging up
    • Lead with beliefs not with whats
    • “I’d love to share a story about another person we worked with who believed in affecting real change.”

Chapter 7: The Collaboration: Storytelling and Story Tending

  • Storytelling is mostly about how you say it, not what you say
    • You can convey the right emotion if you check in and become aware of the emotion
    • Associate each part of your story with a particular emotion word and think of that word as you tell that part of the story
  • Start with an agenda. “I’d like to share my story with you and I’d like to hear yours. Then we can decide where to go from there.”
  • Have stories that range from 30 seconds to ten minutes
  • First story shouldn’t take more than three minutes to deliver
  • Passing the torch
    • Get the buyer to tell their story by saying “Enough about me. How about you?”
    • Tend the story by expressing genuine curiosity about their story
    • Ask where the buyer was, where he is now, how he feels, where he’d like to be in the future
  • Use reciprocity to get the buyer to open up. Tell a story about the subject you want to hear them talk about and then turn it over to them.
  • Diagnostic questions and feature dumps provoke resistance from the buyer. Stories promote sharing.

Chapter 8: Empathic Listening

  • Story tending requires listening
    • Support, encouragement, sincere curiosity, patience, caring
    • Listen with the goal of understanding, not uncovering “pains”
    • Make the other person feel felt
  • Overcome listening blocks
    • Blocks include: rehearsing your next statement, judging the speaker or her statements, sparring, daydreaming, insisting on being right
    • Don’t prematurely elaborate even if you think it’s a perfect fit
    • Don’t be Socratic – it’s not a test of logic and it’s not about being right
  • Key traits of good listening
    • Awareness
    • Encouragement
      • Then what? Why?
    • Reflection

Chapter 9: Shifting the Herd: The Enterprise Sale

  • Don’t just focus on decision makers, find tribal leaders
    • These are the people who want to make change and are willing and able to share their beliefs with other groups

Chapter 10: The “Storiable” Organization

  • Use visual slides, not text slides. People stop listening and read text.
  • Sales managers should keep building interpersonal relationships with their own employees, not just turn to spreadsheets
  • Leadership skills look a lot like sales skills, you need to connect with your team and persuade them to change

Chapter 11: Continuing the Journey

  • Build your story ladder
  • Build your who I am story
  • Build your who I represent story
  • Build your who I helped story
  • Tend a story
  • Story sharing
  • Identify a stalled opportunity in your pipeline and create a story to unstall it
  • Share your stories with others