Every person you see, everywhere and at all times, has a personal narrative going on in his or her head. These personal narratives revolve around stories such as “what I am doing,” “what’s important to me right now,” “who I am with,” and, of course, “who I am.” Every person, except maybe the most peaceful yogi on the top of a mountain, has a narrative going on in his or her mind that describes the situation of his or her life at this very moment.

So what happens when you try to sell or market your product to this person? What happens when you interrupt her story with your story? As you ponder those questions, consider this: Is it any surprise that most marketing and sales efforts fail?

When your customers encounter your marketing and sales messages, they already have a story happening in their minds. This story is your customer’s personal story. Your customer knows (or at least thinks she knows) what she wants, and she has an ongoing background narrative about her life situation playing in her head. She is holding on tight to her story as she comes in contact with your sales and marketing messages, and you must be very careful not to knock this story out of her hands.

There are many problems with traditional sales and marketing models, but the biggest problem is this: They are predicated on the idea that you need to interrupt your customer’s stream of thought and have her listen to your story.Compared to her interest in her own story, your customer has very little interest in your story. Interrupting something she really cares about (her story) to get her to pay attention to something she cares little about (your story) is not a productive strategy.

Again: Is it any wonder that most marketing and sales efforts fail?

The best way to get a customer to embrace your story is to weave your story carefully into her story. This is, of course, much easier in a one-on-one interaction than when your customer is the recipient of a mass communication, which is why your communication planning needs to start with one-on-one interactions, whenever possible, and fill in with mass or grouped communications if and when you need to. This is the opposite of how most marketing planning is done.

Personalization before mass efficiency

Ask most people to describe their marketing plans to you, and the first things they describe will be mass efforts like advertising (internet or offline), brochures, web site development, etc. Yes, all of these marketing tools may be important to a company’s marketing strategies, but consider them after allocating resources to personalized communications with important customers. Don’t let the efficiency of mass communication distract you from the effectiveness of personal communication.

Any time you are marketing to more than one customer at a time you are making a compromise, because you can’t focus on one individual customer’s story. These compromises are necessary much of the time, because we can’t afford to always be in personal, one-on-one conversations with customers. But your starting point for marketing and sales shouldn’t be grouped, mass messages but personalized messages. Mass messages are the fill-ins for when we can’t be personal, not the starting point.

Most readers of this article are in situations that have ample opportunities for deep, meaningful, personalized interactions with their most important customers. Don’t miss those opportunities.

Honor your customer’ story. Do everything you can to hear it, and respond to it in a personalized way. Your customer is carefully cradling her own story. Let her. Don’t try to knock it out of her hands. Instead, do whatever you can to participate in it.


  • Handyman Bob
    Apr 17, 2012 - 09:32 am

    Steve, I love reading your work and have shared your message in many meetings. This one has me a bit baffled, however. As a radio professional, I do a lot of commercial work for clients. I recognize that a minute of commercial air time is not enough to “sell” a product or service, so I’ve always thought of it as part of prospecting for new customers (it’s all in the home improvement arena). Is there a way my message can meld with, rather than “knocking her story out of her hands”?

  • Steve Yastrow
    May 22, 2012 - 09:30 am

    Bob –

    Sorry for the delay in responding to you. It’s a good question … have a look at this post: http://yastrow.com/2010/the-apertif-pitch/

    The trick is to use an initial communication as a way to start a conversation, not to tell your entire story. Happy to talk about it if you want to get in touch.


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