Numbers don’t sell themselves. While some people think ROI projections and calculations can dazzle a prospective client, it’s really the story around the ROI that incites action.

Decision-making is a pretty irrational process when you get right down to it. Thanks to the work of today’s leading behavioral and decision theorists, there’s plenty of evidence on that score. ROI figures, however, give us the justification to do what we really want to do — and make the investments we want to make.

These points came to mind when I was recently re-reading Making Technology Investments Profitable: ROI Road Map to Better Business Cases by Jack Keen and Bonnie Digrius. While it’s a pretty left-brain, how-to kind of book, the authors recognize the hidden power of intangibles and compelling story telling. If you want to sell a big project, then you have to tap into the hidden — and often, not so hidden — desires of the decision-makers.

Show them how you can make them heroes. Peel back the layers to learn their highest aspirations — or their deepest concerns. Tell stories of how existing clients overcame great odds, turned around their organizations or rose from obscurity to some great triumph. You can tell stories in the past tense to describe your client successes — or you can tell them in the future tense to help your prospects envision where you are going to take them. (Just don’t tell them that your box or your software is world-class, highly scalable or user-friendly. What kind of story is that?)

Clever storytelling is one of the quickest and most effective ways to gain executive understanding, buy-in and funding,” contends Keen, who is founder and president of The Deciding Factor. “It also helps attract support and cooperation from reluctant users during project implementation and operation. Vivid stories translate dry, abstract numbers into compelling pictures of how deep yearnings of decision influencers can come true.”

Keen offers a few interesting guidelines for ROI Story Tellers:

 

  1. Know your audience. Decision influencers are humans first and businesspeople second. Like you and me, they care about personal success, have egos, ambitions, anxieties and fears. You may well know your CEO and CFO, but how well do you understand the concerns of the heads of marketing, manufacturing or customer service?
  2. Hide the technical details. Instead, focus ROI stories on why an investment choice is good. That’s where the excitement and emotion lie. Leave the how side of the equation to other parts of the business case.
  3. Develop a compelling story to sell your message. The best ROI stories vividly convey the main theme of the business case in a memorable way.

There are other issues to consider when developing your ROI story. You want to look for drama. Compelling subjects: achieving rewards, avoiding major losses, gaining respect, strengthening security, reducing risk.

You also need to determine how best to develop and convey these stories. This is where you need to be careful. You want to present them selectively and appropriately. White papers, case studies and newsletters are great story telling vehicles in the marketing and demand generation process.

But sales people have to approach this challenge differently. It’s often dangerous — and off-putting — to make others sit around passively while you tell long stories. If you are a sale professional, you want to put your prospects in the action and even help them participate in the creation of the story. Don’t try and impress them with all your glories. Draw them into a conversation that let’s them open up and imagine their own.