5 sales and marketing lessons from preachers

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When was the last time you sat through a sermon?

If it was any good, here’s something you may have realized: great preachers are a lot like great salesman and marketers.

Consider some of the things a preacher has to do to be successful:

  • Keep a diverse audience of people engaged for 30 to 60 minutes
  • Provide content that is interesting and relevant enough to keep them coming back week after week
  • Convince them to part with some of their hard-earned money

Preachers, salespeople, and marketers share similar challenges—and the way that great preachers successfully sell religion can tell us a lot about how to successfully sell our own products.

Here are five sales and marketing lessons we can all learn from preachers.

1. They appeal to emotion

Study after study has shown that humans make decisions based on emotion, not logic.

Great preachers know this, so they appeal to emotion, not reason. They speak to people’s deepest desires, fears, and dreams.

People don’t listen to sermons because they want to understand the finer points of religious doctrine. They want to be inspired. They want to be consoled. They want to find direction and hope.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister before he became a civil rights activist, and he used all his experience as a successful preacher to bring his message to America.

His mastery of appealing to emotion can be seen on full display in his famous “Mountaintop” speech:

This principle is the same in business—to sell effectively, speak to emotion, not reason.

It starts by having empathy for your customer, which probably means you need to listen more. Understand the pain points related to the product or service you provide. Understand what it’s like to be your customer.

Once you’ve done that, don’t focus your pitch on the technical aspects of what makes your product or service better—that’s boring and uninspiring.

Instead, ask yourself: What are the emotions and desires at play here? How can I appeal to those?

Think of your favorite Super Bowl ads. You don’t remember them because they had a product with a lot of cool features. You remember them because they made you feel something.

2. They use stories

Great preachers are great storytellers. They understand that stories are the single most powerful way to communicate information, period.

If you’ve ever sat through an engaging sermon, you’ll notice that the speaker peppers the talk with short, punchy anecdotes. This keeps the audience emotionally engaged, and makes important ideas memorable and easy to understand.

Everyone knows that stories are powerful, but few know how to tell them well. Here are three ways preachers make their stories better:

1. Keep it short and simple

Our brains have short attention spans. Keep stories short and simple for maximum impact. Cut out extraneous details and avoid tangents. Be relentlessly focused on the core elements of the story.

The Moth, a New York-based non-profit that hosts storytelling competitions, limits participants to five minutes. Here’s an example of one participant’s winning story:

2. Raise questions

Questions create tension that demands resolution. Make your audience start wondering, and you immediately have their attention.

One of the best places to raise a question is right at the beginning of a story, through what’s called a hook. A good hook creates a question that pulls the listener in, almost involuntarily.

The video clip above is a perfect example. Notice how the story starts:

“When I was eleven I was sent to spend a few weeks with my grandmother, and we became partners in crime—literally.”

This is a great hook because as soon as you hear it, you want to know what happens next. “What crime did this eleven-year-old and his grandmother commit together?”, you wonder.

Raise implicit questions at key moments in your story to keep your audience engaged.

3. Have a clear point

Have you ever listened to a story where you get to the end and wonder “So what?” Or one where you get to the end and have a million unanswered questions?

Both endings are evidence of a poorly-told story.

By the end of your story, all the questions you raised should have been answered, and the purpose of the story should be clear.

Great preachers tell stories that have both interesting tension and satisfying resolution. The resolution supports the point they are trying to make, and they make sure to tie the story back into the larger themes they are discussing.

Stories are just as powerful in business as they are in sermons. Don’t explain, tell stories.

Trying to show why your product is better than the competition? Use a case study instead of a list of bullets or a comparison chart.

Trying to build your brand? Talking about why you do what you do is generally more interesting than talking about how you do it. One of the best ways to talk about your “why” is through stories.

3. They keep it simple

Great preachers keep ideas simple.

They might have spent decades of their life studying Greek and writing papers on complex theological concepts, but when it comes time to share that information with others, they put it into terms everyone can understand.

Confused listeners aren’t inspired, and eventually go elsewhere to find the experience they are looking for. The same is true in business—confused customers don’t buy, they leave.

Here are three ways great preachers keep things simple:

1. Avoid technical jargon

Complicated language does not impress people, it turns them away. Avoid technical jargon wherever possible. Force yourself to simplify. Ask yourself, “How would I explain this to a five-year-old?”

In Christianity, the New Testament is famous for the parables that Jesus told—short, pithy metaphors that illustrated the spiritual principles he was trying to teach.

Here’s one example:

“Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock.”

Matthew 7:24-25

Whether you agree with the point of the parable or not, there’s no dense language here—just a simple illustration anyone can understand.

2. Write for your audience, not for yourself

When it comes to your product, you’re a topic matter expert. You’ve forgotten what it’s like to hear your company’s value proposition for the first time.

You’re likely using insider language that doesn’t make sense to the average person.

Trying to explain how your product works? Ask someone who has never heard of it to read or listen and gauge their comprehension. You might discover that things which are obvious to you are not clear to someone hearing it for the first time.

Here’s an example, using C2FO’s value proposition:

Bad: C2FO is a technology platform that allows businesses to improve cash flow by facilitating early payment of outstanding accounts receivable.

Good: C2FO helps you improve cash flow by getting your customers to pay you early.

3. Set aside your ego

Complicated language can make you feel good about how sophisticated you and your product are, but it doesn’t help you sell.

Understand that the ability to explain something in simple terms is the mark of a true expert. If you can’t simplify a concept, you probably don’t understand it as well as you think you do.

4. They take a contrarian view

Great preachers frequently take positions that go against the mainstream.

A defining characteristic of any religion is the idea that the believer has an understanding of truth that non-believers don’t grasp. They see themselves as different from everyone else, marching to the beat of their own drum.

As a result, much of what preachers talk about is how “the world” has it wrong, and what they believe is right instead. This is part of why religion is such a controversial topic—it intentionally places itself at odds with other religions and worldviews.

Why is this so effective?

First, taking a contrarian view breaks peoples’ patterns, so they pay attention. If everyone is used to hearing one thing, a voice that says the opposite stands out.

Second, contrarian views are more interesting. If a certain opinion is generally accepted as true, people are usually familiar with the arguments for that view.

A contrarian view, on the other hand, makes people curious to learn more. Even if they disagree with you, they may engage with your ideas just so they can respond.

Take a contrarian view in business to capture people’s attention.

Here’s an example—which article title is more interesting?

  • 3 tips for building your company’s audience on Facebook
  • 3 reasons using Facebook for business is a mistake (and what you should do instead)

Everyone knows they are supposed to care about social media marketing, because everyone says it all the time. That’s what makes the second title far more interesting.

Companies build entire brands off this strategy of positioning themselves as the outsider—a small, scrappy startup disrupts the status quo and takes down the established titan. It’s a tale as old as time, because it works.

Don’t manufacture a contrarian position just to do it. It’s inauthentic and it won’t stand up to scrutiny. But it is always worth asking: “Is there another angle to this idea, product, or service that most people aren’t considering?”

If you can do it honestly, a contrarian position is always more compelling.

5. They understand that delivery matters

Long before popular mass-market preachers like Billy Graham and Joel Osteen, there was George Whitfield. Whitfield was America’s first modern evangelist, traveling around colonial America in the 18th century and drawing crowds in the tens of thousands.

Whitfield’s delivery was so mesmerizing it is said that people would weep simply upon hearing him utter the word “Mesopotamia.”

When communicating anything, delivery matters as much as content.

Good delivery is especially important for preachers. The Bible has been around for two thousand years, and the stories told today are the same ones that have been told since the Middle Ages.

So how do preachers keep an audience engaged? Delivery. People want to experience these old ideas in a new and fresh way, and the best preachers make that possible through their delivery.

Watch any successful evangelist, and you’ll see that each one has a unique style and energy. They leverage their personality to make the message interesting.

Even if you have an innovative product, a lot of what you need to do or say in business has been done or said a million times before. Finding a different angle, an overlooked detail, or leveraging your brand’s unique personality can be the key to breaking through and staying relevant.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of great delivery: Boxed Water.

It’s hard to think of a category more crowded than bottled water, but this company found a way to compete.

Instead of using plastic bottles like everyone else, Boxed Water put the same water in a carton. Their value proposition is brilliantly simple: “Boxed water is better.”

It doesn’t even matter if the claim is actually true. The product is different than every other plastic water bottle on the shelf, and now you see it everywhere.

Recap

Great preachers are great salesman and marketers, and there are lessons we can all learn from how they captivate audiences and influence behavior:

  1. Appeal to emotion
  2. Use stories
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Take a contrarian view
  5. Hone your delivery

Do these five things and you’ll be on your way to more clicks, more responses, more meetings, and more deals.