Story Time: How Telling Tales Helps Boost Sales

Like most people, I’m delighted and grateful when somebody compliments something I’m wearing, all the more so when the source of their affection is my jewelry. My instant reaction is to launch into a tiny tale.

“Oh, this ring?” I say if they’ve praised, for example, the dark Indian ruby bezel-set in an 18k gold mounting often seen on my right hand. “I bought it at a shop in the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai a few years ago, after an Indian astrologist suggested I wear a ruby on the ring finger of my right hand during every full moon.”

My ruby ring, a souvenir from a trip to Mumbai

It’s a true story—and one that I love to recall, just as I enjoy sharing the stories behind all my jewels.

I’ve been mulling over the instinctual pleasure we derive from talking about the things we hold dear. How to articulate something that feels so reflexive, so natural? One reason for my persistent curiosity is that the concept of storytelling as a sales tool has come up so many times over the past year that I can’t help but wonder how it works—and why it’s so important.

A week ago, as I drove from Los Angeles to San Diego to attend a charity event honoring designer Katey Brunini (read last week’s blog for the full story), I got my answer. I switched radio stations just in time to catch the Sunday morning TED Radio Hour on NPR, when a fascinating interview with Paul Bloom, a professor of cognitive psychology at Yale University, came on. Bloom’s research on “the origins of pleasure” was utterly captivating.

“Essentialism is the idea that there’s more to an object than its physical structure, and this more-ness, this essence, is what matters,” Bloom told NPR. “So the physical features of a painting might be its color and its shape and its size, but the essence of the painting is the invisible history that gave rise to it. For a glass of wine, the physical properties are its chemical structures, which the top of the nose respond to, but its essence is its origin, where it came from, who made it.”

Bloom then shared a persuasive example of how the backstory of an object has a profound effect on how much value people are willing to assign to it. His example focused on the experience of Marla Olmstead, a 3-year-old abstract artist who gained a worldwide reputation for her art before 60 Minutes filmed her in 2005—and reported that her father was coaching her. “When this came out on television, the value of her art dropped to nothing,” Bloom recounted. “It was the same art physically, but the history had changed.”

Bloom went on to explain why that made a difference—using the words of the producer of the 2007 documentary about Marla, My Kid Count Paint That. “The producer stood up and said something which I think is very important. He said, ‘Look, when you buy art, you’re buying a story. When you appreciate art, you appreciate the story—and the story had changed. Before the show came out, people thought they were getting one thing, and after the show came out, they thought they were getting another. And it made a difference.”

“When shown an object, or a face, people’s assessment of it—how much they like it, how valuable it is—is deeply affected by what you tell them about it,” Bloom said in his closing remarks to NPR. “Pleasure develops, taste develops, and taste develops in part because of experiences. Classical music—you come to like it, you come to appreciate it, as you learn more about it.”

“And that speaks to a moral,” Bloom continued. “What it is to have a good sense of pleasure, to be an expert, to be a mature individual, is to have a lot of knowledge and understanding.… And how do you get more pleasure in your life? My answer is extremely pedantic: Study more. Anything that you don’t understand, unless it’s a sugar doughnut, is going to be, ‘I don’t get it.’ So the key to enjoying wine isn’t just to guzzle a lot of expensive wine. It’s to learn about wine. Use it and learn about it. Art history is basically a mechanism for enhancing artistic pleasure. The more you know about it, the more you’ll like it.”

For jewelers, the takeaways from Bloom’s research seem clear. Teach your customers about the jewelry you sell—whether that means introducing them to the designer at a trunk show, explaining the origins of the gems at an educational event in your store, or talking up the experiences you had in buying those diamonds in Antwerp. By growing their knowledge about jewelry, you’ll stoke their interest even further—and soon, you’ll find yourself reaping the rewards of an educated, passionate clientele.