Close your eyes and think back to your favorite childhood fairy tale. No matter how many times you heard it, the fable always captured your imagination and carried you to another time and place.
Before the story, you were ready to kill your brother, smash your toy truck or stage an arsenic hour meltdown. After the story, the world was right again. With Red Riding Hood, you lived happily ever after—calm, comforted and deeply connected to your storyteller.
The implications for marketers—and copywriters—are obvious: You can use storytelling in your copy to enchant, transport and transform your audience.
This post, the third in my series on storytelling, details how to put story elements to work in your copy—your marcom tools, social media content and editorial material.
The science of storytelling
Stories have universal appeal to people of every age and culture. Great stories move us through a narrative arc that lets us experience conflict, emotional battles, resolution and homecoming—the hero’s journey.
But storytelling’s power is more than imaginative and emotionally cathartic: Humans are genetically hardwired to listen to stories: Recent research using fMRI brain scans revealed that neurological paths of storytellers and listeners synchronize as a story is told. Another study showed that subjects remember up to 70% of information delivered through narrative anecdotes—compared to recollecting 10% of data presented statistically.
Copywriter as storyteller
As a copywriter, storytelling helps you:
- Magnetically draw in readers
- Connect to your audience
- Relax and disarm customers
- Build relationship and trust
- Inform, persuade and sell effectively
7 ways to use storytelling in your copywriting
For your next copy project, think about using storytelling elements to help you…
- Establish rapport with a narrative arc. This fail safe story structure has the uncanny ability to hook readers’ attention, reel them in and keep them engaged through long copy. Yes, you (usually) need a long-ish copy format to develop beginning-middle-end story structure—I challenge you to use a narrative arc in a banner ad. But plenty of marketing and communications tools today still use relatively long copy: Online, you can use 4-part narrative in digital sales pages, landing pages, “About” pages, eBooks, company profiles and executive bios. In print, think about 4-part narrative as you plan annual reports, strategic plans, case studies, white papers, even catalog copy blocks—see J. Peterman’s wonderfully narrated copy stories. Perhaps most effectively, you can use narrative structure to build customer relationship and trust in content marketing: Your stories will rise, peak and resolve across multiple platforms and formats over time.
- Make your customer the hero in your copy-story. Advertising often positions the product as hero. This concept—beloved of “brand DNA” ad men—gives soap, beer and jeans uncanny superpowers. Identify the real hero: Your customer. Your marketing is far more effective when you empower Consumer Woman, with a little help from your product. In your customer’s daily drama, your product or service is a catalyst, not an agent: It bolsters, strengthens, eases, entertains, beautifies, saves time and money. But your customer is the do-er, the master of her circumstances, the hero of her family. Position your customer front and center in your mind—and in your copy. And not just in marketing content. Let her shine in teaching tools, development content and internal communications, as well.
- Use story architecture to structure your copy. On his blog, StoryFix, novelist Larry Brooks writes extensively about narrative structure. Brooks’ posts are intended for fiction and screen writers, but they’re useful to writers of every stripe. All copy formats—ads, sales letter, collateral, marketorial, blog posts and more—have an optimal structure. You can draw on a number of storytelling tools to build upon this architectural frame:
- Hook with your headline and/or lede. An opening gambit grabs your audience’s attention by playing on curiosity, self-interest, hunger for novelty, memory or emotion. The best hooks disarm readers, help them let go of critical thinking and subconsciously prepare for the journey into your copy.
- Narrative thread that draws readers in with a “what’s next” sequence of events, concepts or information. As Ira Glass notes, the power of connect-the-dots narrative always sucks us in—even when we’re hearing boring material. Our human fascination with sequences—and the promise of a satisfying beginning and end—explain in part our fascination with finite how-tos and list posts.
- Conflict. Good marketing copy always takes the customer’s point-of-view. Discovering your customer’s problems, pain-points, challenges and stumbling blocks—her conflicts—is your A-Number One job.
- Resolution. Remember, your product doesn’t solve your customer’s conflicts: So far, no one has achieved nirvana through an iPhone or gotten lucky by ordering a Miller Lite. Reality: Your product helps your customer resolve her problems. When it works right—textually or subtextually—your copy positions her as problem-solver.
- Homecoming. What does your customer want? Her superficial desires are obvious: youth, beauty, sexual attractiveness, wealth, yada, yada. Dig deeper. Surface yearnings reflect deeper human cravings for love, connection, oneness, emotional power. Use copy to point your customer to deeper values. With a little help from your product, she’s empowered to overcome obstacles and return triumphant to friends, family and loved ones.
- Develop a distinctive voice for every piece of copy you write. Your content tells a unique story and speaks in a personable voice modulated to best serve your customers. You’ll use a different tone for copy that counsels parents looking for pediatric oncology services than for copy that speaks to iPhone app designers. But both audiences appreciate warmth and empathy: You’ll almost always address them as “you.” And you’ll use jargon-free language that sets them at ease and helps them feel confident in selecting your product.
- Choose language that frees your audience to feel. To enter fully into your story, your audience needs to “give permission,” suspend disbelief, ready themselves to be transported beyond reason. Emotion helps them take this leap. So use emotionally resonant language. Choose robust, descriptive language that paints sensorial pictures. Select the shortest and simplest words: Construct sentences and paragraphs that don’t force readers to think too much. “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able,” advise Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, adding, “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” Go with your “gut” instead of your “intestine.” “Help” instead of “facilitate.”
- Use anecdote to break the ice, sweep aside critical, left-brain thinking and help people remember you. While you can’t always use a full narrative arc, you can use an anecdote, sensorial imagery or a story fragment to start your post, article or even collateral.
- Ask your hero to do battle. Don’t get her all riled up and give her nowhere to go: Include a clear call to action in all your copy. Even non-salesy communications—like strategic plans, memos, company newsletters—can subtextually ask readers to take action: To share news, cooperate with change, be a cheerleader for new learning initiatives.
Your never-ending copy story
Clearly, these seven suggestions are only a jump start for the infinite ways you can use storytelling in your copywriting. Very likely your brain is humming with fresh ideas. Please share your creative juices in my comments.
More storytelling resources
StoryFix.com, novel-writing tips and fundamentals from Larry Brooks.
Ira Glass videos, part one, part two, part three, part four. The host of NPR’s This American Life, discusses storytelling in a four-part video series.
Storytelling Theory and Practice, a video lecture by Larry Sturm of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.