Part I of MarketCopywriterBlog’s three-part series on storytelling.
The copy chief slapped the folders onto the new kid’s desk. “Try to figure out what the successful ads have got that the failures haven’t got,” said the boss. The chief headed out the door, calling over his shoulder, “Then when you write your own ads, try to put into them the things that will make them successful.”
The brass latch clicked as the door shut.
Dropping into his seat, the cub copywriter leaned back, tipping his chair legs off the ground. He stared at the folders and bit his lip. I was trained as an engineer, he thought. I can master this. He slammed the chair down, opened the largest folder—the one with the lackluster ads—and began to read.
Legendary copywriter’s “aha” moment: Using storytelling in selling
That was 1925. In the years to come, the young copywriter not only mastered copy analysis, he went on to write one of most successful direct mail ads of the century for the U.S. School of Music. Its legendary head: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano but when I started to play!” The copywriter: John Caples.
Caples believed in storytelling’s power to enliven and drive action in copywriting. Since then, countless famous and not-so-famous ad and direct mail copywriters have used storytelling to hold attention and boost sales.
Does old-fashioned storytelling work in the digital age?
But that was then. What about now, in the digital era? In an age of abbreviated status updates, emoticon-punctuated tweets and highly distracted customers, does storytelling still pack copywriting power?
Big time. Stories with a narrative arc that recount human triumphs—told in a human voice—have more power than ever.
As a copywriter, you can harness storytelling’s magnetic force in your work. In web and social media content, in print and collateral copy, you can use story to capture and keep readers’ attention and persuade them to take action.
My three-part storytelling blog series gives you the whats, whys and how-tos. In today’s post you’ll discover the potency of storytelling and its mesmerizing pull on human beings. Next week’s post shares storytelling secrets from successful salespeople and branders. And my third post, week-after-next, shows you how to use story—and storytelling elements—in your own copywriting.
The magnetic power of storytelling
Around warm hearths, in cobbled town squares and outdoor amphitheaters, our ancestors gathered to hear fairy tales and epics. “Sing, O, Muse,” invoked the ancient storyteller. The Muse not only sang, she transported audiences over wine-dark seas with Odysseus and his salty-dog crew.
The Odyssey, Beowulf and other classic narratives entertain, move and inspire us today as much as in centuries past. But their narrative structure—described 2,000 years ago by Aristotle—also provide practical insights for marketers and copywriters today.
Classic 4-part narrative arc
Classical drama has a narrative arc—a fancy way of saying a beginning, middle and end. Tracing the arc, the story’s characters, including the Hero, move through time, space and emotional territory as well.
A satisfying story carries you over a four-part sweep:
1. Exposition, introduction. The story set-up introduces the Hero, additional characters and the story setting. At the end of the exposition, an inciting moment—a person, event, emotional shift—heats up the action and sets the story in motion.
2. Rising action, Hero’s response. In the second section of the narrative, the Hero’s goals are complicated or challenged and the story’s action or tension mounts. The Hero responds to these forces, but his reaction is internal or frustrated.
3. Climax, complications, crisis, conflict. The turning point—for better or for worse—occurs in the third part of the narrative arc. While the Hero has addressed conflict passively up until this moment, now he takes action. He gathers his courage and does battle.
4. Falling action, resolution. The battle is over—won or lost. Here we see the Hero muster inner strength to do the right thing, achieve his goal—often for the good of another, for the community, country or cause.
The Hero’s journey
Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, described the epic through-line as the Hero’s journey. Across time and cultures, the Hero’s journey follows classic dramatic structure: The Hero sets out on an adventure, meets fantastic forces, does battle and scores a decisive victory. Then he returns to his community bearing a precious gift, a healing element or other boon.
Why are these stories—and their architecture—so prevalent and pervasive?
Campbell believed the Hero’s journey reflects our own life’s path. We suffer, muster courage, battle demons and sacrifice ourselves. We experience catharsis. A good story lets us become heroes.
Your customer is always the Hero in your brand story.
Good marketing storytelling is also cathartic. It introduces and helps customers overcome conflict. It allows your audience to project themselves—consciously or unconsciously—into the story, solve problems, relieve stress and return triumphant to family and community.
A good brand story always lets the customer be the Hero.
What do Aristotle and an ad man have in common?
If you’re not familiar with it, read John Caples’ classic ad for the U.S. School of Music. Remarkably, you’ll see it takes you through each stage of the classic narrative arc.
Of course, you can’t use 4-part narrative and long copy for all your marketing tools. But you can think about your customer’s place in the narrative arc. You can learn how successful salesmen and branders use storytelling—in next week’s post. And you can discover how to start making story a part of your own marketing, branding and copywriting work—in my post week-after-next. Don’t miss a single post, subscribe to my blog.
Tell me a story.
In the meantime, talk to me. Do you find storytelling relevant to your work? Do you use it in your copywriting? Tell me your story.