Stories are powerful.
For ages, they’ve been used to convey messages, teach values, and pass on wisdom from one generation to the next.
They can tap into our deepest emotions… entertain us… inspire us… and move us to action. That’s why if you’re serious about improving your results, you’ll want to put the power of story in your copy.
When Is It Appropriate To Use A Story?
The rule of thumb: So long as your story is supporting the end goal of your copy (whether that’s to get a click, an email address, or a sale) then it’s appropriate!
For example, you might want to use a story to:
- Build credibility by sharing the story of a past customer who benefitted from using your product or service
- Show the reader how great your product/service is – without blatantly saying so
- Explain a complex concept in a clear, compelling and enjoyable way
- Get the prospect picturing how their lives will improve as a result of using your product/service
These are just a few, off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many more ways a story can benefit your copy.
That said, there are a few “guidelines” you’ll want to follow.
Just because you’re telling a story, doesn’t mean it will automatically have its intended effect. Three simple guidelines will help ensure your story is effective, powerful, and connects with your readers at a deeper, more visceral level.
#1 – Make It Relevant
In order for a story to work well in marketing, it needs to be relevant to your audience — not just your business. It has to resonate with their wants, desires, and beliefs of the world.
If it’s not, the story will feel forced or contrived.
So how do you make sure you have a story that’s relevant to your audience?
Research, research, research.
Read everything you can on the topic you’re writing about. Visit forums to see what your target market is talking about. Read relevant blogs and blog comments. Check out what’s going on in social media.
If you can, run a survey to past customers. The more insight you can get, the better.
Here is an example of a great, relevant story in action:
The image might be a little hard to read, so I’ve copied out the first bit of the story:
My Aunt Jane is as rich as sin. And no one in our family can figure out why.
She worked as a librarian her whole life. Her husband, who passed away a few years back, was a tool and die maker. They never earned much money in their lives. But, boy, were they ever smart with what they had!
There was a little vacation home that they picked up for a song and wound up selling for $250,000. Some well-chosen stocks that soared in value over the years. Mutual funds. Municipal bonds. Treasury bills. Even a vintage Volkswagen “Beetle” that’s worth more now than the day they bought it.
Now my Aunt Jane — who we always thought was just a little crazy — is a bonafide millionaire!
One day I asked her for the secret of her financial success. “I have three rules,” she said:
For an audience interested in personal finance, this story is incredibly relevant.
It talks to their desires and their wants.
Heck, I want to keep reading to find out how Aunt Jane became “rich as sin”!
#2 – Start in the Middle of the Action
Any good story, like copy , needs to grab the reader’s attention right away. One great way to do that?
Start in the middle of the action.
Don’t waste any time setting things up. Get right into it, and explain later.
Remember, you just have a second or two to get hook the reader into your copy.
A great example is John Caples’ famous ad for the U.S. School of Music:
After the headline, the copy reads:
ARTHUR had just played “The Rosary.” The room rang with applause. I decided that this would be a dramatic moment for me to make my debut. To the amazement of all my friends, I strode confidently over to the piano and sat down.
Caples followed this rule beautifully. He doesn’t waste time by first explaining how the how the hero of the story learned piano on his own, or came across the U.S. School of Music.
Instead, he gets right into it. When you sit down to write your stories, think of how a blockbuster movie grabs you right from the start. Usually, they’ll start off in the middle of an intense action sequence.
Grab attention first. Explain later.
#3 – Keep It Short
Even if you have a story that’s relevant and starts in the middle of the action, you still want to keep it brief.
Don’t belabor a point. Instead, tell your story and quickly move on.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Of course. But in general, keep your story short unless you’ve got a good reason to do otherwise.
The Wall Street Journal executed this rule perfectly in their decades-long control:
The story gets straight to the point. It’s short. And it’s a story that The Wall Street Journal’s target audience can relate to.
A Few More Things To Keep In Mind
Follow these three rules and a story will add persuasive “punch” to your copy.
But if you really want to ramp up the power of your stories, make them emotional when appropriate.
For example, say you’re writing a fundraising letter. You’ll definitely want to pull on the heart-strings a little bit. This is done by focusing on the emotion you want your story to evoke, and painting a picture that helps achieve that goal.
Take a look:
Here’s another great example. This one was Google’s 2010 Superbowl television ad. Research firm comScore rated it as one of 2010’s best ads.
Again, all three elements are there. It’s relevant to the audience. It starts in the middle of the action. And it’s a story that tugs at the heart. It’s hard not to be endeared to Google after watching that short ad.
Something else that can help your story evoke emotion is to add plenty of details and specifics.
Here’s a good example from Stansberry Research. Notice how the reader is immediately asked to imagine himself in an exciting scene:
And finally, whenever you’re telling a story where your product/service is the hero, don’t make stuff up. Use a real customer story after you’ve gotten his or her permission to do so.
If you don’t have any, then opt for having the reader imagine an experience (if it makes sense), similar to the Stansberry example shown above. Or you can use a parable approach, similar to what The Wall Street Journal did with its “two young men” letter. Many times this will work just as well — or better — and you’ll keep your reader’s trust and your copy transparent.
Stories have always been — and always will be — one of the best ways to communicate a message. And you’ll do well to put the power of story in your copy, using these three tips.
1. Make it relevant
2. Start in the middle of the action
3. Keep it short
Now go out and tell some stories!
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