How to Write Great Copy using Storytelling Techniques

How to Write Great Copy using Storytelling Techniques

Everyone loves a good story. Stories draw us into our imaginations and make us feel like we’re right there watching the tale unfold before our very eyes. A story can stir our feelings and make us cry or burst out laughing.

Because they’re so powerful, stories are very useful for copywriters. Good stories can move people to action. They can encourage sympathy and instigate donations. They can cause an uprising or a revolution. They can provoke a response or influence readers. They can sell.

Storytelling works.

Except, of course, when it doesn’t.

You can pen the most gripping tale that hooks readers, tosses them about in a tempest of emotion and makes them live all their feelings until they’re left breathless, panting and desperate for more by the time they reach the end.

But if you haven’t used storytelling properly, readers won’t do what you want them to do. They got a good story. You got a captivated audience. And there are no new clients calling you. No emails. No sales. Just people saying, “Wow, what a great story.”

Your storytelling strategy fell flat.

Using storytelling to influence readers isn’t as easy as it looks. When you’re trying to influence people and get them to take action, you need a few powerful tactics to get the technique right.

Make the Story Relevant and Supportive

Some writers have a hard time picking the right story for their ultimate goal. The story has no particular relevance, no supportive examples, and no specific relation that readers can clearly see. The result is that while readers get an entertaining story, they aren’t sure what it has to do with the title of the post or the action you’re asking them to take at the end.

Unless your goal is just to entertain, select a story that’s clearly relevant to the message, action or lesson you want to get across. A single obscure point within the story isn’t enough to create proper support – find a story that’s clearly relational from beginning to end, and make sure that it connects to the goal you want to achieve.

If you have to explain how the whole thing ties together at the end, go back and try again. It’s not quite right yet.

Maintain the Interest

There are some really boring stories out there. No, seriously. They lack conflict, or the characters are dull, or the writing doesn’t provide good mental imagery, or dialogue sounds stilted, or it’s unemotional and plain. It’s just… a boring story.

Storytelling uses a few basic elements: a beginning, a conflict, a climax, an end. If one of those is missing, it isn’t a story – it’s just the description of an event.

There are also basic ingredients you need to use to write a good story. You need to set the scene, introduce the characters, show the conflict, build anticipation, and create a theme, for example. Learn about the elements of a good story, and practice writing creative fiction as much as you practice copywriting to develop and blend your skills together.

You’ll be able to make magic in no time.

Watch the Length

Too short a story and readers aren’t sure what just happened. Too long a story, and they get impatient or bored, or they get drawn into the story and led down a path so long they forget there was a point to all this in the first place.

Avoid overlong descriptions, going into too much detail, getting off track on tangents that don’t hold up the main goal or skimping on the good parts. Learn to find the right balance that lets you hook readers in and know what to cut because it isn’t necessary to hold their interest.

A good rule of thumb for blending storytelling with copywriting? No more than 50% story; otherwise the tale dilutes your main purpose and detracts from your goals.

Stick to What’s Important

Interest, support, relevance, purpose… all these are critical to using storytelling in your copywriting in an effective, efficient manner. It comes down to this:

Keep what you need. Everything else? Cut.

That’s the hardest part of storytelling – knowing what to keep that helps contributes to your goal and figuring out what’s just fluff and filler that bogs down the purpose. A good yarn can tie everything together beautifully, but too much yarn and you just have one big, tangled knot.

So with each paragraph you write, ask yourself, “Does this contribute to the message? Does this help me achieve my goal?” If the answer is yes, then great. Go for it. But if you could remove that sentence, that paragraph, or that section and still maintain the integrity and emotional impact of the piece, take it out.

You’d be surprised how much more effective your story becomes in helping you reach your copywriting goals when the whole piece is nice and tight.

How about you? Do you use storytelling techniques in your business copywriting? Which stories get you the best results and reactions? Or do you struggle with using storytelling, or think you have no stories to tell?

Want to learn how to write a story so sticky, it goes viral?

Dan and Chip Heath give you all you need to know in their bestselling book, Made to Stick. It's a must-have for writers – and a favourite of ours. Get your copy today.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. Thanks for this post – it actually gave me some fresh ideas to play with for posts of my own, which is awesome.

    One of the story telling techniques I often use, both in writing and also in my work with clients, is to tell stories of *other* clients (name unmentioned) and the experiences they had. Especially when we’re talking psychology, metaphors that describe mental changes and transformations are very powerful.

    You can introduce an idea to someone might ordinarily feel negative about it, by wrapping it in metaphor and taking the focus away from *them*. After all, you’re talking/writing about someone else right?

    So yeah. For me, that kind of metaphor is priceless. I’d like to work in other more out-there metaphors into my writing… if only because its fun.

    It’d be cool to write a post that somehow fused tales of dragons & swords into a useful, practical blog post :P

  2. Hi,

    Great advice regarding storytelling and copywriting. I have never used storywriting before, but I have seen a lot of example of this on the web.

    I agree, story writing will work, but only if we follow these points.

    Kindest,
    Nabeel

  3. Some of the worst examples of story-telling are when blogs try to use metaphors to teach a lesson and they end up going overboard. No, I really don’t want to read your 1,000 word post on how Lady Gaga can improve my blog (I’ve read a total of 3 separate posts like that this month). I LOVE Copyblogger’s “The Inigo Montoya Guide to 27 Commonly Misused Words” and MwP’s own “Business Lessons from Equestrians” but I’m seeing more and more blogs using well-known plots or celebrity examples to tell a story and it’s nowhere near as effective as just saying what they want to say.

    I would give some bad (re: horrible) examples, but what you write on the web stays on the web and I’m not that stupid. Let’s just say I recently read a post about the outdoors and it involved TWENTY-SEVEN stories of rafting/camping/etc and how it applied to life and business. No. Thanks.

  4. Hey James, new to here but really like this post. In my readings on the web, I’ve found that too many blogs don’t use stories at all, which to me is quite mystifying. In fact, I just don’t get it. Let’s take motivation/self improvement niches– If the authors aren’t telling a story, every stinking post starts to sound the same. I see this time in time again. Writers must understand that readers need stories because they paint the picture to add weight/emphasis to whatever the point of the post is. Anyway, I could yap all day about the power of effective storytelling but you’ve done an excellent job here. Ya’ll keep up the great work.

  5. Hi James,

    Wonderful post! Nothing like storytelling around a real or metaphorical campfire. I learned to do that at summer camp and in creative writing classes. Now, I write and teach personal essay writing. It’s a great learning tool if folks want to inject more life into their business writing. A rumor started some time ago that business writing had to be dull. As it so often happens in life, many believed that rumor instead of finding out if it were even true.

    Here’s to stories that engage and enlighten and entertain! giulietta

  6. This is ia great post and will help me move from non-blogger to blogger and now good blogger! I need to include more stories in my posts otherwise I’m in danger of becoming boring, just like Marcus suggests!

  7. Glad you talked about the importance of the story. Somewhere in school we were taught that facts were more important. Stories are what connect and put the facts into context. Stories make us human.

  8. Pretty much any authentic, worth its salt community out there started with like-minded individuals sharing what they know – telling stories. This worked in this situation because of ABC. That didn’t work in that situation because of XYZ. There is tremendous value in storytelling and I am in the business of compiling and sharing stories. Reading this post, however, suggests I need to reconsider a few things.

    Interesting…

  9. As the infamous Gary Halbert used in most of his work, storytelling puts your customer behind the wheel of your product.

    As your copy sinks into the background and the customer can see themselves with your particular product or service in their life, they learn to connect with that item and want to buy it so they can have the same thing happen to them.

    Rags-to-riches stories are one of the best places that you can use storytelling to push a product. People love underdogs, no pun intended.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  10. Stories are powerful — they connect our hearts and minds to imagination and possibility … and hope is the stuff dreams are made of.

    I’m a fan of using stories for getting results. You can use one-liner stories to be the hero and conquer your day or beat the villainous tasks before you, etc. Stories can inspire whether they are a one-liner idea or an end-to-end movie or book. After all, isn’t life an adventure, and who doesn’t want to live an epic life … a story at a time?

  11. Excellent cautionary points.

    I find when judiciously used, storytelling elements often work well in marketing copy. The anecdotal lede, for examples, makes a terrific hook for some marketorial copy, sales letters, posts and even collateral. As long as it’s congruent with content that follows, a narrative opener pulls readers into body copy–and it can often help a stumped writer come up with an apt kicker.

  12. Nice Article! I love the part ” beginning, conflict, climax and end”. This is really very important issue. I never cared earlier ;).

    I am first time visiting this site, and I truly appreciate it !

    ~ Sandeeep Gupta

  13. @Peter – You’re welcome. These are handy tips for your type of blog and business, because I feel that you can definitely use storytelling to help draw people closer into the imaginative realm of pain, resolution and possibilities.

    Storytelling isn’t quite the same as using the metaphor technique, mind you, but that’s also a really useful method of increasing understanding and bringing insight to your clients.

    As for the dragons, were you suggesting I whip out my creative writing abilities? ;)

    @Nabeel – Keep in mind that there are all different formats of stories, so these points may not always apply – but they’re certainly great ones to experiment with!

    @Marian – I agree that in many cases, those metaphor posts are overdone, and there’s too much on the ‘cool’ or ‘story’ factor without enough tie in to the actual pragmatic lesson. When using metaphors, less on the metaphor and more on the “how this relates to the subject at hand” goes a long, LONG way.

    @Marcus – Oooh. Your gravatar makes me think I’ve just been visited by Aslan, very cool!

    I’ve recently had several readers ask for more ‘story’ here at Men with Pens – as I’m sure you’ve noticed, ours is a very pragmatic/education oriented blog. Balancing that out with some storytelling makes for a really great read, with each and every post!

    @Giulietta – Now I totally want to have a feature post involving ghost stories around campfires, lol. I can SO see that!

    And business should never be dull. It’s a playground!

    @Ian – Don’t be boring! No! Be awesome!

    @Mary – You have some good stories to tell. You should share them – and I’m sure others will have their own stories to share back, which can end up becoming a great experience for all.

    @Brian – Glad I sparked some ideas for you, there. And you’re right – stories help create more authenticity, don’t they!

    @Joshua – THERE you go. Exactly it. When you use storytelling in copywriting, it brings the power of imagining YOUR life and how it would be if you bought this product or used that service. It taps right into the emotional pull and creates a better sales strategy – one that everyone enjoys, too!

    @JD – My dreams are made of luxury cars, maids and butlers and mattresses so stuffed with dollar bills that they feel like heavenly clouds. In an epic, adventure style setting, of course. ;)

    @Lorraine – In my experience, the elements alone do help a great deal, but a true, full story often has spectacular results. In copywriting and marketing, the story is usually broken up in sections, of course, with the information stuck in between.

    @Sandeep – Always care. About everything. Except the things you don’t care about, of course – and even then, isn’t not caring a form of caring in a negative way?

  14. Thank you for this lesson. As a mom I always used storys to get my point accross to my kids. I am glad to hear that this is something that can work in blogging if used correctly.

    Thanks again for all that you do.

    Darcy!

  15. I was sitting at my desk at work when I had an idea for a good story. I looked around for my pen, the blue retractible one with a black rubber grip. I couldn’t find it anywhere.

    Then I saw my coworker using it. “He stole my pen!” I thought.

    “Tim, what’s up? That’s my pen!” I said.

    “Oh sorry, I just picked this up off the floor.” He said and gave it back to me.

    “Boy, the nerve of some people” I thought. Then I went around the corner and to my surprise saw another person using my exact same pen: blue, retractible, rubber grip. I looked over the one I had in my hand to make sure it hadn’t transported itself somehow. It didn’t.

    I immediately went back to my desk to write the story down — both the first idea I had and the one about the pens.

    Ha, glad I got that off my chest. Thanks for the great post. I love a good story! :)

  16. Any tips on writing for our blog? We struggle with making our material more engaging as it deals with sales training.

    • Hi Ralph,
      Only to note down all stories, that are created by your daily customers. Jot down, re-write, edit with anecdotes. You will be amaged with your pens-down.
      Regards,

  17. Hey James – awesome article.

    I know you have all sorts of articles on storytelling, but I was wondering… if you could recommend any one resource for a copywriter to improve his/her storytelling techniques, what would it be?

  18. I love telling stories, they make things sparkle and come alive. And I totally agree with Aslan (ooops, sorry, I mean Marcus) and his comment about personal development blogs. I want to hear the writer and know where I am. I don’t want to read the same dried up old nonsense that’s been spewed out everywhere else.

    Julie (Writing Roads) is the epitome of story telling for me. The magic she weaves is startling and brilliant. Done well, story telling is unbeatable.

  19. Stories ease selling. Especially ones with images or graphics.

    Sharing Case studies is an example of using story-telling to sell. It’s a strategy that really helps.

    Thanks for the post James.

    Kwame.

  20. @Darcy – Stories work a great deal for parenting and getting lessons across. They’re also about the only thing that rivets kids’ attention easily.

    @John – Hee! Glad you had fun with it!

    @Ralph – Sales training is rife with potential for stories, because at its very core, it’s all about people. What case studies could you talk about? What past situations could you use to help teach? How can people learn from what’s happened to others?

    Mostly, though, just be human and real in your blog. That’ll help with engagement.

    @Chad – Yes. Your keyboard. Every day, sit down and write some fiction. Pretend you’re building a novel and have to add 500 words every morning before you get to work (that goes fast, trust me). Pick a character. Plunk him down in a setting. Go. Write. It doesn’t even have to be good – it’s just an exercise. The more you write and learn about fiction and become comfortable with it, the more your copy will improve.

    Made to Stick is a great book about storytelling and creating impact, too.

    @El – Just thought I’d let you know that your story yesterday was very touching. Good for you.

    @Kwame – The right picture can really drive the message home – it’s finding the damned right picture that becomes a challenge! :)

  21. Blogging is a great tool for storytelling, but video blogging will soon overtake it. What could be more interesting than watching the storyteller and his/her body gesture while you listen to him/her?

    I think podcasting could also be a great way to communicate. You can listen to someone’s stories while driving too!

    Rahman Mehraby
    Site Booster Blog

  22. @James, thanks the tall tale and timely reminder. Storytelling is one of the best ways to illustrate product benefits without even sounding like your selling something.

    @Chad, check out Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and/or “The Hero’s Journey” (which spawned “The Writer’s Journey”) to find out the elements common to all good myths and stories.

    I’d also recommend Ray Bradbury’s collection of essays on writing, “Zen in the Art of Writing”. In fact, there could a blog post in there somewhere…

    Cheers!

Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Todd Rutherford, Crystal Marcos, Glenn Arcaro, FreelanceCamp 2010, Todd Rutherford and others. Todd Rutherford said: RT @MenwithPens How to Write Great Copy using Storytelling Techniques http://bit.ly/cteQSi […]

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  3. […] Seth Godin wrote about this in his book, All Marketers are Liars. But James gives good, concise advice on how to use storytelling in your copywriting in this post. […]

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  9. […] The story you tell is up to you. You can either have that story enable you to move forwards in ways most important to you, or you can have that story remind you of the pain, the struggles and the reasons why you can’t have what you want. […]

  10. […] “The story you tell is up to you. You can either have that story enable you to move forwards in ways most important to you, or you can have that story remind you of the pain, the struggles and the reasons why you can’t have what you want.” […]

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