Selling with Storytelling: Make Magic from the Mundane
One of the most common problems faced by businesses and service providers, when it comes to their copy, is the struggle of presenting offers to their audience in an interesting manner. It’s a time-old issue — being too close to the business, immersed in its inner workings to the point that you can’t see the wood for the trees.
Often, when not seeking outside help, this mundane familiarity with the business results in copy that’s relatively lifeless — focused on parading the product in front of prospective buyers, listing out features and attempting to convince of little more than quality.
And while it might do a decent job of displaying what something can do, it fails to spark imagination, engage with desires or offer the kind of truly unique perspective that grips and involves the reader.
One way around this problem — used often by great direct response copywriters — is storytelling. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to write a book (or even a novella), but simply to implement the core ingredients of a good story into your copy and tie it to the product.
What are these ingredients? Here goes…
The Main Ingredients for Selling with Storytelling
In any narrative, whether it’s non-fiction, fiction, books or film, people are satisfied by a recognisable story arc. Story arcs usually involve — in this order — an introduction to the protagonist(s), an inciting incident that presents the problem and kicks off the plot, rising action that leads to the climactic battle/overcoming of the problem and then falling action which ties up loose ends and brings it all to a close.
To fuel this arc, there are a few core elements you’ll need for a simple story. These are:
- A protagonist or protagonists — the good guys
- A big problem your protagonists must overcome
- A setting, and a reason for the action to be confined to that setting (or multiple settings)
- An antagonist — the villain; someone determined to stop your protagonists from overcoming the big problem
And that’s it! Of course, grander tales could include more than these but for the purposes of a simple direct mail letter, About Us page, advertorial or other promotional piece, you don’t need to start getting into thousand-page tome territory.
Filling the Roles of your Story
Many people get stuck trying to fill these roles, but it’s rarely all that hard — difficulties at this stage are usually, as mentioned, reflective of a closeness to the business that’s hindering your view.
For example, the antagonist doesn’t actually have to be a person. It could be anything: a medical condition, the weather, outdated technology or even the government. The key point is that it’s an outside influence for you and the reader to rally against — a negative force that stands against your protagonist, making it difficult (or impossible, without the help of your product) for them to overcome the big problem.
It helps immensely if you understand your customer’s beliefs, so research is crucial — what do they feel is the reason they aren’t achieving what they want? If you use that as your antagonist, you’ll have the reader on your side.
When it comes to the big problem, this is (naturally) the problem that your product or service solves for your customer.
And your protagonist can be you, a member of staff within the organisation, someone unrelated to your business who discovers the benefits of your product… or the customer themselves.
Of course, you’ll need a setting for your story to take place in — so once you’ve decided on the above, wrap a setting around it and let your story unfold in accordance with the standard story arc.
Tips for Implementing Storytelling in Your Selling
First: If it hasn’t been mentioned enough, it’s very much worth investing in an outside view of your business. An external copywriter can come in, cast a fresh eye over your products, your services, your processes and your business history. They should want to know everything that makes your business what it is — where it came from, why it came about, who it serves, how products are created and so much more.
With this outside view, golden nuggets are uncovered — unique angles that help you stand out from the competition yet may otherwise have been brushed under the rug… because “it’s just how we do things”.
Left ignored, the magic becomes the mundane — and breakthrough results are often found when you engineer the reverse of that and use it to spin a tale. Joe Sugarman’s “Laser Beam Digital Watch” campaign is a great example of this.
Second, make sure your story stays lean and mean. No rambling, no waffle. Sure, use a few sentences to build imagery for your setting but going off on tangents or focusing on tiny, irrelevant details is a no-no. Once the first draft of your story is on the page, edit it ruthlessly to ensure it holds attention at all times — that every line leads into the next in a coherent flow and is focused on one thing: the series of events that led to solution of your protagonist’s problem.
Finally, enter the story as late as possible. What this means is, don’t spend ages building up to the situation and introducing your characters and their lives. You can drop small nuggets that round them out as you go, but we don’t need to have an entire “day of the life” experience prior to the problem showing up.
Good examples here are John Caples’ “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano” and “They Grinned When the Waiter Spoke to Me” pieces. Both of these enter with a sense of urgency, and have already framed their protagonist as someone who is expected by their social circle to have never had any experience with the piano or the French language.
Here’s the full piano piece:
Another quick example could be an introduction such as: “I woke up praying the pain had gone away. It hadn’t.”
This could be the entry point for a story of a long-time sufferer of chronic pain (the problem, and the protagonist mirroring your audience), who subsequently discovered YOUR remedy even when doctors had told them there was no chance of a cure (the antagonists).
This doesn’t just point out that your product can treat pain. It brings it to life. And that single line tells us that this is a person plagued by this problem.
Since the dawn of humanity, we’ve automatically engaged with stories — our empathic natures latching onto them as highly effective vehicles for learning and persuasion, especially when we see ourselves reflected in them.
And what might seem boring to you, could be a totally new experience for someone else. Always keep that in mind.
Of course there are deeper psychological factors that go into the exact wording of sales-focused storytelling, but for now, take a few minutes and think about the basics of the stories you could tell — how many different people and perspectives you could pluck from your business and plug into each role?
There’s a wealth of tales just waiting for you to unlock them. So go on… let them out.