Bring Your Story Home to Your Reader

Let’s go deeper into storytelling, what d’ya say? My last article in ETR (“You, The Movie“) seems to have hit a nerve.

In that article, I discussed the importance of storytelling as a skill, especially for copywriters attempting to persuade prospects to become customers. The brief exercise I suggested was aimed at sharpening your ability to weave a pithy tale… and the response was overwhelming. At last count, more than 160 folks posted their efforts in the new “comments” section on ETR’s website. (And I read every single one. Thanks, again, to everyone who participated. It was fun, wasn’t it?)

Today, if you’re up for it, I have another exercise that will help hone your writing chops to dangerous “street-wise salesmanship” levels.

But first… let’s do some triage.

In case you missed it, I reviewed specific submissions in the comments section. But, in general, if there was one glaring fault in the three-sentence stories that were posted, it was the lack of a clear punch line. This is the most common error rookies make (and it’s an easy fix, once you get hip to advanced storytelling tactics). Many of the narratives sort of “floated,” without moorings. And while meaningful to the writer, the tales remained mysteries to the reader.

Great storytelling sucks people into your world. This is especially important when one of your ultimate goals is to use your writing to sell stuff. (Most legendary ads involve some type of storytelling.)

Even the most rollicking yarn can put people to sleep if it’s too complex, goes off on too many tangents, or doesn’t tickle the reader’s short attention span.

And most people are not natural storytellers… so they sometimes ramble off on quirky paths, repeating themselves, unable to clearly explain plot points, and bombarding the listener with irrelevant details. “Did I tell you about the UFO that attacked us? No? It was Tuesday last week. No, wait, it was Wednesday. Yeah. It must have been Wednesday, because I was headed to IHOP to meet Suzy for waffles. You know they have specials every Wednesday, don’t you?”

This is how people get strangled.

In my long experience trying to force folks to tell better stories, the first task is nearly always to trim the excess verbiage and fluff.

The outline to follow is: the set-up (the tease of the payoff to come)… plot elements (relevant details)… action (the fulfillment of the tease)… and punch line.

Focus on your reason for telling your story… which could vary from pure entertainment to providing insight to persuading someone to buy. When you’re done, you want your listener or reader to FEEL something. Happiness (“Aww, the puppy got rescued”)… alarm (“My God, I’m gonna keep a loaded gun by my bedside from here on out”)… astonishment (“My neighbors are doing what at night?”)… or, yes, even greed (“Hey! I want that kind of deal too!”).

The process can also be described biologically. Like this: foreplay… climax… resolution.

Stories, like sex, benefit from a focus on the goal. The less extraneous interruption, the better.

In other words: It’s not about you at all, even if you’re the star of the story.

It’s about your reader.

Ideally, he will “see” himself in your story. Or feel like he’s temporarily privy to the world you create with your words – a world he would not otherwise have access to.

Have you ever read a story to a child? Once they get a taste for it, just saying, “Once upon a time…” will glaze their eyes over, as they eagerly prepare themselves to be transported to a world far different than their own.

The concept of “transporting” is critical. You’re driving the story, and it’s your responsibility to keep it on the road. Your reader will abandon you at the first hint that you don’t know where you’re going. And he’ll despise you for getting his hopes up for a good tale if you then dash them with a feeble punch line.

That’s why striving for pithy, concise stories is so important for writers. Set-up… plot elements… action… punch line.

And the three-liner is classic. One of the best: “I’ve been poor. And I’ve been rich. Rich is better.”

No need for any details. In this example, the words “rich” and “poor” carry their own payload of emotional backstory with them, because, in this context, nearly everyone will have a feeling about being rich and a feeling about being poor. A long-winded rant about HOW poor you were, or HOW rich you became, is excessive.

Concise, memorable stories pack a punch.

Even better, there is a segue into the life of the reader in that three-line beauty. “Rich is better” may seem like an obvious statement, but coupled with the set-up lines, it delivers a strong message that smacks of truth. You want to hear what else this guy has to say.

The flow of a quick story, told with feeling, is always ripe with implications for the reader.

However, good ad copy doesn’t rest on implications. It’s got to move quickly to specifics.

So here’s a simple tactic from my own bag of tricks that has helped bring many a story “home” to readers: First, you tell your tale, aiming for the kind of breathless prose that makes your prospect afraid to exhale for fear of missing a delicious detail.

Then, you deliver the punch line or the moral or just the ending. Don’t try any clever transitions back into your sales pitch. Instead, you merely say: “And here’s what that means for YOU…”

When reading fables to kids, any attempt to explain the moral would ruin the transcendent pleasure of listening to them. Ideally, you want the ending to rattle around in their heads, while they mull over the ethical implications and come up with their own conclusion. (Kids hate it when adults wag fingers and try to force lessons on them.)

But when you’re writing to adults, you no longer have that luxury. Especially with ad copy. Adults are so numb to incoming data, they will hear even a great story, store it away somewhere in their cluttered brain, and move on to the next volley of arriving stimuli without coming to any conclusion whatsoever.

So, as the copywriter, it’s your job to complete the thought.

You just continue the thread, going deeper into your sales message.

“I’ve been poor. And I’ve been rich. Rich is better. Here’s what that means for you: You can continue on with your life believing that ‘money can’t buy happiness,’ if that makes you feel better. But I’m here to tell you that having a pile of extra cash is actually a fabulous feeling… and your life will get better almost immediately. Plus, since I’ve already done the hard work of going from clean broke to filthy rich, I know all the shortcuts… and I’ll share them with you…”

Et cetera.

So, if you’re up for it… here’s your next assignment: Tell a short, three-sentence story (using the set-up, plot, action, and punch line outline). And then write a one- or two-line segue that brings the story home to your reader. Leave it in the “comments” section on ETR’s website here.

You’re allowed to be nonsensical for this exercise. In other words, you don’t actually have to be selling anything. You can make it all up.

Just think – really, really hard – about how the punch line of your story MIGHT lead into a sales message.

Be concise, and bring it home to the reader. That’s the key to world-class sales messages.

You cannot “fail” at this exercise, because you’re just warming up your chops.

You don’t learn to ride without hopping into the saddle. And it’s okay to fall off, as long as you climb back on.

Again, I’ll read every submitted story, and comment as needed.

[Ed. Note: Think storytelling doesn’t matter? Think again. John Carlton is an expert copywriter, a pioneer in online marketing, and a teacher of killer sales copy – and he’s honed the storytelling craft to a fine point. From John, you can also discover how to get your hands on the kick-ass secrets of the world’s smartest, happiest, and wealthiest marketers.

And be sure to read his insights, tactics, and advice on copywriting and marketing at his blog.]

John Carlton

John Carlton slyly refers to himself as "the most ripped-off copywriter on the Web", and almost no one on the inside of the online entrepreneurial world disagrees. His sales copy has been stalked for decades by many of the best marketers both online and offline… and they freely admit using John's ads as templates for their own breakthrough pitches.