You, the Movie

Have you ever wondered where the knack for finding stories and hooks — the main ingredients of any great copywriter’s bag of tricks — comes from?

Here is my insight (after a couple of decades on the advertising front lines): It comes from observing life as an ongoing movie. With characters, story angles, plot twists, and endings that arrive like punch lines.

This is how the legendary copywriters I’ve known go through their day… seeing nearly everything in terms of a movie script. It’s an unconscious habit, and wickedly effective at keeping your writing chops chugging on all cylinders.

Even the most mundane errand can be retold as a raucous tale full of shocking revelation when you put this talent to work. Nothing interesting or weird or funny gets by a top scribe.

So, when faced with clients needing killer ads… it’s easy to find, and flesh out, the stories hidden in products, campaigns, and markets. Because it’s all a movie.

Think about your own life.

No, seriously. Think about it.

Most people have trouble “seeing” themselves in the world at all. Without a mirror, they’re not even sure they exist. Their daily experiences are like watching a “monkey cam” – the filmed result of attaching a camera to the back of a chimp and letting him wander off.

It’s not a smooth, thought-out, coherent narrative. Instead, it’s jerky, chaotic, and (unless there are “happy accidents”) mostly boring.

There. I’ve said it.

Most people lead boring lives.

For any savvy copywriter, that’s a tremendous advantage. All you have to do… is be the one thing your bored-to-death prospect reads today that gets his blood moving. And you’re well on your way to closing the sale.

Again, think about your life.

Consider how it has progressed in actual chapters, or acts… just like a long-running serial flick.

Maybe your story is as straightforward as childhood, adulthood, starting a biz, getting married.

Or maybe it’s more nuanced, in peculiar ways that make sense to you… but may sound exotic to outsiders. I know one guy, for example, who catalogs his past using whichever car was in his life at the time: The ancient ’55 Buick Special (junior year in high school), the only slightly abused ’67 Mustang (freshman year of college), the brand-spanking-new Toyota (first full-time job), the Pontiac mini-van (first kid), etc.

This guy will fry your ear with great stories, too. All starring him and his wheels.

The more precise and anchored you can be, the better your stories will become.

And the better your OWN parcel of stories is, the easier you can spot – and use – stories from the world around you when you’re writing to influence and persuade.

I was lucky to grow up in a family of storytellers. And since I was the youngest by eight years, I learned quickly to be pithy and interesting… or risk losing the attention of my audience. (Few adults have much patience for meandering stories with no point, even from their own kids.)

The trick is to focus on short, crisp, rollicking tales that get to the payoff quickly. With a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or, like a good joke, with a premise, a set-up, and a punch line.

In fact, I suggest you start crafting your tales – both the personal and professional – in three brisk sentences.

They can be serious or funny or rueful or just hmmm -inducing snippets of action.

But they must be complete stories.

So start editing, with an audience in mind. For example: “Suzy and I, at 17, started out convinced no one had ever felt a love so wild and crazy before. However, that dizzy high of shared hormonal bliss… was cruelly followed by heartache and misery when her attention shifted away from me. And I ended up as a sad, sad boy, convinced no one had ever felt such pain before.”

Set-up, plot synopsis, and tidy ending with a hook (the “completed circle” of the phrase convinced no one had ever felt...). You can go into more specifics (should your audience crave it), but you’ve laid out the story very efficiently here.

If the point you were trying to make… say, in a sales piece… was that you’ve been around the block emotionally, you scored. Any further detail would muddy up the yarn.

Here’s another one: “I interviewed for my first real job right out of college. Cinched up my tie, answered every jackass question seriously, shook hands like a candidate. Got the gig, hated every second of my life for six months, never quite caught my breath, got fired, and happily collected unemployment checks for the next three months.”

Or, here’s a tidbit from my own biography: “We were vandals as kids, mostly ineffective and innocent, but occasionally stunning models of anarchy. Asked an engineer, once, how many railroad ties his cow-catcher could handle… and the next day, put all those plus one on the tracks. Derailed the train… and our genuine horror of success was deepened by the realization we’d better watch our butts if we were gonna engage with the adult world like that.”

Three sentences. Yeah, long ones. But three coherent, grammatically correct sentences. A complete story, with entry point, action, and a quasi-moral ending.

Consider how looooooooooooong I could have dragged out that tale, and been absolutely justified in doing so. Because, hey, events took place over a couple of days, and there are details of our gang and the neighborhood and the derailment that are fascinating.

Just freaking fascinating.

But longer stories should be told only if you’re invited to tell them. As in, writing your thousand-page biography and selling it. Anyone buys, it’s a tacit agreement to put up with every long-winded saga you’ve got up your sleeve.

Okay… now it’s your turn.

Leave a three-sentence story from your life in the new “comments” section on ETR’s website here.

Don’t be shy. We’re all trying new stuff this year. (Or should be, because the business landscape is changing so dramatically and rapidly. The best marketers I know are trashing old limitations, stretching new boundaries, waking up and engaging the world on fresh terms.)

I promise to read every submission. I’ll even toss a few comments into the pile myself, when warranted.

And I can guarantee you this innocent little exercise will sharpen your chops as a storyteller. Some of you are already damn good, I’m sure… while others can use a lot of work. But we ALL need to remember how critical stories are for communication. (As in, communicating your sales message in a way that grabs attention, persuades, and closes.)

C’mon. Three lines. That forces you to be concise, to consider every single word carefully, and to crunch often-rambling experiences into tidy little narratives with a point.

Just like a top writer does it.

I’m not looking for funny. Not looking for tears. Not looking for anything profound.

Just a story.

For some writers, this will be a true test, because you aren’t used to pushing yourself. However, the best already do.

Good luck.

[Ed. Note: John Carlton is an expert copywriter, a pioneer in online marketing, and a teacher of killer sales copy. Get the details here on 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.