Why Story Leads Work … and Five Places to Find Them

I’m sure you’ve heard the Gene Fowler quote: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Even now, with nearly 15 years of promotions under my belt, I still find the blank page paralyzing at times. But I’ve developed a series of techniques I rely on to get into a project.

One surefire strategy is to start with a story. And this is a great technique if you’re just starting out as a copywriter.

Because you already know how to tell a story. You’ve been listening to stories since you were a toddler on your mother’s lap. You tell stories all the time in your day-to-day life.

A good story is like comfort food. It brings with it an emotional response – exactly the kind of response you want your reader to have.

A well-told story …

  • Gives you a practical way to get into your sales letter.
  • Creates a friendly, personable, and conversational tone for your copy.
  • Makes your promise (and your product) “real” to your prospect.
  • Makes your message easier to remember.

Here are five places to find stories that can work in your leads …

1. Customer Testimonials

Have your clients send you the letters their customers send them. Sometimes the perfect one comes in the mail. Other times you may have to follow up with a person who sent in a testimonial to get the details to fill out the story.

Here’s a great testimonial used in the lead of a promo to sell a book on household hints:

My guests were due to arrive in just 15 minutes!

But the toilet was clogged. And I couldn’t find a plunger (or a plumber)!

I called my sister, who has a copy of your new book,HOUSEHOLD MAGIC.

“Just squirt in some liquid dish detergent,” she told me. “Wait 15 minutes and you and your guests will be good to go.”

Well, it worked just like you said – like magic!

– Plungerless in Seattle

Though that may not have happened to you, the story strikes a chord – because it clearly could happen. It relates to a situation none of us wants to be stuck in. And it shows that this product provides solutions.

2. Biographies and History Books

You find so much information on the Internet these days. And so much of it sounds the same. So look beyond that resource to history books, economics books, and biographies for authentic, seldom-told stories that will, by their unique nature, catch your reader’s attention.

Here’s one, for instance, that a copywriter dug up in a book at his local public library …

One hundred and thirty-one feet below the surface of the Baltic Sea – just off the coast of Finland – a treasure trove belonging to Russian Empress Catherine the Great lay undiscovered for almost 230 years.

Tales of the Vrow Maria – a famed “treasure ship” – enticed scores of deep-sea hunters to search for its exquisite paintings, jewels and precious cargo ...

In 1999, the wreckage was found.

Four years later, Charles Deveroux traveled to Europe to explore the site of the sunken cargo ship. It was the single greatest moment of his deep-sea diving career …

You can’t help but keep reading. You want to know what happens next. This lead does exactly what it’s meant to do: It draws the reader in.

3. Personal Stories From Gurus, or Product-Creation Stories

If you want to make money in the stock market, who better to listen to than someone who’s done it time and again? If you want to travel the world and get paid to do it, who better to follow than someone who has been cashing in on her trips for the past 20 years?

Here’s a “guru” story from Alexandria Brown, the “E-zine Queen” …

I used to be where you are right now!

Seven years ago in New York City, I had a marketing communications business that I started because I wanted to “control my own destiny.” But instead, I worked like a dog, was a slave to my clients, struggled to market myself, and I had no time or freedom. Owning my own business was a chore instead of a joy.

The money was all right most of the time, but my cash flow was UP and DOWN. One month I’d get a bunch of checks and pay down my bills … the next month I was broke once more, clipping coupons, racking up debt again, and considering moving back in with my parents in the Connecticut suburbs.

(Know what I’m talkin’ ’bout?)

I felt like a BIG FAKE!  …

You’ll find great credibility in the stories of real-world experts who know how to “do it,” whatever “it” may be.

So if the product you’re writing about has associated with it a “character,” play that up. Tell the story of how he discovered his secrets, developed his product, or built his wealth.

Stories like that make your “guru” real for the reader. They help make him (and his product) believable.

4. News Stories

Read newspapers and magazines, listen to the news on the radio, catch the TV news on occasion. Those are great sources for “real world” stories that can also give your copy a certain built-in urgency. Pegging your promotion to something going on in the world right now is a smart way to infuse it with the need for your reader to take action.

Here’s a news story that leads a promotion to sell a report on privacy protection …

Loretta Wiley, an 88-year-old woman, lent her teenage grandnephew – Willard – $18,000 to buy a used Chrysler.

After a night of drinking and partying, Willard drove the car off a railroad bridge, totaling the Chrysler.

His passenger and fellow party-goer, Mark Varjak, lost a leg in the accident and was paralyzed from the chest down.

Despite his reckless behavior, Willard was NOT prosecuted ...

Yet three years later, a jury found Ms. Loretta Wiley liable ... to the Varjak family to the tune of $950,000 in damages – her entire life savings!

That story is rich with detail … and injustice. You feel outraged when you read it. And you immediately worry that something like that could happen to you, too. You want to protect yourself. And so you read on to find out how …

(An aside: If you use a news story in your copy, document where you got the information and be sure to provide that documentation to your client.)

5. Your Imagination

Stories help to paint pictures for your reader. And those pictures help to take him out of his “element” and put him, well, right where you want him.

Use your own imagination to create “story images” that will help transport your reader. Like this …

Imagine lounging on your deck, a book on your lap and a cocktail in your hand. Just steps away, turquoise waters slip gently up onto the talcum-fine sand. Overhead, palms rustle and pelicans squawk.

As the sun slips behind the red horizon, your cook lights a lantern on the table and brings you the dinner she’s prepared – fresh-grilled fish with mango chutney, a salad, a bottle of wine …

You look up at the clear night sky and wonder, for a moment, if it isn’t all a dream … After all, it’s just the kind of extravagance the rich and famous enjoy …

But you don’t have to be a celebrity to live like one.

Now, keep in mind that it’s best to create positive images. Putting your reader in a “bad” place will just serve to annoy him. He won’t want to be there. And he won’t stay to read your letter.

Paint an enticing picture, on the other hand, and you’ll immediately charm your reader into your copy.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »

Click to Rate:
Average: 5.0
Published: September 15, 2008

Guest, Add a Comment
Please Note: Your comments will be seen by all visitors.

You are commenting as a guest. If you’re an AWAI Member, Login to myAWAI for easier commenting, email alerts, and more!

(If you don’t yet have an AWAI Member account, you can create one for free.)

This name will appear next to your comment.

Your email is required but will not be displayed.

Text only. Your comment may be trimmed if it exceeds 500 characters.

Type the Shadowed Word
Too hard to read? See a new image | Listen to the letters

Hint: The letters above appear as shadows and spell a real word. If you have trouble reading it, you can use the links to view a new image or listen to the letters being spoken.

(*all fields required)