How Copywriters Get Attention with
a Good Story

“Hey. Let me tell you a story.”

I don’t care where you are … in a restaurant … on the train … in a crowded room … when you hear those words, your ears prick up. Even if you don’t know the person who uttered them.

Stories captivate us. You. Me. And your prospect. Why? Because we’re human. Our connection with stories goes deep into our psychology. This connection is rooted in our distant history before humans invented written language.

Our primitive ancestors sat around campfires riveted by stories about when it was best to plant grain. Or how to avoid being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. Or how the earth and heavens were created.

Stories resonate deep within us.

A shortcut to your reader’s attention …

When you build your promotion around a compelling story — when you use a story lead — you almost immediately grab your prospect’s attention.

Here’s a classic story lead that brought in millions of dollars in subscriptions for The Wall Street Journal …

On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable, and both — as young college graduates — were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.

Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.

They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.

But there was a difference. One was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.

After those 116 few words, the story has captured more than your attention. You yearn to know what made that difference. The story compels you to learn more.

Take a look at this tale of a ‘throw-away kid.’ Does it grab you viscerally more than numbers and statistics could?

I'm writing to you from our shelter tonight. From the corner, I can see James, just 16, sleeping on a fresh cot we set up in the chapel. Covenant House is full. Every bed is taken. I don't always know how we make room for all these kids, but by the grace of God, tonight we found a way again.

James came to us tonight, exhausted, his eyelids barely able to stay open. He'd been trying to sleep near the restaurant dumpsters, in the bus station, on park benches. He'd rested his head on tables at 24‑hour donut shops, under the fluorescent lights, desperate for a safe, quiet place to sleep.

It isn’t so much a matter of wanting to learn more about James. When you read this, you have to learn more.

Stories create these powerful emotional and psychological connections with your prospect. This in itself is a good reason to consider using a story to lead your promotion. But that’s only part of their power.

The power to banish warm-up copy …

A common misery we copywriters face is how to get into the flow of the promotion. This woe makes us write warm-up copy, copy that wanders around before getting to the point.

A compelling story gives you a practical way to get into your pitch. It lets you focus on the Big Idea behind your promotion. It lets you begin to make the promise of your product real. And by focusing on the promise or Big Idea, you take the focus off the product.

Not a late-night hustler …

Another difficulty we copywriters face is nailing down the tone of a promotion. It’s all too easy to lapse into copy that sounds like … well, sales copy. Copy that sounds like a late-night infomercial. Your prospect doesn’t want to read that.

But a well-crafted story can easily create a friendly, personable tone for your copy. Look at either of the two promotions I’ve quoted above. They both read like the writer is sitting next to you, telling the story. When you use a story, you’re meeting as equals. You’re chatting with your reader, not lecturing him. Not selling to him.

And when you’re finally ready to talk about your product, the story you led with has helped you in two additional ways. First, it makes your product seem more real to your prospect. He can relate to it as a person because you’ve already connected the product to him through the story.

Your story will also make the entire promotion — Big Idea, big promise, benefits — more memorable. Think again of the two stories I quoted from. I bet you can remember details from those stories more easily than if they’d simply been related as statistics or general ideas.

One HUGE warning …

Yes, stories are a vital part of our human history and psychology. And yes, everybody loves a story. And, yes, a well-told story can be a powerful way to lead your promotion.

But …

 … proceed with caution when using a story lead. We all tend to fall in love with the story we’re telling. But in a promotion, less is better. Weed out all unnecessary words and details. Keep your narration lively and moving quickly.

The stories you read here were not really about the two young men who graduated from college or James sleeping on the cot. The stories were about what action the copywriters wanted the reader to take.

Too many words, too many details, and your reader will lose focus on what you really want to tell him.

So keep your stories lean and to the point.

Story leads are so powerful that I’d be remiss if we stopped right here. I have much more to tell you. So, over the next few weeks, I’ll be telling you more about how best to use a story lead … and what types of promotions they’re best suited for.

Until then …

Keep writing!

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: July 22, 2013

1 Response to “How Copywriters Get Attention with a Good Story”

  1. Hi Will,

    Reading your articles excites me. They are so full of useful information.

    I am in the process of completing the Accelerated Copywriting Course. I have a niche in mind, but reading this, just gave me another idea.

    Thank you for all you share.

    Guest (Carol F)October 7, 2013 at 12:55 pm


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