Make Your Story Sing

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe.
But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.”

Native American proverb

The last line of that proverb, “Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever,” couldn’t be truer, especially when it comes to writing promotional copy.

Stories rivet our attention in ways other forms of communication can’t. Human evolution hard wired our need and love for stories right into our brains.

This inborn human connection with stories gives you a potent tool for copywriting … especially when you use a story lead for your promotion.

We talked about this unique ability of stories last week. Click here if you missed that issue of The Golden Thread to catch up. (But come back here!)

When I first learned about story leads, I used them frequently in my copywriting. But I used them poorly. That’s because I didn’t understand that successful story leads follow certain “rules.”

When I learned these rules for success from my mentors at AWAI, my story leads improved, became more compelling, more successful.

These rules have been tested, proven to work. And they’re easy to follow. The rules are …

Story Rule #1: Show. Don’t tell …

You could call this the First Commandment of Good Writing … of all types. But it is particularly relevant when you’re telling a story in a lead.

Here’s an example of simply “telling” without showing from Bulwer-Lytton’s classic first line …

It was a dark and stormy night.

What did you see? What did you feel? Not much, if anything.

Compare that with this example of “showing” taken from successful fundraising copy for Covenant House written by Kimberly Seville …

It all began just as dark fell one winter evening when a young girl knocked on our front door. Her cheeks were chapped from the cold wind, and she was shivering terribly. I said to her, “Please, come in and we’ll find you a couple of sandwiches and a bowl of hot soup.”

You can see in your mind’s eye Kelly (the shivering girl) at door. More significant, as we said last week, your brain experiences the cold as if you were standing at the door.

“Show. Don’t tell” is easy dogma to pronounce. But it is far more difficult to put into action. In a future issue of The Golden Thread, I’ll go into greater depth on how to accomplish this feat. But for now, the most important strategies are …

  • Use strong verbs instead of relying on adverbs and adjectives to do the work of description, and …
  • Shun the verb “is” in all its forms as much as possible.

Story Rule #2: Don’t waste words …

Stories take time to develop. And when you’re writing a story lead, you’re going to write a lot. Don’t fall in love with your words. When you revise and rewrite, eliminate anything that isn’t fascinating, that doesn’t move your story forward.

Special warning here: If you’re writing a story about yourself for your lead, you’ll find everything you write fascinating. Your reader won’t … guaranteed. Be particularly brutal in cutting down your own stories about you.

Story Rule #3: Start in the middle …

One way to avoid wasting words is starting your story in the middle of the action.

It might seem natural to start your story at the beginning. But doing that makes you write longer, bigger, and with fewer crucial details than if you start where the action is starting to rise.

Kelly’s actual story started when she was mistreated by her stepfather as a very young girl. Kimberly could have started her story there. But instead, she introduces Kelly when she’s at her most desperate, right when she needs Covenant House the most.

Kimberly does flash back with a few words about the life that brought her to the Covenant House doorway. But she does it after we learn to care about Kelly (the girl) and what Covenant House can do for her.

Starting in the middle is a storytelling strategy with a long history, going back at least to Aristotle. But it is as effective now as it was 2,500 years ago.

Story Rule #4: Provide compelling details …

Compelling details and specifics are the meat of all successful persuasive writing. But not all details are compelling.

Look at the Covenant House copy above. What are the compelling details?

  • “Her cheeks were chapped from the cold wind.”
  • “She was shivering terribly.”
  • “We’ll find you a couple of sandwiches and hot soup.””

These details bring you into the scene. Even the detail of “find” carries great weight. With that one word, Kimberly tells us that resources are tight at Covenant House.

Story Rule # 5: Get real quickly …

When first writing story leads, I’d often start with something like, “Let me tell you a story about …” I was wasting words. Worse, I was letting my busy, distracted reader slip away.

Start with your story. Don’t waste words setting it up. Start with the shivering girl on the doorstep. Or the 85-year-old man enjoying health and vigor he thought he’d lost forever. Get right into it.

Story Rule #6: Keep it short …

You’re writing a story lead, not a full-fledged story. I violated this “keep it short” rule many times with my first attempts at story leads. Your story should tell just enough to get your reader interested in reading more about what you really want to tell him.

And, what’s that? Your product or service.

How long should your story be? Kimberly’s lead was about six short paragraphs, roughly 300 words. But within that story she planted seeds of what she wanted the reader to come away with: Covenant House needs your help.

Story Rule #7: Make your reader feel …

What did you feel when you read the Covenant House lead?

Sorrow? Empathy? Compassion? Maybe even a little anger. But you felt something.

I’ve focused on Kimberly Seville’s fundraising lead because I love cause marketing and fundraising.

But a good story lead in any niche evokes emotion: pride, sadness, excitement, happiness, anticipation. Something real from your reader’s inner life. Something your product or service can provide or help the reader overcome.

Here’s an example of a simple, quick story lead for the alternative-health niche …

Two years ago, after seven trips to the hospital, the cardiologist gave me the news—my heart was failing. Since then, I have had a defibrillator installed and am now the resident of a nursing home.

My condition was slowly deteriorating, and I was getting weaker, when—thank God—I got a news bulletin about …

What emotions does this lead evoke? Fear, despair, weariness, and finally hope. But real emotions that touch the reader in real ways. That’s the power of a good story lead.

I leave you with these words from direct-marketing guru Gary Halbert …

And do you know what is the most-often missing ingredient in a sales message? It’s the sales message that tells an interesting story. Storytelling … good storytelling … is a vital component of a marketing campaign.”

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Published: September 7, 2015

3 Responses to “Make Your Story Sing”

  1. Thanks, Will. I love telling a story...so much so that I want to write copy that requires it...demands it! It's exciting to hone the skill of saying more with less; making each word go on trial for its life (smile). Nice seeing you in all these forums and looking forward to saying Hi at Bootcamp!

    no-more-excuses-DebSeptember 7, 2015 at 10:36 pm

  2. Seeing as I am a person who is usually very direct and to the point, I believe as I continue my training through AWAI and begin writing for clients that I will have no problem with storytelling. In fact, it sounds like this part will be lots of fun! :)

    Guest (Bread of Peace)September 24, 2015 at 6:05 am


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