Did You Hear the Story about … ? Power Stories to Persuade and Sell

Will Newman

“I’d like you to meet a boy named James …”

This is how a Covenant House fundraising appeal began a few years ago. When you read that line, how did you react?

Let’s compare this lead with one I made up …

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice’s most recent study reported there are an estimated 1,682,900 homeless and runaway youth.

The number of pregnant homeless teenagers is estimated at around 22% percent. Too young to get jobs or to receive welfare, a significant majority resort to theft, peddling drugs, and prostitution to support themselves.

Imagine being 16 and having to sleep in doorways and under freeways. Scrambling to find your next meal … and having to sell your body to pay for it.

This isn't a pretty picture. The statistics, stunningly depressing. A promo starting like this might do okay.

But look at the actual promo from the Covenant House …

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 …

 … James is safe tonight because of people like you who care about kids. He won't succumb to the dangers of the streets. He'll rest and tomorrow he'll wake up to a warm breakfast …

And he may even want to discuss the dark burden he shared with me earlier tonight.

He hates himself.

Which lead would be more likely to make you read on to learn more? For me — and for most of your prospects — the second one wins.

Returning from the moon …

Why do stories have such strong power to move your prospect to act? Let’s recall the movie Apollo 13 for an answer.

Were you fearful and riveted to the screen as the drama unfolded? Like me, I'm sure you sat on the edge of your seat … even though you knew how the real life story played out.

The reason we were captivated has to do with stories' power to arouse interest and provoke response … power rooted in human history and hardwired in our brains.

Hardwired for stories …

Way back in prehistory, our ancestors used stories to tell of tribal exploits. Shamans and family leaders used stories to tell where the best hunting was … where it was safe to travel alone … where the saber tooth tiger was most likely to strike.

To have lasted so long in our development, storytelling has to be more than just an accessory of human culture. It has survival advantage and became part of our brain physiology.

Recent studies using function magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) have shown that when you hear or read a story, your brain recreates it at the neuron level.

I can almost smell the stench …

Here's how this works. When you read about James sleeping near dumpsters, your olfactory cortex (the smell part of your brain) activates. It's like your brain is trying to smell the stench.

Stories connect with your readers this way, on a subconscious brain level.

When you harness this power with a well-written story lead, you pull your readers in more quickly … and on a deeper level than with other types of leads.

Now that is power. Power to grab attention. Power to persuade. Power to sell. Power to achieve the writer's life.

Tomorrow, I'm going to share four strategies for writing effective story leads.

Until that time, why don't you share how stories have affected your life? Comment below.

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Published: June 30, 2016

12 Responses to “Did You Hear the Story about … ? Power Stories to Persuade and Sell”

  1. I am am avid reader. I am at the beginning of my journey to the writers life, something I've wanted to do since the 5th grade. This article helps me believe that I can accomplish my dream.
    Thank You.
    Sheila R.

    Guest (Sheila)

  2. Hi Will,

    Thanks for this letter. I have been interested in some time for writing a fund raising letter for my local library but staff there have not been receptive, stating that they do all of their own correspondence. (I have a feeling I am taking away someone's "baby" by making this suggestion). I participate in a writer's group there and this would be a way for me to give back. Have you ever encountered such resistance before? I'm sure that staff could use their time doing other things.

    Nora King

  3. Back in 2006 I wrote a guest post for MSN Money about being a broke middle-aged woman going for a university degree.

    The real-life story -- middle-aged woman flees abusive marriage, starts over -- gave me a platform to address financial issues for others. Few people were doing that at the time. Ultimately I was hired to write frugality blogs and columns for MSN.

    (The original version of the first piece is on my personal site. Search for "Surviving (and thriving) on $12k a year: The reboot.")

    Guest (Donna Freedman)

  4. My father-in-law leaned forward on the couch to add weight to his war story. He had been wounded as a young, German soldier and. after being patched up, was on a train headed for Russia. In his home city of Berlin, he got off the train and promptly disappeared. There was no way he was going to Russia. I certainly would not have. The way a story is told most certainly makes a difference. I am hooked by stories that grab you at the start. Thanks for your infectious way of reaching us.

    Norm Wolfer

  5. I studied the Iroquois nation while in school. They believed that storytelling and dreams were important healing tools. I've never connected it to power. Ever since I joined AWAI, I've kept running into reminders of the power of storytelling. It's self-interest of course, what else would a writer believe in, but it's also true. One of the best live acting performances I've ever seen was given by an ACLU attorney. Stories are powerful.

    Karen Lee

  6. When my daughters were young, each night at bedtime they'd beg... “Daddy, tell me a story.”

    One day it hit me. This is the perfect way to teach them valuable lessons.

    Every nighttime tale began, “Once upon a time there was a little girl named (insert weirdest name possible). Then this pretend girl would commit an offense similar to something my daughter had done that day.

    As the story unfolded, my daughter would stare at me... mesmerized. As the consequences became clear, her sunken expression assured me that a valuable lesson had sunk deep into her heart.

    Rick Jones

  7. G"Day Will as I am new to this I look forward to your letters especially the current letter "A Boy Named JAMES" unknowingly you are guiding me into an area I had not even thought about, however I am warming to it.
    Thank You.


  8. It was a typical hot summer day when 10 year old Janice walked up her long hill to home on bandaged feet. The Red Cross made it possible. She had avoided the busy highway and walked across a half mile of rocks and shells to get to her favorite beach. Arriving, full of tears, a nice lady pointed Janice to the Red Cross building. What a blessing! They offered all needed and caring relief so she could walk home!

    Capture Emotions help your body heal

  9. for 30 years I worked as a trial attorney. In my summary to the jury I often told a story. But the story I told was a story about the case we just tried. It was a story which included the facts that had just been proven. But it was my job to weave the facts in such a way that the jury would be moved emotionally to vote in a way favorable to my client.In other words, to persuade them to do the right thing.

    Guest (Jack Kelly)

  10. I'm a social worker for fourteen years. My office has been right across the street from Covenant House, Yonge Street, Toronto Canada. My clients have been hundreds of youth aged 16-29yrs living temporarily at "Covy". Many of them don't get a bed in time and spend the moth in a garbage can, roof top, ATM, stairwell or park. I've watched many transition from street-life to stabilization. Others didn't make it... Everyone of them has a story, just like all of us.

    Guest (Ken)

  11. A recent painting of mine -- called "The Wholly Trinity" -- triangulates liberty in its 3 stages of repose as triumphant nudes: manifest by way of 1) Delacroix's "Victory"; 2) Matisse's "Odalisque"; and 3) an imagined reclining nude before becoming Bartholdi's "Statue of Liberty" centennial celebration of our friendship w/ France w/o whom OUR Brexit would not have been possible.

    A narrative setting up a satiety bell-curving French Impressionism's fore & aft with peace's destined singularity.

    Guest (Chris Morris)

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