Technique #5: Storytelling in Copywriting
Article #5 from the series, 10 Persuasive Copywriting Techniques
Topics Covered in This Article
Storytelling in Copywriting
In the first four articles of this series, we talked about turning attention into interest, interest into desire, and desire into urgency. The final two techniques will focus on turning urgency into action.
Between now and then, we’ll unpack four more persuasive copywriting techniques for applying what you’ve learned so far and what you’ll learn in the final two techniques. I’ve made storytelling the first of these next four techniques because it’s the master method for applying nearly all the copywriting techniques in my articles and courses.
There are two ways to use storytelling in copywriting, the right way, and the wrong way. The right way is to make storytelling the medium through which you apply the other persuasive copywriting techniques in this series. The wrong way is to do it while ignoring these techniques, in hopes that your story will get the job done anyway.
The Role of Storytelling in Copywriting
In the third article of this series, I talked about creating a “synthetic experience” in your reader’s imagination—one which literally changes the state of their nervous system. Storytelling is the absolute best way to accomplish this. Just look at the billions of dollars spent on entertainment every year: television, books, movies, plays, operas, and even magazines that use stories as their content.
Think about the last time you watched a good movie, or (better yet) read a good book, and lost yourself completely in the story. Great stories can dissolve the reality around us and take us into a world created by the author. I’ve read books that did this so well that for a time the world of the author’s story became more real to me than the room I was sitting in. Stories have had a similar effect on humankind for as long as we have been telling them.
Thousands of years ago it was prophets, scribes, and minstrels that brought us the magical power of stories to shape history and even drive cultural evolution. Today the storytellers are movie and television directors, songwriters, writers (both fiction and non-fiction), and yes, even advertisers and marketers. These modern storytellers drive the evolution of culture and civilization, just as their predecessors did.
In fact, most modern stories are based on a format that has been around for eons. A great example of this is the format Joseph Campbell talks about in his book “The Hero of a Thousand Faces.” A great story can affect our emotions (and even our beliefs) the same way regardless of whether it’s based on truth or fiction. Great stories can even make us believe in new ideas that have never been tested in the real world. This includes books on political theories or spiritual ideas or even moral philosophies.
It’s all a question of whether you use your story to apply the persuasive copywriting techniques in this series. The secret is to create a story that your reader can insert themselves into as the here or the beneficiary of the story. In his book “On Writing,” author Stephen King (one of the most addictive writers of our time) talks about making the reader a “sensory participant” in the story.
In other words, your reader should be able to insert themselves into your story using their imagination. One of my favorite radio broadcasters used to call this “The Theater of the Mind.” If your copywriting messages (or even your books or screenplays if that’s your thing) can insert your reader into this virtual theater, they will literally enjoy the experience of reading your message.
When you reach this level of persuasive storytelling, getting them to act on your offer will be easy. Now, let’s look at some examples of storytelling in copywriting.
Examples of Storytelling in Copywriting
You can use storytelling to apply any of the other persuasive copywriting techniques in this course. You probably noticed it in some of the examples already. This technique is especially effective when combined with the next two techniques (Trance and Breadcrumbing). Let’s get right into our first example.
Storytelling in Copywriting: Example #1
Imagine our reader is suffering from persistent allergies. Almost every morning, they wake up coughing, or sneezing, or with a runny nose or watering eyes. They’ve tried allergy medicines, aroma therapy, herbal teas, meditation, and all kinds of crap. Nothing has helped. Then, one day they find this post on Social Media:
The Horrifying Reason Your Allergies are Worst in the Morning
[RELEVANCE >]Ever wake up with sneezing, watery eyes, or a runny nose?[< RELEVANCE]
That’s because you’re not sleeping alone.
[STORYTELLING >]Every night, you lie down with thousands of crab-like, microscopic parasites called dust mites. They don’t bite, pinch, or burrow in your skin, but they’re crawling all over your sheets and pillows. That’s why you sometimes wake up with watery eyes, a runny nose, or an itch-like cough. As you sleep, you’re breathing in their fecal pellets and body fragments.[< STORYTELLING]
[RELEVANCE >]Allergies, asthma, and a weak immune system have all been medically tied to the long-term impact of breathing in dust mite filth.[< RELEVANCE]
[CURIOSITY >]Here’s why washing your bed sheets isn’t enough…[< CURIOSITY]
Do you think they’re going to keep reading? You’re damn right they will. I just turned their stomach with this vignette (aka, little story) about dust mites in their bed. This story is effective for two very important reasons.
First, it leverages the first technique in this series (relevance in copywriting) by tying this toe-curling description of dust mites to symptoms that my reader is already experiencing during a typical day of their life. This is a very, very important detail. Regardless of how graphic my story is, I assure you, it would be far less effective if my reader wasn’t waking up with these symptoms. Unless they were a raving germaphobe, they would probably go home and sleep in their bed (without washing the sheets) and sleep soundly.
But, if my reader (or one of their children) is suffering from allergies, asthma, a weak immune system, or any of the mild allergic reactions mentioned in the first sentence of my example…they will read on with eager interest. Especially since I made an appeal to curiosity in this final sentence:
“Here’s why washing your bed-sheets isn’t enough…”
While we’re talking about that sentence, let me point out that I used the phrase “washing your bed-sheets” for a good reason. This example comes from a magazine ad I wrote back in 2010. As is my usual practice when writing sales copy, I asked my client if I could interview a few of their inbound sales staff. I asked them for the most common objections they got when talking to customers on the phone. ALL of them told me that the customers assumed washing their sheets regularly would solve this problem.
See what I did there? I didn’t just guess which objection might stop my reader from reading the rest of my ad. I did my homework and defused the objection right out of the gate. Guess which objection the sales staff DIDN’T have to overcome when customers called in response to this ad?
This is one of the most important jobs of a copywriter. Your message won’t always lead to a direct sale. It can, however, make them much more likely to buy, and with less price resistance, when they finally talk to a salesperson. Good copywriting can do more than generate direct sales. It can dramatically increase the closing rates, upsell frequency, and average dollars per transaction for your incoming leads.
If you’re a freelance copywriter, keep this in mind the next time you’re pitching a new client on the value of your service. If you’re good (which you will be if you use what you’re learning) this nugget of knowledge could make you a lot of money in new client business, and help you justify premium rates for your service.
The second reason this story is effective is that it uses words “crab-like,” “bite,” pinch,” “burrow in your skin,” “crawling all over your sheets and pillows…”, and “you sometimes wake up with watery eyes…”, “you’re breathing in their fecal pellets and body fragments.” I’ll explain why these words are so effective when we cover the next persuasive copywriting technique in this series. However, let me point out two important points about what I did here.
First, notice my use of the word “don’t” in this sentence:
“They don’t bite, pinch, or burrow in your skin…“
If dust mites don’t do any of these things, why include these sentences in my story? Because your reader will STILL have a negative physiological response to the words “bite,” “pinch,” and “burrow in your skin.” The human brain experiences the world through associations. It also learns through associations, and the associations don’t have to make sense. Politicians and the bobbleheads in the mainstream media frequently use this technique to plant false narratives into people’s minds.
I am NOT suggesting that you do this yourself. Although, I can’t stop you if you’re determined. I’ll only say that you should use it responsibly, and at your own risk. Bottom line, this vignette hits a nerve because it combines the technique of relevance with a vivid and horrific description of the hidden cause of my reader’s problem. I’ll show you exactly how I made it so vivid when we unpack the next technique. Let’s look at one more example just to hammer this point home.
Storytelling in Copywriting: Example #2
Let’s revisit our example from the previous article about our young amateur bodybuilder who wants to gain twenty pounds of lean muscle. Once again, I’ll use [BRACKETS] to show where I’ve applied the techniques we’ve covered so far in this series. Pay attention to how I combined the techniques of Relevance, Rapport, and Storytelling in this example:
You and I Didn’t Win the genetic lottery
[RAPPORT >]Like you, I didn’t win the genetic lottery. I was “the skinny guy” in gym class. I was embarrassed to take off my shirt. In High School, I missed out on a lot of dates with girls. I missed trips to the beach with my friends.
[STORYTELLING >]Since I was ten, all I wanted to do was lift weights, get big, and stop being the skinny guy.
I still remember the “new car” smell of my first weight set. I used to wake up in the middle of the night, go out to the garage, and just stare at those shiny plates. The steely Olympic barbell is cool to my touch. I couldn’t wait to get home from school the next day. I just wanted to pump iron, eat protein, and watch my bird chest and pencil arms transform into rippling slabs of lean, sleeve-busting muscle.
At first, my gains exploded. I was confident when taking off my shirt. I started getting attention from girls. Still, I was puzzled at those guys who blew past me in their gains. I lifted all summer. I sweated for hours in my garage, five, six, seven days a week. Not these guys. They’d take entire months off. Still, they were getting bigger and more ripped than me. I remember looking at them and thinking…
“Are these guys on drugs or something?”
“Do they just have better equipment than me?”
“Maybe I’ll hit a late growth spurt.”
I was stumped. I had to push, pull, kick, bite, spit, sweat, and bleed for every ounce of my gains. This blood-boiling struggle continued into my late twenties. [< STORYTELLING][< RAPPORT] [CURIOSITY] Then I stumbled onto a sobering secret every hard-gainer needs to know… [< CURIOSITY].
Notice, again, how I based my story on details relevant to my reader’s problem, their hope to solve it, and other rapport-building data covered in the previous article (rapport in copywriting).
Notice how I use words and phrases like “the ‘new car’ smell of my first weight set,” “those shiny plates,” cool to my touch,” “bird chest and pencil arms, ” and “rippling slabs of lean, sleeve-busting muscle.” I continue in the second paragraph of my vignette with phrases like “my gains exploded,” “guys who blew past me in their gains,” “sweated for hours in my garage,” and references to my reader’s internal dialog.
All of these words and phrases have something in common. I’ll tell you what it is when we get to the next technique, but here’s a clue to whet your appetite. Read these two versions of the intro to my vignette and see if you can tell the difference (it’s subtle but important):
The first version creates a mental picture in my imagination. The second version does not. If I were to rewrite this entire example in the style of the second version, the new version would have less of an impact on my reader. Yet, the difference is subtle enough to where only an experienced writer would even notice. The better you get at recognizing these subtle differences, the better you’ll get at polishing up your messages and giving them that seasoned edge you only see in great writers.
How to Apply Storytelling in Copywriting
There are two rules to effective storytelling in copywriting. First, as with all the techniques I teach, your storytelling should be based on the four data groups I laid out in the previous article of this series. If your storytelling isn’t based on relevant data, it will fall flat. This is true even if your storytelling skills are top-notch and your story reads like a best-selling suspense thriller. Sure, your reader might read the entire story for the pure entertainment value. But they won’t buy anything.
Secondly, your story should advance the sale of your product, service, or idea. The best way to ensure this is by combing the simplified version of the 12 Stages of The Hero’s Journey (laid out below) with the Five Stages of the Buyer’s Journey. If you’re not already familiar with our version of the Buyer’s Journey, you’ll want to read my article on the topic.
Hero’s Journey: a common and universal story structure where the main character ventures into unfamiliar circumstances to achieve something they desire or to save something (or someone) they value. The character faces adversity, and sometimes failure and despair, but achieves victory in the end, and is transformed by the experience. In Content Marketing, the Hero's Journey is a tool for guiding prospects through one or more of the Five Stages of the Buyer's Journey. The VQ Success Selling System defines the Five Stages of the Hero's Journey as 1) Desire, 2) Resistance, 3) Failure, 4) Insight, and 5) Success.
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Keep in mind that the hero of your story can be anyone who has an affinity with your Buyer Persona, as I explain in the previous article of this series. To further clarify this, let’s look at an example for each stage of the Hero’s Journey, each one based on the experience of someone who represents your Buyer Persona:
Hero’s Journey Stage #1: Desire
At this stage, the Hero discovers or decides on something they want to change. They are driven by a desire to gain something positive or get rid of something negative. This stage of the Hero’s Journey usually corresponds to Stage #2 of The Buyer’s Journey. The example below demonstrates Hero’s Journey Stage #1 Storytelling.
Notice the [BRACKETS] where I’ve referenced the Hero’s desires (positive and negative), and the contrast between the two. I’ve also bracketed out the places where I’ve used other copywriting techniques from this series:
Since I was ten, all I wanted to do was lift weights, [POSITIVE >]get big,[< POSITIVE] and [NEGATIVE >]stop being the skinny guy[< NEGATIVE].
[SYNTHETIC EXPERIENCE >]I still remember the “new car” smell of my first weight set. I used to wake up in the middle of the night, go out to the garage, and just stare at those shiny plates. The steely Olympic barbell cool to my touch.[< SYNTHETIC EXPERIENCE] I couldn’t wait to get home from school the next day. I just wanted to pump iron, eat protein, and [CONTRAST >]watch my bird chest and pencil arms transform into rippling slabs of lean, sleeve-busting muscle[< CONTRAST].
At first, [HOPE >]my gains exploded. I was confident when taking off my shirt. I started getting attention from girls[< HOPE].
Hero’s Journey Stage #2: Resistance
At this stage, the Hero encounters internal or external resistance to the change they want. They are either in denial about it or trying to overcome it by sheer persistence. This stage of the Hero’s Journey can correspond to Stage #1 or Stage #2 of The Buyer’s Journey. The example below continues from the example above to demonstrate Hero’s Journey Stage #2 Storytelling.
Notice the [BRACKETS] where I’ve referenced the Hero’s frustration in trying to achieve their desires (positive and negative) and where I’ve used other copywriting techniques from this series:
Still, I was puzzled at those guys who [FRUSTRATION >]blew past me in their gains. I lifted all summer. I sweated for hours in my garage, five, six, seven days a week. Not these guys. They’d take entire months off. Still, they were getting bigger and more ripped than me.[< FRUSTRATION] I remember looking at them and thinking…
[RELEVANCE >]“Are these guys on drugs or something?”
“Do they just have better equipment than me?”
“Maybe I’ll hit a late growth spurt.”[< RELEVANCE]
I was stumped. [FRUSTRATION >]I had to push, pull, kick, bite, spit, sweat, and bleed for every ounce of my gains. This blood-boiling struggle continued into my late twenties.[< FRUSTRATION][CURIOSITY >]Then I stumbled onto a sobering secret every hard-gainer needs to know...[< CURIOSITY]
Hero’s Journey Stage #3: Failure
At this stage, the Hero suffers a substantial setback or failure. They know they need to change their approach, but don’t know how and may have lost hope. This stage of the Hero’s Journey can correspond to Stage #1 or Stage #2 of The Buyer’s Journey. The example below continues from the examples above to demonstrate Hero’s Journey Stage #3 Storytelling.
Notice the [BRACKETS] where I’ve referenced the Hero’s failure and despair in trying to achieve their desires (positive and negative) and where I’ve used other copywriting techniques from this series:
It started with a tiny pain in my Shoulder
[FAILURE >]It started with a tiny pain in my shoulder. Six months later, I couldn’t even pour a cup of coffee with my right arm. I was forced to stop lifting heavy.[< FAILURE][DESPAIR >]My gains vanished within just six weeks, it looked like I’d barely touched a weight in my life.
I wanted to quit. My heart was a lead balloon when I started seeing that skinny guy in the mirror again. [< DESPAIR]
But I couldn’t give up now. I KNEW there had to be a reason, and I was determined to find it. Exercise research became my part-time job that summer.
[CURIOSITY >]That’s when I discovered something that changed my life. It happened one night while I was poring through scientific studies on muscle growth and recovery.[< CURIOSITY]
Hero’s Journey Stage #4: Insight
At this stage, the Hero discovers something that renews their hope. This can include the discovery of a flaw in their approach, a new method, or a self-sabotaging belief, action, or habit. This stage of the Hero’s Journey usually corresponds to Stage #3 of The Buyer’s Journey. The example below continues from the examples above to demonstrate Hero’s Journey Stage #4 Storytelling.
Suddenly everything made sense
I could hardly believe it. After hours of studying scientific research on muscle growth and recovery, [CURIOSITY >]I discovered a pattern. It wasn’t about genetics, or finding the perfect routine. It wasn’t about diet, sleep, or any of the patter you hear from guys who show up at the gym every day, but never look any different.
Suddenly everything made sense: my slow gains, my seeming genetic resistance to putting on muscle, my failure to sustain results, even my shoulder injury. They were all connected. More importantly, I realized why those big guys at the gym didn’t talk about this secret. They were too busy perfecting their physique, and now I’d discovered their biggest secret.[< CURIOSITY]
Notice how I didn’t reveal what the insight was. Instead, I applied a technique called “breadcrumbing” which we’ll explore in a later article of this series. The secret to this Stage of the Hero’s Journey is to present insight as the solution to our Hero’s problems and the cause of their success. If you do this right, your reader will keep reading in hope of discovering the insight for themselves.
Hero’s Journey Stage #5: Success
At this stage, the Hero achieves a substantial series of wins that can only be attributed to the insight discovered at Stage #4. They are now driven by a desire to share this insight with others. This stage of the Hero’s Journey usually corresponds to Stage #5 of The Buyer’s Journey. The example below continues from the examples above to demonstrate Hero’s Journey Stage #5 Storytelling.
Notice the [BRACKETS] where I’ve referenced the Hero’s successes (semantic relevance) and renewed hope (emotional relevance) and where I’ve used other copywriting techniques from this series:
3 years of progress in Just Six months
After my big discovery, I completely changed my training routine and eating schedule.[SEMANTIC RELEVANCE >]By the first week, my shoulder pain was almost gone. Within 30 days, my shirts started tightening. I was seeing ripples of muscle tone and veins in places I’d never seen either. Even my shoulders and biceps (my most stubborn muscles) were getting bigger and more defined.[< SEMANTIC RELEVANCE][EMOTIONAL RELEVANCE >]Men and women at my gym who had never talked to me started making comments.
Six months later, the owner of my gym asked if he could put my “before and after” pictures on the wall. Three years later, my picture is still there, and I hardly recognize that skinny guy on the left.[< EMOTIONAL RELEVANCE]
I’m still not the biggest guy in my gym. But that’s because I’ve upgraded to a gym where professional bodybuilders and athletes frequently train. Every now and then, I visit my old gym to see my picture on their wall. It’s amazing to see the progress I made in those first six months. [HOPE >]I’m confident that you can do the same over the next six months.[< HOPE][BREADCRUMBING >]That’s why I now consider it my life’s mission to share what I’ve learned with you.[< BREADCRUMBING]
Ideally, once our readers is finished reading a good Hero’s Journey story, they should be eager to discover this secret for themselves. Before we finish this section, let me point out two things about the examples you’ve just read. First, you could use your Hero’s Journey Stages to build a Content Pantry from which you could derive dozens of pieces, from emails to blogs, to social media posts, to direct mailers.
In fact, I often say that if you have a good product or service, your business is only one good Hero’s story away from making you a lot of money. Secondly, remember that your Hero’s Journey Stages is a frame for the other copywriting techniques in this series. This is why I’ll refer back to these Hero’s Journey stages while introducing and demonstrating the remaining techniques.
Mastering Storytelling in Copywriting
Congratulations. You’re now familiar with the four most important persuasive copywriting techniques (relevance, curiosity, hope, and rapport), and with the technique of storytelling in copywriting. There are two secrets to mastering the technique of storytelling:
The first secret is addressed in the other article of this series (10 Persuasive Copywriting Techniques). Data gathering and interviewing are beyond the scope of this series, but just as necessary. In the previous article of this series, I introduced the four data groups necessary for creating good content:
Dog Whistle Language is one of the most important, and yet most commonly neglected. It’s the key to applying the first and most important technique in this series: relevance. You’ll learn why when you read Dan S Kennedy’s article on Dog Whistle Language, which is published on this website. By far the best way to learn the Dog Whistle Language for your Buyer Persona is through good interviewing skills.
Interviewing is an essential skill for becoming an effective copywriter. I’ve seen many marketing campaigns flop because of poor messaging. In most cases, the root of the problem is poor data gathering, and bad interviewing skills are a huge part of this process.
In my experience, the best person to interview for a Hero’s Journey story is the star of your story. However, you’ll also want to interview salespeople who actually sell your product or service, either over the phone or in person.
Good interviewing skills will help you tremendously in drafting your content and empathizing with your target customers. This is why I suggest having a Salesperson as part of your content marketing team. A good salesperson will know how your prospects and customers describe their problems, their assumptions about alternative solutions, and many important things that can only come from conversations with real customers.
I suggest getting a copy of A Writer’s Coach, by Jack Hart and reading the Chapters on Humanity, and Color for more details on how to ask questions that will uncover people’s internal dialogue and experiences. I also suggest listening to how podcasters like Joe Rogan, Patrick Bet-David, Jordan Peterson, and Brett Weinstein, question the guests on their shows.
I suggest ignoring the hyper-bias “headline hounds” on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, and other popular networks who have sold their souls to one of the corrupt American political parties. Such people are too committed to fishing for controversial soundbites and political narratives to extract authentic insights about the person they’re interviewing.
Pick interviewers who have a genuine interest in different perspectives, respect people, and value authenticity. Listen to how these interviewers dig out the personal stories and gems of insight that only come from a solid one-on-one conversation. The better you are at this skill, the richer and more authentic your vignettes and Hero’s Journey stories will be.