The Power of Storytelling

  • The science behind how we respond to stories
  • 3 reasons why you should learn to be a great storyteller
  • The human addiction to stories
  • 11 storytelling elements to get people hooked on your copy

One evening about 30,000 years ago, a Stone Age content creator was hanging out at a firepit, social networking with his friends and family, when he posted a picture of a rhino to a cavern wall.

His target audience was immediately hooked and began inviting friends to take a look. A few even started drawing their own rhinos, cave bears and horses. Thousands of generations of followers drew and re-drew animal figures on the walls of the cave – and what’s more, similar versions of the figures were drawn in caves vast distances away.

The Cro Magnon cave drawing had gone viral.

Humanity's first viral post on a wall, found in Cheauvet Cave.

Humanity’s first viral post on a wall, found in Cheauvet Cave.

As technologically sophisticated digital marketers, we’re on a constant quest for psychological shortcuts to triggering human attention, memory, and persuasion.

Yet the primitive men and women figured out a formula powerful enough to “stick” in their collective memories for thousands of generations. How did they do it?

Simple: they told stories.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can hear you thinking. I’ve heard the story thing before–in every article on content creation there’s a “tell a story with a beginning middle and end” section.

Here’s the thing: you’re right.

Every freaking marketing blog out there says storytelling is imperative to creating emotional connections with your audience. But…

Do you know how many marketing blogs actually show you examples of copy that reflect the fundamentals of great storytelling? And – more importantly – tell you how to implement storytelling elements to your digital copy, like, right now?

None. Not a single one. At least not one that I can find.

As a self-confessed storytelling geek, I’ve done plenty of googling, and the results I get when searching “how to apply storytelling elements to copywriting” offer no examples and no actionable tips.

Why is that?

I have a theory: it’s because people who write articles about copywriting often have an intuitive talent for storytelling, but don’t fully understand how they do it.

Let’s take Joanna, the founder of Copyhackers. If you look at her work, she combines tried-and-true copywriting formulas and conversion rate optimization with a relatable human voice. But if you ask her what makes a great story and how to recognize one in copywriting, she’d probably shrug (which is part of the reason she’s so generously given me the space to write this post).

That relatable, human voice of Joanna’s? That’s the voice of a storyteller. And I propose if you apply a storytelling framework to conversion-focused copywriting, you can inspire people to action and keep them hooked in a long-term relationship with your brand.

We’re going to crack the code behind great storytelling and its effects on the human psyche.

But more importantly, we’re going to take a look at how to immediately implement kickass storytelling in your marketing copy.

Let’s take a look at what isn’t good storytelling.

Why Urgency-based Marketing Is Stuck in the Dark Ages

If an anthropologist in the distant future studies the marketing content on the internet the way we’ve studied the prehistoric paintings at Chauvet Cave, do you know what conclusion they’d come to?

We’re scared shitless.

And we like to scare the shit out of each other to make people do things.

The Awl blogger John Mahoney refers to the following as a “chumbox”—a form of native advertising “that elicits a purely neurological brain stem response in its target consumer,” but I like to think of it as a scumbox.

Thank you, clickbait scumbox for reinforcing my cynical view of the world. (Source:

Thank you, clickbait scumbox for reinforcing my cynical view of the world. (Source)

Using fear, shame, disgust, or shock to create a sense of urgency is a classic psychological tool in the copywriter’s back pocket. And it totally works for gaining the attention of potential first-time buyers.


But if you keep on scaring your audience into doing your bidding, two things will happen:

a) they’ll stop trusting you, and

b) they’ll start tuning you out.

AAAACK! Really, Thermos?? (source)

AAAACK! Really, Thermos?? (source)

As Daily Egg blogger and direct-response copywriter Christina Gillick observed,

“News stations use fear everyday—and it gets them great ratings. But…their trustworthiness is also at an all-time low.”

In fact, a 2011 study published in the journal Adolescent Health, Medicine, and Therapeutics noted that when traditional negative marketing tactics were used to scare teens out of drinking or smoking stuff (think “Above the Influence” ads), “interventions to prevent youth smoking and alcohol and illicit drug use had significant positive effects in the short term but these effects were not consistent in the medium to long term.”

Don’t expect one creepy ad to change long term behavior.

NIHM marketing study

This is your brain on traditional urgency-based marketing.

So if fear-based messages fail marketers in the long run, what’s another way to inspire action AND ongoing brand loyalty?

I propose this: we need to tell better stories.

And I’m about to tell you exactly why.

But first: we need marketing stories that don’t just horrify our audience into paying attention, but also let them know they aren’t alone in their journeys and there are solutions to their problems.

Neurologically speaking, storytelling is the ultimate persuasion hack: it not only grabs people’s attention, it also convinces buyers to convert and gets them hopelessly smitten with your brand.

Storytelling Isn’t Brain Science. Oh, Wait…

Without stories, our big-headed, massive-brained, furless, two-legged species couldn’t survive infancy. While other critters have built-in behavioral instincts to contribute to their survival, human beings are hard-wired to create narratives to navigate through life.

Put on your lab coat and watch out for zombies: we’re about to talk braaaaains. For decades, neurologists assumed that the human brain responded to narrative language in the same way it does to fact-based language: that is, using the language processing and comprehension regions in the left-brain.

So basically, they thought we listened to stories in a rational, analytic fashion that didn’t engage brain function beyond language comprehension. Which might explain the B2B marketing love of B.S. jargon like “synergy” or “agnostic:” they’re trying to appeal to the rational decision-making brain of a potential buyer.

The thing is, as countless brain scans have shown, we don’t make rational decisions when we buy.

In a study published in the 2006 issue of the journal NeuroImage, Spanish researchers revealed that human brains create a complex physiological reaction to the kinds of descriptive language used in stories. Our minds not only comprehend stories using our language processing regions; stories also engage our auditory, olfactory, visual, sensory and motor cortexes.

In other words, we feel stories. When crafted in the right way, as the Spanish study revealed, words don’t just paint pictures; they create immersive experiences.  

Conversely, when study participants listened to phrases or sentences with abstract, conceptual language (like technical jargon), their brains started–well–thinking. Their language comprehension and analysis regions responded, but their sensory cortices went quiet.

Another study out of Germany demonstrated that when participants read juicy passages from Harry Potter—particularly the scary or suspenseful partsareas in their brains responsible for empathy were triggered.

This observation supported the “fiction feeling hypothesis” of reading immersion. What’s that? That’s the theory that the more we get lost in a book, the more we imagine ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes. So what does all this data tell us as marketers?

Our brains have evolved to empathize, remember, and make decisions as a result of hearing a story. It’s neurologically impossible to resist the persuasive power of a well-told tale.

The Human Addiction to Stories

Humans are social creatures. To keep us cooperating and learning from each other, we’ve developed a neurological mechanism to deliver a hormone called oxytocin–aka “the love hormone.” Oxytocin powers trust and empathy. It’s also the reason behind the instantaneous bond between so many mothers and their babies; the brain releases torrents of the hormone at the moment of birth and also at the moment an infant latches onto a breast.

We may be victims of the Great Depression, but at least we’ve got a free supply of oxytocin.

We may be victims of the Great Depression, but at least we’ve got a free supply of oxytocin.

But you don’t have to give birth or breastfeed in order to trigger the love hormone.

You can also have an orgasm or jump out of an airplane to get an oxytocin buzz. And if you don’t have a sex partner or a death wish, you could always pick up a book or watch a movie. Storytelling is so intertwined with our survival that the simple act of listening to a story with a narrative arc triggers a flood of oxytocin.

Check out this superb explainer video from Berkley neurologist Paul Zak on the discoveries he made about the relationship between narrative storytelling and the power of oxytocin-induced empathy:

In case you didn’t watch that vid, here’s what you missed: When participants watched a movie with an emotional story arc, their oxytocin levels were higher, and they were more likely to give money to a stranger. When they viewed a film that lacked a narrative arc, the oxytocin levels were much lower and they kept their cash in their pockets.

Simply put, we can’t get enough of stories because they feel so damn goooood. If the story inspires empathy, we can’t help but want to take action in response to the story we’ve been told. And that action feels so damn goooood.

3 Reasons Why You Need to Be the Walter White of Oxytocin

Reason 1: Imagination is a cheap, unlimited resource and storytelling has an easy-to-follow recipe.

I’m going to go ahead and assume that since you’re reading this, you’re an adult human being.  As such, you already have everything you need for great storytelling stored up in that big ol’ homo sapien brain of yours: a rich emotional vault, life experiences from which to draw, and a message you want to communicate to your audience. All you need is a narrative framework upon which to build these elements.

Well my friend, thanks to legendary scholar and bliss-follower Joseph Campbell (and the millenia of storytellers that preceded him), we have just the thing. After spending several years recording and analysing the great myths and folktales of cultures around the world, Campbell nailed down the structure that has worked for countless fairy tales, novels, and adventure movies. He called this storytelling cheat sheet the “monomyth” or “Hero’s Journey.” Here’s what Campbell had to say about the monomyth:

“The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.”

The monomyth, aka Hero’s Journey, aka the biggest oxytocin production lab known to man. As evidenced by the previously-mentioned oxytocin studies, our brains are hard-wired to respond to the story arc characterized by the Hero’s Journey. This is the key to unlocking that sweet story-loving brain juice. In a moment, I’ll walk you through some of the Hero’s Journey elements and share powerful  copywriting examples that reflect characteristics of the monomyth.  

Reason 2: Once you get them hooked, you have a customer for life.

When my son was two years old, his favorite book was Sleep, Big Bear, Sleep. Every night we went through the time honored bedtime ritual most parents of young kids participate in: he demanded that I read it to him before bedtime, at least three times in a row.

Go the fck to sleep

No, you guys, I didn’t read that to my kid. Out loud. (image source)

Was he just attempting to put off bedtime? Well, yeah, partially. But he was also hooked on the little rush of oxytocin triggered with each reading. The same goes for well-done copywriting: when you create a great brand narrative with a familiar, relatable voice for your audience, they won’t want to tune you out. In fact, they’ll demand more. As Jason Baumgartner, CEO of marketing firm Brainstorm Creative says:

“..strip away all of the data and the fancy marketing talk and what are you left with? People talking to people. While businesses have to maintain a digital presence to compete, it is possible to make that presence real.”

Reason 3: Your customers will start to distribute “the product” (i.e. your story-based content) on their own… which is how you achieve virality

In 2009, a startup game developer called Tiny Speck created Glitch. Glitch was a bizarre, cosmic MMORPG in which nonviolent characters teamed up to shape their world and participate in quests to convert followers.

The game gained a cult following. Unfortunately, it didn’t win the commercial success it needed. Tiny Speck pulled the plug on Glitch a year after its release. But all was not lost: the Tiny Speck team had built a fun, feature-filled custom messaging platform to improve productivity during the development of Glitch. They loved it so much, they invited friends in other Silicon Valley startups to test it out, and those friends recommended it to bigger companies like BuzzFeed, and through pure word-of-mouth, Slack had gained 17,000 users.

The copywriters and content makers at Slack could have merely created a great landing page and rested on the laurels of positive reviews in the App Store. But they had to keep their customers hooked. So they continued to nurture the Slack community with:

  • Cheerful tweets,
  • A “This American Life-meets-Office Space” Variety Pack podcast, and
  • Quirky TV commercials featuring animal-headed office workers.

In a memo to his team in 2013, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield said,

even the best slogans, ads, landing pages, PR campaigns, etc., will fall down if they are not supported by the experience people have when they hit our site, when they sign up for an account, when they first begin using the product and when they start using it day in, day out.”

And now Slack is one of the fastest-growing B2B SaaS startups of all time.

Slack Growth

Slack’s skyrocket from “Tiny Speck” to “Startup Goliath.” There’s more than “just marketing” going on here

If you doubt the enthusiasm of Slack users, all you have to do is take a look at the Slack Twitter Wall of Love.

Screenshot 2016-02-27 14.07.48

Seriously: who needs a copywriter when your customers do the selling for you?

Ok, so the honeymoon period may be ending between the public and Slack.

If you do a quick Google search, you’ll find a collection of very thoughtful complaints written by Slack users. But even in those critiques, you can see that these users are at an emotional crossroads: they know they should stop using Slack, but the thing is… they freaking love it.

Take this breakup letter-slash-Medium post by our friend Sam Hulick: throughout the entire piece, this (former) Slack user is conflicted over his decision to cut the messaging app loose.

Slack hasn’t exactly come through on its promise of eliminating distractions from Sam’s work life… but the affection and fun that Slack’s design and copywriting team provide for him on a daily basis have kept him hooked.

“It’s hard to make this call, because I really do love so much about you,” Hulick confesses. “As a designer, I find you VERY attractive, both inside and out. Your user onboarding has always been world-class. Your copywriting even more so.”

As a brand, having your dissatisfied users publicly air their grievances not because you’ve let them down but because you’ve made them love you too much to leave you is a pretty good problem to have. I mean, there are worse problems than that. Even when they’re breaking up with you, they’re continuing to tell your story.

So we’ve discussed the Why of storytelling. Now let’s cover what you need to know to put storytelling to work for your brand: What to do and How.

How to Use Story Power to Get People Hooked on Your Copy

Let’s break down each component of a classic narrative with real-life examples of how to apply them to copywriting. Put on your scuba gear: we’re going to dive in and explore how to trigger those love hormones and get your audience in the mood to buy.

Element #1: A Relatable Protagonist/Hero. (Your Target Customer)

“The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, ‘Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.’ And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, which is ‘Make me care’ — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.”                                    
Andrew Stanton, Filmmaker

If you have 20 minutes, this TED Talk is essential viewing for anyone learning about the art of storytelling:

In “The Clues to a Great Story,” Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton shared in this seminal TED Talk that when they originally wrote Toy Story, the main character, Woody was kind of an asshole. The toy cowboy was bossy, selfish, and insecure.

He clung to his position as Andy’s favorite toy like Gollum clutching the Ring of Power. Not exactly likeable, right? As an audience, we can’t help but feel repulsed when witnessing selfish or greedy behavior. We might understand Woody’s bossiness on a purely intellectual level, but we distance ourselves and judge it rather than empathize.  

A protagonist of a story needs to be someone we relate to, care about, and want to see succeed.

Stanton, recognizing this, went back to the drawing board (in this case, literally), and re-wrote Woody’s character: he created a new, more relatable Woody who protects his status in Andy’s room by being helpful, caring, and generous–as long as he’s comfortably at the top of the toy chain of command.

When Buzz Lightyear shows up and threatens to take that position away, it’s a lot easier for us to root for Woody to win back Andy’s love. So does this mean as marketers we need to cast our companies in the role of a likeable everyman so our audiences will root for our success? Actually, nope. As copywriters, we already have a main character built for us: the target customer.

This is HUGE: in story-based copywriting, the target customer is always the protagonist.

Wait, did you think all this storytelling business was about your company telling your story? Oh no no no, my friend. It’s not about you. It’s never about you. It’s all about your target customer. You’re simply playing a role in your customer’s story.

Which means you need to understand exactly who your target customer is. I’m not just talking demographic stuff like location, age and gender. I’m talking deeply personal inventory like: how does this person see him- or herself in relationship to the world? What kind of emotional fulfillment are they seeking from life? What kind of music do they sing along to in the car? You know: the important stuff. Is there such a thing as getting too specific in the creation of your target customer profile (aka buyer persona)?

In her guest post on Crazy Egg, A Guide to Creating Buyer Personas That Will Improve Your Content Conversion Rates, Jessica Mehring says:

It’s easier to create relevant content – and reach your real audience with that content – when you write it for a single human being.”

Here’s an example of a company that knows exactly who they’re talking to, and why that person will buy from them:

Brooklyn-based wife-and-wife design team Kirrin Finch has launched a Kickstarter campaign targeted to the dapper genderqueer person who dislikes wearing “ill-fitting menswear or overly frilly womenswear.”   Kirrin Finch Wow. Pretty specific, right? The Kickstarter campaign has reached its modest goal–which is great–but more importantly, Kirrin Finch has given a voice to people who haven’t had much of one, and who will enthusiastically reciprocate by spreading word about their menswear-inspired shirts throughout the genderqueer community.

And they know precisely how to reach out to their target. Instead of posting typical Kickstarter campaign updates to their backers about stretch goals, the Kirrin Finch team has used the updates to let some of their backers tell their stories.

Kirrin Finch is doing more than selling shirts. They’re building a tribe of target customers through the simple act of storytelling where the customer is the hero of the story.   So how can you create a buyer persona that supercharges a community of enthusiastic buyers?

There are all kinds of templates out there, but most of them have 4 or 5 demographic fields to fill out and ask a couple of shallow buying motivation questions and that’s it. For story-based copy, you need to create a biographical profile that brings a single “fictional” human being to life.

Check out this case study on creating a user persona for a B2B web app: Becubed personaYou have within this persona the demographics of our target buyer’s age, gender, and occupation. There’s even a wrinkles-and-all headshot: you can tell from first glance that the target customer for this web app is a cynical, world-weary guy.

In the narrative section, you’re introduced to “Timothy” through a story about his abrasive response to a client. A need to connect with others is NOT what drives this guy. A desire to do his work quickly, efficiently, and hassle-free and get the hell home is what motivates him.

I love this profile because who hasn’t worked with Timothy, the grumpy veteran worker who just wants to get his work done and go home? I could write an entire article on creating a truly in-depth, laser-focused buyer persona. In fact, I already have.

But here are a few tools to help you build a beautifully biographical customer profile: HubSpot’s Buyer Persona Templates Marketo’s Buyer Persona and Journey PDF Why You Need a Persona-Based Content Marketing Strategy

Element #2: A World (The Emotional Motivators)

Imagine if, in Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship sought to take down Sauron in space.  

Not quite the same appeal, is it? A well-thought out world provides a place in which the audience can immerse themselves. In marketing content terms, world-building is in the design, tone and  “theme” of your content. This is also where you begin to identify the trigger words that will breathe life into the story you’re telling.  Where does your main character feel at home? What are they seeking from the world? One of the tools I love to use when establishing the tone and theme of my copy is Danish futurist Rolf Jensen’s 6 Emotional Markets, which he identifies in his ground-breaking 1999 essay The Drea

m Society: How the Coming Shift from Information to Imagination Will Transform Your Business. Jensen asserts that people are in search of emotional fulfillment when they interact with a brand. These emotional needs can be categorized into 6 psychological motivators. As you read through these 6 motivators, think of which one best matches your customer’s most powerful motivation…

Motivation #1: Adventure- Seeking a connection to the experience of being alive.

Example: GoPro Adventure world= connect w- life

Motivation #2: Togetherness- Seeking a connection to others and a sense of belonging.

Example: Medium

Medium Motivation # 3: Caregiving & Receiving Care- Seeking appreciation for helping others, or seeking understanding/nurturing if they’re in need of help.

Example: VolunteerMatch   Volunteer Match Motivation #4: Peace of Mind- Seeking comfort and authenticity. Example: Tito’s Handmade Vodka   Tito's Handmade Vodka Motivation #5: Self-Expression- Seeking admiration and respect.

Example:  The League   The League Motivation #6: Convictions- Seeking a sense of justice or awareness of world events.

Example: Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood   CCFC So what’s the world you want to create for your target customer? What emotional outcomes are they seeking from life? Develop a list of trigger words to use as a resource when you’re crafting your sales copy and headlines. Here’s a gorgeous list of power words

from Co-Schedule that are grouped according to emotional quality. Use it for good, not evil.

Element #3: A Call to Adventure (Goal or Problem to Solve)

The protagonist of a story – or, in this case, your customer – needs an objective to strive for. It can be as simple as wishing there was an easier way to make coffee in the morning… to something as complex as wanting to leave the world a better place for his or her kids.  

The best brands identify the emotional motivations behind the goal of the protagonist and expand upon them. The previous landing page examples showed that already, but let’s take a look at some emails in which the company “gets” the target customer and what he or she wants to accomplish.

In this case, we’re going to look at three emails that arrived in my inbox over the past 24 hours.

Here are the facts about me that you need to know:

  • I’m a work at home mom in the midst of building my own freelance copywriting business.
  • My goal is to balance growing my business with caring for my kids.

Now based on that, guess which one of the following three emails I *didn’t* open?

From: Shipt (On-demand grocery delivery app)

Headline: Delicious Dinner Delivered!

Body:   Shipt Screenshot

From: (mega retail portal)

Headline: ✂ $20 off $150 Coupon Inside ✂ Use It on Our Winter Clearance Sale!


Overstock Screenshot

From: (web traffic growth SaaS)

Headline: Normally we’d charge $500/hour for this kind of advice…

Body:   SumoMe Screenshot

If you guessed that I immediately deleted the email, you’d be correct.

Do you see any emotional triggers in their headline or the body of their email? Do you have any idea who this coupon-clipping person is that they’re sending this message to? I certainly don’t.

This email isn’t helping anyone tell their story: it’s just..well..shouting at them. You know who people hate? Salesmen. You know who people love? People who *get* them.

Although Overstock lets me know there’s a “$20 off $150 coupon inside” in the subject line and that I can use in their Winter Clearance sale, there’s absolutely no consideration of a fundamental copywriting tenet: “What’s In It for Me.” As Joanna says in her Copyhackers post on writing email subject lines to improve your open rate,

You may think it’s really important that people upgrade to the latest version of your software or shop your Fall 2012 line. But chances are that, in comparison to the many other things in their inbox, that doesn’t sound that great to them.”

If I were writing the subject line for this email, it would have gone something like this:

Goal: Wants to buy something for herself

Problem: Worried about household budget

Call to Adventure/Subject Line: Shop guilt-free with major savings- Huge Sale ends Friday

Like the Overstock email, Shipt and SumoMe have listed savings as a benefit of taking action, but the focus is on what they can do to help me achieve my goals as the Hero of my life.

It’s not what a great bargain I’ll get.

The bargain is the bonus, not the goal.

Let’s take a look at the other two subject lines:

  1. Hero: Stay at home mom
  2. Goal: Wants to  make a healthy dinner for kids
  3. Problem: Pantry’s empty, taking kids to store is exhausting, ordering pizza isn’t healthy.
  4. Call to Adventure: Delicious Dinner Delivered!


  1. Hero: Entrepreneur
  2. Goal: To build my business
  3. Problem: Can’t afford to hire a consultant, have to DIY my marketing.
  4. Call to Adventure: Normally we’d charge $500/hr for this kind of advice.

What are your emails doing to get the right attention from the right people?

Here’s a quick shortcut to figuring out if your email headlines are focused on your customer’s goals: Does your subject line complete the sentence “I want to help you ________________”?

(I Want to help you… )“Free Spring Sale Coupon Inside” –what does that tell your customer she can do?


(I Want to help you…) “Refresh Your Wardrobe: Save 25% on Spring Trends” — Oh! That’s sounds like just the thing after a crappy winter!


(I want to help you…) “Webinar: Marketing for Freelancers” — and? How will that help me?


(I want to help you…) “Learn How I Stopped Pitching and Started Attracting Clients” — Ooo! That sounds like it will be really helpful!

In other words, turn those nouns into verbs.  

And if you want to get really insightful, try asking your customers (or members of a community of target customers if you’re a startup) this question: “In terms of (growing my business/managing projects/insert your service offering), what’s one thing you’d like to accomplish this week?” See what they have to say.

Craft your email headlines based on their responses with the “I want to help you…” formula. Track the open rates. Repeat.

The next step is to show understanding of what could happen if I don’t choose to pursue my goal.

Element #4: The Stakes/Refusal of the Call (Nightmare Scenario)

There has to be a consequence if your Hero fails to go on his quest. In the world of The Lord of the Rings,  Middle Earth is doomed if Sauron gets his hands on The Ring of Power. In my world, my family is doomed if I don’t get my hands on a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. The live storytelling podcast, The Moth advises:

“Stakes are essential in…storytelling.  What do you stand to gain or lose? Why is what happens in the story important to you? If you can’t answer this, then think of a different story. A story without stakes is an essay.”

So what’s your target customer’s nightmare scenario?  What does she stand to lose if she doesn’t try to reach her goal? Go ahead: write down what keeps your customer up at night. Here’s the opening of a sales letter that outlines a target customer nightmare scenario penned by yours truly:

Sales Letter


And HOLY SHNIKEYS I love this sales letter by clever KopywritingKourse creator and AppSumo copywriter Neville Medhora:

AppSumo Sales Letter

Awww…lookatda sad panda. 🙁

Hoo boy..we’re not even halfway through all the Storytelling Elements and already the drama is set in motion: we have our Hero, seeking his or her goal, but the stakes are high. Oh, P.S: the stakes have to be high. Seriously, even if the Hero’s goal is to find a pen at the bottom of her purse, the stakes have to be dire.

Like, if she doesn’t find the pen, she’ll lose out on the once-in-a-lifetime chance to get the email address of the man of her dreams who’s about to get on a plane headed for Antarctica for a year-long expedition.

The jetway doors are about to close….will she find a pen in time??? Sounds like this Hero is in need of….

Element #5:  A Helper (Your Brand)

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe” Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

You know why your brand was put on this earth? To provide aid for the Hero in their quest.

Think Obi-Wan Kenobi or Professor Dumbledore. Think Samwise Gamgee. Think Mary Poppins (she was such an awesome helper to the Banks family that the book and movie were named after her!).

A great Helper character is someone with a deep history of helping previous Heroes. This is where your social proof will come in handy.

If you haven’t already, start gathering testimonials from previous customers to sprinkle liberally throughout your copy. If you’re just starting out and have no customer praise to share, no worries.

This is your opportunity to establish your authority  and your “Why.” A well-composed About Page would be a perfect place to introduce yourself and begin a conversation with your Hero. To create a rich brand persona, you need to have a profile as thorough as your buyer persona. Some brands choose to have characters represent their brand (i.e. Apple’s The Mac Guy), but it’s totally fine to use your own voice.

To clarify your brand voice, identify the Helper Role you’ll be playing. Are you a Mentor? An Assistant? A Companion? A Guide? Let’s take a look at some brand voices that shine in their user experience copy:

Example: Buffer Buffer Screenshot

I admit: I have a bit of a brand-crush on Buffer. If I close my eyes and imagine Buffer as a person, I can see him (yep, he’s a dude) as a genuinely supportive friend (we’re just friends you guys, I swear…) and co-worker who’s there to remind me if my post queue is empty.

We’re on the same team, just in slightly different departments. Ahem. Anyway… Moving on.

Example: PicMonkey Screenshot This photo editing site “made of win”  helps ignite your creativity. They have the ca-razy best friend vibe: someone who’s going to get wild with you at the club, and then hold your hair back for you when you hurl. Example:

Freshbooks Screenshot The cloud-based accounting software for small business has an easy-going persona that takes the stress out of bookkeeping and makes it seem effortless. If you’re having trouble finding your brand voice, here are some steps you can take:

      • Identify your WHY. Why did you decide to go into business? Why were you inspired to create your service?
      • What makes you different from the other guy? I’m not talking in terms of how your service or product is different, but what makes your approach different?
      • Write the way you talk. Don’t know how you talk? Start using a voice recorder while you’re talking to customers about your business
      • Read your writing aloud. If it feels artificial or uncomfortable, it’s not your voice.

Distilled has an immensely helpful guide to finding and implementing your brand voice. Check it out here

So you’ve introduced yourself to your Hero. Now it’s time to offer them help with one of the obstacles that they’re facing on their journey. But your offer isn’t just your run-of-the-mill helping hand, it’s…

Element #6:  A Magical Item (Your Offer)

You thought your brand  was the solution to your protagonist’s struggle to achieve his or her goal, didn’t you?

Again: the story is totally never, ever about you. Is the original Star Wars trilogy about Obi Wan? Nossir. Star Wars is about Luke Skywalker’s quest to fight the forces of the Dark Side.  

Was Obi Wan there to fight alongside Luke during the final standoff against Vader? No way. Dude was a ghost. But you know what Obi Wan gave Luke to help him kick Darth Vader’s heavy-breathing arse? You know what I’m talking about:

You’re here to make it possible for your protagonist to use and benefit from your product or service. And I’m going to say something that flies in the face of Ogilvy, et al:

While your product or service is no doubt immensely useful, it is not the Hero.

We already have a Hero: your target customer.

Going back to the Star Wars analogy: does Luke’s lightsaber save the galaxy? Um. Lightsabers are kickass, but lightsabers don’t save galaxies; Jedi wielding lightsabers save galaxies.

But let me ask you this: do you have any idea how many toy lightsabers have been sold since the Star Wars franchise was sold to Disney? 10 million per year. Disney made $700 million from Star Wars toy sales alone in 2015.

So with story-based marketing, even if your product isn’t the star of the show, you can be sure that your customer will find a deeper connection to it because as his or her Helper, you understand how your product will fit into the rest of your customer’s life.

And by the way, depending on where your prospect is in your sales funnel, your Magical Item doesn’t necessarily have to be your product. It could be your lead magnet (i.e. a downloadable checklist), a tripwire (i.e. a webinar), or core offer (i.e. free trial). It’s still important to place a sense of urgency around the solution: your Magical Item is scarce, limited, or exclusive and they’ll be at a serious disadvantage in their quest without it: that’s why it’s Magical.

Let’s take a look at a very smart Kickstarter campaign that let their Magical Item take a backseat to their target audience’s needs:

One of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever was for an office accessory-slash-top.

No, really. An effing spinning top. Why? Because those geniuses at ForeverSpin(™) found a way to get their target customer to see the ForeverSpin top as an emblem of his lifestyle. How did they do it? ForeverSpin(™)  understood that they weren’t selling a top: they were selling beauty.

Their creator video has no narration, but man, what a story it tells–not about the top, but about the people who enjoy it and make a place for it in their lives.

And their hook? ForeverSpin Screenshot

Let’s just take a look at that first phrase: “Every spinning top that leaves our hands to become a part of your life…”

And BOOM: maaaagic.

The moment you put into words how your product will be incorporated into your customer’s story is the moment they’re forced to use that narrative-loving brain of theirs to experience it.

And what about the scarcity element? Scarcity is already built into Kickstarters thanks to the limited time of the campaigns–but even if there isn’t a time limit, the makers of ForeverSpin have created a sense of urgency through its release of limited-quantity rewards. Any use of terms such as “limited” or “exclusive” underline the impeccable quality of material and design that makes these tops so desireable and justify their not-so-cheap price. Here’s a list of 20 words to create buyer urgency and drive conversions.

Ah, if only all products could sell as smoothly as spinning tops…

The Old F&B

“Wait a sec..” I can hear you thinking (that’s right…I’m a PSYCHIC storyteller!), “What about features and benefits? We have to include them in the pitch, right?” Let’s talk about features and benefits for a minute. Check out this scene from Skyfall in which James Bond meets the new, adorably young Q:

Now imagine if this scene began with Q walking in, handing 007 the case, and running through the features of the gun and the radio chip. Would 007 have taken the case without question? No way. Bond doesn’t want a gadget salesman, he wants a trusted advisor. He needs to know that even when things go wrong, he’ll have a big brain behind the operation to cover his butt. Q had to introduce himself first, establish trust and authority, overcome objections, THEN introduce the Magic Item (the gun and radio transmitter) with its features and benefits.

This exchange, by the way, not only mirrors the classic AIDA model, it also loosely follows a video sales letter formula developed by Jim Edwards. To sum up the story so far:

  1. We’ve met our Hero (target customer).
  2. He or she has a goal in this world (emotional motivator/problem to solve).
  3. If they don’t go on the quest to pursue the goal, they have a lot at risk (objection/stakes).
  4. A Helper (your brand) has come along to introduce our Hero to a Magical Item (your product or service) that will help them achieve his goal.

So there’s nothing left to do but buy, right? Not so fast…

Element #7: Crossing the First Threshold (CTA)

In every great story, there’s a moment where the Hero encounters the threshold between his world and the world of his quest. Beyond that threshold is the unknown. The Hero has one last chance to turn back, but instead he takes a deep breath and goes for it. And the world shifts.

In copywriting, that moment of the first threshold is when the user makes the decision to click that Call-To-Action button. Your target user could easily click away at this point–she could Google one of your competitors or take no action at all–but if you’ve followed the previous steps and if you have an irresistible CTA button, getting that user to convert should be cake.

So let’s take a look at a couple “Free Trial” CTAs that get your fingers itching to click.

Spotify Screenshot Pretty straightforward, right? Spotify knows what it’s selling: not unlimited streaming on-demand music, but happiness. That blue “Start Free Trial”  button is the doorway to a new, happy life that will only cost $9.99 per month after you’ve experienced utter joy for free for 30 days.

Freshbooks CTA screenshot

FreshBooks makes another appearance: our Hero stands at the Threshold of Discovery. “Find out how FreshBooks helps millions of non-accountants…” sparks curiosity (emotional fulfillment), assures the user that he or she won’t be alone (social proof), and that you don’t have to be an accountant to benefit from the service (overcoming objection).

So now the Hero has crossed the Threshold and you’ve gotten a conversion. That’s the end of their journey, right?

Well, to look at the majority of companies that use lead magnets to get you to sign up for a free thing and then just leave you hanging, you’d think that would be the case.

In “Onboarding Emails: What Happens After They Subscribe?”, ConversionXL blogger Tommy Walker reports 65% of B2B marketers have not established some kind of lead nurturing strategy.

What I’m talking about is creating a narrative in the inbox that – best case scenario – seamlessly transitions me from ‘lead’ to ‘customer’ and ‘customer’ to ‘evangelist’ by acknowledging how I interact with the stuff you send me and adjusting itself accordingly, made possible by trigger & behavioral based email rules.”

So with inbound digital marketing a conversion is just the beginning of the adventure. Now your Hero has entered…

Element #8: The Belly of the Whale (Onboarding/Lead Nurturing)

Imagine yourself in the shoes of your target customer: you’ve just decided to opt into an incredibly enticing offer from a brand you’ve been following.

The second after you confirm your decision, you’re awash in a flood of excitement and satisfaction (there goes that oxytocin buzz again), but you also have small tinge of regret. After all, you’ve never done business with this company before…how can you be sure they’ll come through on everything they promise?

All of the kickass copywriting and brilliant storytelling in the world won’t do a thing for your customer if you leave them in the dark once they opt into your offer. If you continue to provide them with guidance as they attempt to navigate through their journey, not only are you winning their trust so they’ll make more purchases with you, you’re also winning a brand advocate.

That’s what lead nurturing is: making sure your target has guideposts to rely upon as they work toward their goal.

Here’s one of my favorite recent onboarding emails after an opt-in:

Screenshot 2016-04-13 15.49.56

After I signed up for a webinar (hosted by our own Joanna and Tim Paige of LeadPages), I received this quick email requesting that I add the event to my calendar. The purpose of the email was threefold:

  1. To keep the webinar top of mind (by instructing me to add a reminder of the event on my own calendar),
  2. To lessen the chances of my not showing up, and
  3. To further enforce the scarcity level (“I’d hate for you to miss out”) of the Magic Item (the webinar).  

Then, the day of the webinar, I got this friendly reminder from Joanna.

Screenshot 2016-04-13 15.54.47

What does it do in terms of lead nurturing?

  1. Establishes urgency with the quick timeframe “we’re live in 15 mins”
  2. Takes the pressure off by making the webinar seem relaxed and fun (“grab a tea, coffee, or water..” “settle in to watch n’ learn n’ be happy”) 
  3. Increases the “what’s in it for me” value of the webinar—just in case I was assuming it would be a slimy sales pitch

Tim and Joanna could have just as easily relied on the sole help of an auto-reminder email that looked liked this:

Screenshot 2016-04-13 15.59.50

It’s an automated webinar reminder. And it was an awesome webinar–but you wouldn’t have known it from this dreary little email.

If I hadn’t been epically pumped to attend a webinar by one of my favorite podcast hosts, I might have easily been a no-show.

Even though this webinar is about storytelling… it’s not making a story with me. And that’s just an example of nurturing leads so they don’t go AWOL for your webinars.

As their chosen Helper, it’s your job to keep checking in with your Hero to see how they’re doing on their journey, what you can do to help, and what Magical Items you have to aid them.

Need some ideas for onboarding emails or lead nurturing tools? HubSpot has a fantastic article on How HubSpot Marketing Team Does Lead Nurturing with awesome examples. And check out this Copyhackers video on  How to Optimize Thank You Pages as part of their free Business Optimization Bootcamp video series.

Element #9: Road of Trials (Split-Testing)

Thus far, we’ve been talking about your target customers’ journey, But as the Helper, you still have to hone your skills in providing the optimal message to your Hero. That’s why we test our copy. And test. And test again.

And sometimes we get it right, but most of the time we get them just a little bit off the mark.  

So we keep optimizing until it hits home.

When it comes to telling stories about testing, Crazy Egg founder Neil Patel is the king. And what I love about his testing stories is that time and time again he shows that CONTENT WITH STORY-BASED COPY TESTS BETTER than generic short-form content. When Crazy Egg first launched their website, they had fantastic returns, but being conversion optimization fanatics, they decided they wanted to see what they could do to get even more business.

So they made a test page that was 20 times longer than their original, control page. And it outperformed the previous page by 30 percent. They also tweaked their checkout page to include about twice the amount of content than their original version.

The new checkout page killed at 116% more sign-ups.

Ah! So long-form copy is the key to conversions, you might conclude.  You also might conclude that story-based copy is by nature longer than more traditional copywriting. Not so!

First of all, after the first set of tests, those optimization optimizers at Crazy Egg wanted to see what else they could tweak to get more sales.

So after hitting it big with their epically long page, they asked Copyhackers to hack the shit out of their copy and come up with a way to provide the same meaningful message but with a shorter version of the page. So their big, long page was cut in half. Still not as short as the original page, but still. Not as long. And Joanna and company proved that it’s not the length of the page that counts, it’s how you tell the story. (Oh how I’ve been waiting to use that one).

By doing a combination of  in-depth user targeting and old-fashioned emotional-trigger copywriting, Copy hackers came up with a page for Crazy Egg that performed 16% better than the previous, longer page.

Then there’s Basecamp CRM product Highrise:Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 7.29.11 PMThey tested a long-form landing page and got 37.5% more sign-ups. Then they decided to try a shorter form design and increased their sign-ups by 102.5 percent. What was the secret sauce? According to the Basecamp blog, featuring one simple story by a real customer named Jocelyn was their silver bullet…they think (they’ve continued to test iterations of the page with different customer stories).

In fact, when they attempted to add more copy to the bottom of the page, conversions dropped by 22 percent! The lesson here? At least for Highrise? One person’s story is more powerful, and if you try to overshadow it with too much information, you may overwhelm your audience.

Just because you’re using a story-based approach to content creation doesn’t eliminate the need for A/B testing.

But because story-based copywriting demands that you identify the emotional needs and goals of your target customer, it helps you optimize your message a lot quicker than some more traditional product-focused copywriting techniques.

Element #10 The Happily Ever After (Future Pacing)

Imagine your dream customer has opted in to every offer you’ve made. Your Hero heeded the Call to Adventure,  they relied upon your brand for assistance and accepted your offer to provide them with a Magical Item.  They stepped over the Threshold into the Belly of the Beast with you and looked to you for guidance.

After a Road of Trials they have finally achieved their goal. What does their life look like now? How has their world changed? What lessons have they learned?

Imagine this happy customer recommending your product to everyone they know. Imagine using their testimonial on all of your copy. Imagine how much easier it will be to sell the next product, not only to this customer, but to everyone who has heard their story.

Schwartz Future Pacing

Copywriting legend Eugene Schwartz was the Original Gangsta of future pacing. (Source)

The above “imagine if” copywriting technique, called future pacing, is one of the ultimate persuasive storytelling tools. You’re asking your target customer to envision how their life will change for the better as a result of using your product or implementing your idea. One of the major differences between copywriting and fictional writing is copywriting often starts with the Happily Ever After.  

A very effective headline formula is to tell your prospect “You’ll Be Able to ______________ After Reading This”  or “Achieve [Insert your target’s goal] In 30 Days.” So if I were writing a future-paced headline for this post, it would be, “Turn Strangers Into Fans In 11 Simple Steps.”

Element #11 The Return (Testimonials & Brand Advocacy)

After your Hero has achieved their goal, it’s time for them to return to their world changed in some way. The benefits your Hero has received from having interacted with your brand has changed them for the better. Now it’s time for them to share their story with the world.

Slicks Testimonial

The “test nomad” stories for my client, Slicks Backpacks, helped them hit their $80,000 Kickstarter goal in 72 hours.

This is your opportunity to rock your social media and customer outreach. I’ve already shared Slack’s Wall of Love. There are tons of tools for you to use to collect testimonials and reviews from your customers, and as evidenced by the previous Highrise landing page example, one powerful customer story can do more selling for you than the most cleverly crafted copy ever will. So now it’s your turn to stop telling your customers story and listen. Your customer is now the storyteller.

A tool I love to use is Freshbooks’s customer review tool. You have the option of requesting a customer review every time you send an invoice. One of my clients who had a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign thanks to the many test user reviews and testimonials featured on their campaign used Boast for testimonial collection and presentation. Advocate marketing experts Influitive say that it’s just as important to create an Advocate Persona , which:

is meant to embody the needs and priorities of people who have already become customers. These advocates are enthusiastic customers, partners and employees who will happily share their experience of your brand with their networks.”

The End?

No, not the end. Never the end. Storytelling, just like marketing, is a cycle. Once you’ve captivated an audience, if you’re doing your job well, you’ve got them hooked for a lifetime of stories. Better yet, they’ll pass your story on. A few weeks ago, I caught my two-year-old scribbling on the walls with red crayon. He pointed at his markings with his chubby finger and proudly announced “HORSE.”

"HORSE," by Samuel Weaver, age 2.

“HORSE,” by Samuel Weaver, age 2.

With a few swipes of colored wax and one uttered word, my toddler has continued a story that began over 30,000 years ago.

Later that night, when I tucked my boys into their beds, gave them each a kiss goodnight, and turned off the lights. I was just about to close the door to their room when I heard my eldest son murmuring to my youngest: “Sleep, Big Bear, Sleeeeeeep…”

Your role may change in their lives, and their role may change from audience to storyteller, but once your story has been told, there’s no un-telling it.