Captivate Your Readers with a Marketing Story that Sells

image of typewriter

I’ve never appreciated classic literature.

I read Hawthorne and I get bored. I read Austen and I fall asleep. My wife likes Dickens, but I can’t stand it. Ask me who Tiny Tim is, and nine times out of ten I’ll refer you to the obsessive-compulsive ukulele player from the 60s.

Literature snobs think I’m low-brow, and that my modern reading material is hollow. I disagree. A good story is a good story. Any good story can move you … but before it can do that, it has to grab you. It has to pull you into its world, to make you feel at home. (I just don’t feel at home in a Dickens story. They talk funny.)

Different people have different taste in books. But we all like stories that we can imagine ourselves being part of. And we like characters we can relate to.

What that means varies from person to person, but it’s almost always true — relatable stories sell.

Your clients and customers feel the same way. If what you write doesn’t pull them into your story, they’ll run away like they’re escaping a high school summer reading list. In Latin.

Writing copy with character

I ran a post on my blog a few weeks ago on what I call Storyselling, or what sales copy can learn from fiction. It was all about pulling people into your world by telling (true) stories.

See, stories are great marketing devices. They blur the line between entertainment and persuasion. They let readers relate to you and your business on a story level first — and then to see that your products and services are a good match for their needs.

You’re able to show your reader why they should buy instead of telling them. You convey information by allegory, the way humans have done since they had stories to tell.

Stories have a plot, a theme, maybe a dash of symbolism, and all that other good English class stuff.

But what really makes a story sing are great, multi-dimensional characters.

Most of all, a compelling story needs a compelling protagonist, or lead character — someone people want to follow and learn more about. And most of the time, dear online entrepreneur, that protagonist is you.

Five elements of great characters

So let’s get one thing out of the way: None of what follows is about fabricating tales or pretending to be something you’re not. The usual rules still apply in Storyselling.

You need to be authentic, you need to be trustworthy, you need to keep your commitments. Also, your product or service should probably be excellent.

But while you’re at it, go ahead and be authentically trustworthy and reliable the way your best inner protagonist would.

As you read through the following, don’t think, “How can I pretend to be this?” Instead, ask, “How am I this, and how can I bring it out in my writing?”

Got it? Good. Let’s talk about what makes great characters great.

1. Great characters cannot be defined in one sentence

I challenge you to go out and find me someone who can be accurately and completely be described as “the hooker with the heart of gold” or “the all-American hero.” Real people don’t have only one or two attributes that define them.

That gold-hearted hooker? She also plays the guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughan with a seizure disorder. That all-American is into amateur boxing. Both like ER reruns. Both are insecure from time to time.

Thrillers are often filled with paper-thin, one-sentence characters (“the ex-FBI agent bent on revenge”), and they can sometimes get away with it because the plot is compelling enough on its own.

But unless your business is as riveting as a Dan Brown novel, stop being “the SEO specialist” or “the consultant for ex-accountants.” Yes, you can be those things, but don’t end the story there.

It’s great to have a USP … but don’t let your USP be all you are.

Do you have a dog? Do you like sports? Do you get inspiration from your kids? Don’t blab on and on endlessly about tangential stuff … but don’t hide it, either.

2. Great characters cause the reader to reflect

A character will only hold your attention for so long if all you read is exposition about their life and events.

When a character is really great, it’s because the issues they weigh and the decisions they face make you think about the issues and decisions that you, the reader, face in your own life.

When you’re telling stories in your copy, don’t do it diary-fashion, like “Here’s what I did today.”

Instead, write about the reasons you did things and the choices you had to make. Include revelations and discoveries that reflect revelations and discoveries that others are likely to encounter.

You want your reader nodding, thinking, “Yeah, I’m like this person. Maybe what he’s done would be good for me, too.”

3. Great characters are optimistic

I run across what I think of as “wallowing copy” online all the time — stories of people in bummer situations who essentially use their platform to complain into the void.

It reminds me of when I used to work for my mom and something would get messed up. I’d tell her, “Such and such situation went wrong,” and then expect her to take it and solve it for me.

But she didn’t do that. Instead, she’d say, “Don’t just tell me what’s wrong. What are your ideas to fix it?”

A great character never sits with a problem for too long. He eventually comes up with a way to solve it. And for sales copy, a product or service is usually a good way to solve that problem.

4. Great characters aspire

We all enjoy reading about people who want to be bigger, better, stronger, faster. We like the story of the weak kid who wants to wrestle, or the old baseball player who wants to stage a comeback.

We like stories of people believing they can do more than anyone would expect of them, and then finding a way to make it happen.

As you write the story of your business or product, always be aspiring. Always demonstrate a desire to get better at what you do and to become more.

(If you do this one right, you’ll become a leader that people will want to follow, because you’re showing them how to be better, too.)

5. Great characters aren’t always great

One of my favorite TV shows over the past few years was the newer version of Battlestar Galactica, and it’s because the characters are so impossible to pigeonhole. Repeatedly, the “good” characters make morally and ethically wrong choices, while the villains do the right thing. The heroes are sometimes overly bold, or arrogant, or stupid.

Now don’t get me wrong — over the course of the long story arc, certain characters are always more noble than ignoble and more selfless than selfish, but it’s never black or white.

Remember tip #1 above? A lot of the same rules apply. Real people are conflicted, and real people are flawed. Characters who aren’t always perfect are usually much more relatable and likable.

Most people try to only present perfection in their copy.

My product idea was always perfect. I sold a zillion units the first time I tried. Everybody who’s used the product has done well with it, and nobody really seems to have failed. Every email goes out on time, my shopping cart never breaks, and I have never in my life looked stupid or been laughed at.

Stop doing this. No, don’t paint yourself as an unredeemable screwup when you tell your story, but don’t feel you need to be perfect, either.

Flaws (redeemable ones) make you believable and relatable, because your readers and customers aren’t perfect either.

Storyselling takes some practice just like writing fiction does, but it can be very effective once you get the hang of it. People aren’t always interested in reading marketing copy, but most of those same people are a sucker for a good story. If your current copy isn’t engaging anyone, telling tales just might.

You’ve got a story, even if you don’t think you do. Have a go at telling it sometime, and then let me know what happens. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

About the Author: Johnny B. Truant writes at JohnnyBTruant.com and is the creator of Storyselling 101.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this post Johnny!

    I struggle with this story-telling concept a ton. I think it’s because I can’t fully wrap my head around the idea that someone wants to read about “me.” I convince myself that I don’t really have a story. And, I forget that I am the protagonist when it comes to sharing a story and how compelling that can be.

    Thank you for laying out so plainly how to bring those elements together. I think now the difficult part will be taking a step back and seeing how my “stories” link to the problems I solve. Actually, having just wrote that – ideas come to mind already. :)

  2. Spot on Johnny!

    I think one of the greatest parts of getting people involved in your story is admitting that the characters have flaws.

    One of the most important parts of any good story is the conflict. Without the conflict there can be no character.

    That’s why Avatar, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings (…the list goes on) have done so well, they touch people on a level where we say “I get that. I’m with you. I’m a part of the Rebellion.” (even though we’re not on Pandora, Darth Vader is NOT our pops and there are no Orcs).

    Great post Johnny, it should be every marketers desire to make people want to be a part of the fold.

  3. Great stuff Johnny..

    Being as human as possible is one of the best ways to make others relate to your story. I agree with this 100%.

    Acting as if all you do is PERFECT will only make it that much worse when you do mess up, and WE ALL MESS UP..

    Thanks
    Hector

  4. Great post, Johnny!

    I used this approach when writing copy for an entertainment product on Clickbank. It worked really great and got the product closer to the costumer.

    I really like your #5 tip. Battlestar Galactica is my all-time favorite show and they did an amazing job of helping you to see good in the bad & the bad in the good. Made it more real and more relatable.

    Thanks for a mind-stretching post!

    Josip Barbaric

    • A friend got me into BSG, and he did it by telling me, “I think Battlestar Galactica would be the most popular show on TV if it weren’t called ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ ” But man, it’s not really a sci-fi show. It’s a drama that takes place in a sci-fi setting.

  5. Great post, Johnny!

    Creating characters, is crucial to marketing success and so often overlooked. This is definitely an area I need to go back to in my own writing and strengthen. Thanks for these great tips!

    I’ve also noticed that finding and developing characters, especially in sales copy, can be difficult for companies and overwhelming to people.

    I’ve spent a lot of time with the marketing and creative types at companies large and small and they seem to struggle with the story concept for a couple of reasons.

    First, they think it’s unprofessional. Professional copy, in their minds, should read like the legal copy in their privacy policy. The focus on the facts and figures of their product, not the story behind it. They forget that the purchasing decision is emotional, not rational. We connect with products and services emotionally, then find the facts we need to support the decision and not feel like an irrational child.

    Second, they struggle with understanding who the characters are in their story. And this is where your tips are just as valuable for businesses. I often ask businesses to focus on the characters in their story – their customers. Their customers had needs (pain points), a life before the product, and a life after the product was introduced. Potential customers can resonate with these stories because they resonate with the pain points and then see how a company can help remove them. It gives them hope and makes them optimistic that their situation can improve.

    At the end of the day, you can’t argue with a story. You can only connect or not connect with it. You can’t say that a story is “wrong” or that the lessons a character learned are “the wrong lessons.” Stories are a fantastic way to get people positioned as participants rather than as devil’s advocates arguing over features, facts, and figures.

    Keep up the great posts!

    Travis

    • Thanks for mentioning the emotional decision to buy. People forget that. I have to be careful how I say it because it can sound manipulative, but it can even be true that the product itself decreases in importance the stronger the emotional tie to the story or seller becomes. At a certain point, they’ll buy anything from you if they like you enough. (Note to evil-doers: Don’t abuse this.)

  6. Buddhism and Mixed Martial Arts.

    They don’t really go together but they make me me. We’re all walking contradictions and the more that we embrace those truths and share them the more people can connect with the person behind the words.

    It’s the age of the anti-hero. Embrace yours and share it. I love this post! Thanks so much Johnny.

  7. This is great. Your insight into our nature as lovers of great stories is the thing one needs to present himself and his wares to a searching public. Your emphasis on telling thinks as they are will be the helium of your thoughts. Thank you for refocusing me on what is important and proven. Much success to you as you offer it to other.

  8. So true. The best way to get people’s heads nodding is to write about humans and humans make mistakes. If your readers can learn from your mistakes (and how you fixed them) then that is adding value to their lives. Thanks for the post.

  9. There once was a copyblogger post.
    It tried so hard to be it’s most.
    It glistened with story spark.
    It followed the tips of Brian Clark.
    And went viral from coast to coast.

    You’re right Johnny. Stories do inspire people. Thanks.

  10. Hi Johnny,

    For me, I think a good story can overcome some other flaws in the copy.

    I also try to write like I speak… and trust me, after years and years of English teachers discouraging this, it can be quite liberating!

  11. I write like I speak for the most part and if I have a story to drive my point home, that’s all the better!

  12. Storyselling 101, something I never heard of. Just checked your blog I thin, I will do some more reading there and get back here.

  13. Hey There Johnny,

    Spot On. I wanted to add also that stories are also contextual. So, before I would ever tell a story to a potential client, I would most likely find out a story they could relate to….going more broad, I would always tell stories my market in general could relate to.

    • I actually tend to stay pretty narrow, but it depends on your approach. I like Stephen King’s concept of having one “ideal reader,” so pretty much everything I write is niche-written to appeal to that one specific type of person (who is a lot like me). The bonus? Plenty of people who aren’t like that exact ideal reader show up too!

    • The neat thing about stories is even when they have broad appeal, they usually narrow in on specific details and elements.

      We’re all pretty much alike under the hood, regardless of the details. Like Johnny, I try hard to focus on one specific reader, but I definitely find that folks show up who don’t look like that reader on the outside, but emotionally there’s that connection.

  14. Ha — you weren’t lying yesterday when you said you were posting an article about storyselling this week…! ;)

    I sent out an email to my list after our call, and i started using your advice immediately — had a lot of fun sharing a bit more of my own story…just makes everything better! The key difference I found, though, is understanding and connecting to the historical arc of what makes a good character great…. as you put it yesterday: (paraphrased)

    “You are a character in your own story, so decide what that story is, and define who the character is…. you can take cues and borrow from great historical or fictional characters and their struggles to model your protagonist.”

    So, now i’m looking at my influences, my heroes, and protagonists I identify with, in creating the bigger story — and wondering who are yours…? Now, I know you want to say spiderman – but tobey sorta ruined that one already ;)

  15. Johnny,

    I have found storytelling as a blogging technique very effective. I have a blog that seldom gets new posts because it is mainly from a part of my life that I am no longer living to much, but each time I add content (mostly guest posts) I still have a huge amount of readers who spend a great deal of time on the blog. It was amazing, since I only post to it about once in two months – I literally don’t look for the stories, they come to me.

    So a blog that is so ignored can still do well with a bit of storytelling. Your post is a good reminder to bring it back into my current writing more. I came from a guiding background, where storytelling was the bread and butter of what I did, and it easily moved into my blogging when I first started. I’ll have to move back into that direction.

    • I pretty much think that almost anything can be spiffed up with more story. That’s just my opinion, but isn’t story typically more engaging than dry facts, no matter what the purpose?

  16. Outstanding as usual.

  17. Johnny, do you think it’s true that “stories only happen to people who can tell them” as Lou Willet Stanek wrote?

    I find I look at life a little differently now that so many experiences can be turned into a blog post if I look at them the right way.

    • Pamela:

      I’m not Johnny but I think this is a very interesting point. I hadn’t heard that quote before but was wondering just that this week.

      I’ve written about some pretty bizarre things that have happened to me on my blog, so much so, I’m thinking of started a new category called The Bizarre Life of Alison.

      I’ve been wondering if these kinds of events happen to everyone and I just happen to write about them in this way or if these kinds of things only happen to me.

    • I’m not familiar with the quote, but I suspect the phrasing is intentionally kind of circular… kind of like the tree falling in the woods with nobody around to hear it. If you can’t tell the story, what happens is just a series of events.

      But I definitely think that if you start to look around, you’ll see that everyone has potential stories. It’s not like their are exceptional folks to whom interesting things happen… it’s more of a choice to view the events in your life as interesting, IMO.

  18. You nailed it here:

    “Remember tip #1 above? A lot of the same rules apply. Real people are conflicted, and real people are flawed. Characters who aren’t always perfect are usually much more relatable and likable.”

    To me a good character is all about tension and release. They get themselves in trouble (tension), and then they overcome it (release). If there is no conflict (no tension), than there is no story. There is no movement and no evolution.

  19. Thank you for the article, great content.

    Reminds me of one of the greatest

    teachers that walked the earth,

    Jesus. He always taught in parables so they would remember!

    Stories draw you in so you don’t know you are being sold!

    Your partner in success!
    John Hilligas

  20. Great post Johnny!

    People do business with people they like and trust. Since people on the web don’t get to know us in person. Story telling can establish that trust and can also create interest in your products and services.

    We seem to be suffering from short term memory (okay, at least I do). People remember movies they like. Story telling creates a small movie in their minds, hence they remember you longer…Happy movie making!!! :>)

  21. In addition to telling our stories, asking “what’s your story?”, can be very powerful. Everyone has a story bursting inside them, just ask, see what conversation it sparks!

  22. I really enjoyed your post Johnny, and also the comments – I read all of them to figure out what I could say in a comment when so many thoughts were going through my mind … how can I put me out there in a story that would be interesting to someone in the context of their work and their life … and many more questions I will be teasing out because you make some strong points about connecting to readers …

    Lots to think about!

    Fran

  23. Just sent you a friend request on FB. Really enjoyed this post, as I’ve known for a while that stories sell, but have not full embraced it in my writing style yet. This was a nice “kick in the butt.”

    Regards,
    Mike

  24. Johnny, I definitely agree that your articles can be a great help to many writers like me. But, do you think that this will work when I’m talking about writing for a site like http://www.usbfactory.co.uk? Will this be useful when writing for a website?

    • Probably not as it stands. I think a story has to be told in a receptive atmosphere, and sites like that are set up as simple transactional catalogs. But if they started from the ground up with the story of the company, and THEN introduced those elements throughout? Then yeah, I think it can absolutely be done.

  25. I donno, I find it really hard to be that authentic sometimes. I want to but I am so afraid of being embarrassed by all of my mistakes. I’m going to try this though and see what happens.

  26. This is a great post! I definitely connect with characters who meet this criteria, and putting them in a marketing message would definitely entice me!

  27. I most like #5 Great characters aren’t always great.

    The Internet Marketing Gurus Clan might like to take note. They may have their place in “Guru-land” but they are a total YAWN when it comes to being characters in stories.

    It’s not that they are gurus that’s a problem but that they gave up being human beings along the way.

    Thanks for the great tips.

    ~Marcus

  28. Thanks for your opening. Although I read more than most of my literary friends, my choices have never been up to their standards (they do like my stories, though).

    • We need a support group. People can read total crap, but if it’s old, they suddenly get this cred boost. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s good (especially for everyone), and just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s trash.

  29. Johnny, you can even tell stories about storytelling. Good job.

    BTW: Bet you liked Poe!

    Just want to add one thing: the difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to be believable.

    Tell us some more stories, never enough.

    • I was intrigued by Poe, and actually memorized “The Raven” once for the hell of it. But it’s still hard for me to find the rhythm and settle in when I’m working so hard to get past the language.

  30. Johnny – As a small business owner there are ups and downs. I was having more downs than I cared to admit over the last year. But now that I embraced “my story” I am feeling pretty good again. I am reminded about what made me love this”job” in the first place. I have found my business voice! Thanks for the tips this came at a great time for me!
    Tami

  31. Thanks for the excellent post!

    At Queensboro, we have long used a variety of stories in our email campaigns as well as our blog. While the longer emails might not boost short term sales, I believe they help reinforce our relationship with our customers and encourage the customer loyalty which helps with long term sales.

    Our stories have ranged from small scenes in the company owner’s life to historical events. If you keep your eyes and ears open, there is a always a story to tell. Enjoy the storyselling!

  32. Great post! A good writer always works to improve. Articles like this help me as I growing in my skills.
    Thank you for this information.

  33. Really interesting post and it is something different to consider inputting a character into articles. Perhaps making the reader/potential customer the actual character of the article and story so they can see for themselves how the product you are trying to sell will work for them, might help to market the product.

  34. I gave this same advice to the head of a conservation charity with whom I was chatting today. My message boiled down simple principles- stop hiding behind dry annual reports, mission statements and logos and present a human face. I told him to tell stories of their work life, experiences from the field and give the whole organization a personality.

    After all everyone loves a well told tale about how that one time a faulty camera trap almost got an intern mauled by a tigress in heat

  35. People can be very wary of stories that involve any element of failure. I actually love watching Don Draper muck it up week after week in Mad Men – maybe it’s because we know he’s a winner really?

  36. thanks for bringing me back to my inspired-mood-to-write !….you justify the reasons within me why I love writing more on my first blog than my other blogs….and why I see more visitors in my first blog….”stories of blessings in life”…..now I believe is such a great story!…thanks again Johnny!

  37. I completely agree with you Johnny, characters are so important in stories. In films for instance, I loved The Dark Knight because the Joker is such an amazing character even though he is the criminal. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this post and found myself reading through each comment, I’ll definitely take on board what you’ve said and thanks again for the tips.

    • Yeah, and the same goes for Batman! How much more interesting is a hero that is so dark, who struggles not to cross the line of becoming borderline criminal himself in the pursuit of revenge or vengeance?