3 Simple Storytelling Methods That Can
Do Your Selling For You

image of maverick giving us the thumbs up

Sometimes this gets me in trouble with the hardcore copywriters …

I believe a story can potentially carry the entire sale for your product, even if everything else is technically “wrong” in your ads (no clear call to action, lame bullets, weak offer, etc).

Take the 1986 box office hit “Top Gun”, for example.

Top Gun is about a couple of hotshot Naval pilots given a chance to train with the “best of the best” pilots in the world at the “Top Gun” fighter pilot school. And it was, in many ways, an extremely profitable sales letter.

Here’s why …

After the movie was released:

  1. Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses (the kind Tom Cruise’s character “Maverick” wore) jumped 40%
  2. Air Force and Navy recruitment shot through the roof

The movie was so good at “selling” the young whippersnappers of the day on how cool being a fighter pilot is, recruitment booths were set up inside theaters it played in!

Behold, the selling power of stories

Nothing in “Top Gun” movie told you to buy Maverick’s brand of sunglasses or join The Navy. But the movie “sold” both products to hordes of people.

So, how do you apply this to your marketing?

Below are 3 storytelling methods I’ve used in some of my most profitable sales letters, emails and other marketing campaigns.

I did not invent any of them (they’ve been around for centuries).

And they’re not the only ways to do it. But they’re simple, easy to write, and get the job done.

1. The personal story

This is one of the most common landing page stories.

This one is simple — you just “walk” people (step-by-step) through a painful problem you went through and how you achieved the result your readers are looking for.

For example:

If you sell an eBook on how to get rid of painful urinary tract infections, you would tell the story about all the pain your urinary tract infection caused you — including what it was like, how nothing gave you relief, and the embarrassment, humiliation and other physical (and psychological/emotional) horrors you endured.

Then, you segue into how you figured out a way to get rid of that infection and how you wrote your solution down in a short, easy-to-read eBook …

See how that works?

You walk them through all the worst parts of the problem (the exact symptoms your readers are experiencing) and then lead them to how you solved the problem (i.e. your product).

Very simple.

And, very easy to write, too — just tell your story.

2. The historical story

This kind of story is extremely persuasive, contains nothing even remotely resembling “hype,” and can persuade people to buy things they otherwise might ignore.

Here’s a real life example:

Once upon a time, I had to write an ad selling a grappling DVD course to adult men who hate the thought of having to sweat or roll around in a dirty dojo, etc. (They wanted the instant-tough-guy “push button ninja” solution to self defense.)

So I had to make grappling sound sexy and cool.

What did I do?

Nothing earth shattering — just some simple research online (maybe 30 minutes, nothing big) and found how certain people used grappling and wrestling in ancient Roman coliseums to fight lions … barehanded. I also read how ancient Samurai used to terrorize westerners in battle with their “bizarre” way of fighting … in other words, grappling.

So I told those stories in the ad.

And suddenly, grappling went from something that seemed dirty and sweaty and unappealing … to something exciting and fun.

Yes, this takes extra research.

But the extra sales are more than worth it …

3. The “meet the guru” story

This one is related to the personal story, but it’s got more “pop” due the built-in credibility it gives you.

With this format, you tell a story about how you met/talked with a guru who showed you how to solve the problem your product is about. It can be as simple as some time you spent with them on the phone … to something as dramatic as traveling up a forbidden mountain in Tibet to learn at their feet (assuming that’s true — telling a story never gives you a license to lie).

So it’s like a rite of passage:

You had a problem (one that your market shares).

You found an expert who helped you solve it.

That expert then passed his/her wisdom on to you, and now you are passing that on to your customers.

And they lived happily ever after …

And that’s all there is to it, three persuasive storytelling formats — proven to work.

Never underestimate the power of stories.

They are the chief means by which humans have communicated for thousands of years, and we’re all “hard wired” to be persuaded by them.

Use them in your marketing and soon you’ll be telling stories about all the money you’re making …

About the Author: Ben Settle is a direct response copywriter and email marketing strategist. Although Ben no longer accepts clients, he gives away over 700 pages of his bestselling ideas and insights free at BenSettle.com.

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Comments

  1. I’m really glad that my personal story needed to sell my eBook isn’t about urinary track infections…

    However, as a consumer I will say that a great story that explains why I should buy a product is much more powerful than a Landing Page full of Facts. The story takes me to where I want to be, I can see myself in a world where the problem I came to Landing Page with is fixed…

    Good stuff!

    Ryan H

    • I totally agree. A good story can totally suck you in for all the right reasons and give you a feeling of ‘belonging’ to the product being sold.

      I bought Ben’s book “CrackerJack Selling” a couple of years ago and it’s all about how infotainment (informing through story telling) is the best way to sell products because audiences always want to be entertained first, and taught second.

      And Ryan, even though I don’t know you, I’m also glad you don’t have a urinary tract infection.

  2. My personal favourite is the first option -”Tell your story”. I think this works precisely because nothing convinces more than hearing from the horses mouth. People buy from those they know have been through what they are going through and came out of it. It’s how most self-help, coaching and consulting products/services sell. The entire industry is built around this strategy. It’s the ultimate test of credibility – using your story as a proof of what you are selling.

    Thanks for sharing Ben!

  3. This is really great, I always want to be a character in a film I watch! (Yes, I want to be a princess, a lawyer, and Audrey Hepburn – preferably at the same time ;)) I try to infuse little parts of stories into blog posts or make things more personal, I’m definitely going to write the story behind my eBook that I’m currently writing, or maybe it would be easier to write it as I go – I’ll work on it either way!

  4. Hi Ben,

    The personal story strikes a chord with most of us.

    When the writer experienced the experience, it speaks of authenticity. We believe, we trust, and we are pulled in by a personal story we can connect to on some level. Get some experience, generate some buzz, and you can make it a “meet the guru” type story.

    We love stories, especially personal stories, because they inspire us. We have problems, and want to overcome them, and if this guy or gal did it, so can I. This is pretty much the story of life, following the inspirational examples of others especially during our tougher times.

    Clever post, especially the historical grappling bit ;)

    Thanks for sharing Ben!

    Ryan

  5. Everyone loves a great story that’s for sure!

    Not many people realise the ‘power’ of using stories as much as they maybe should?

    Thanks for sharing as always rocking!:)

    Best
    Greg

  6. Good stuff here Ben.

    Best part? These are very simple strategies anyone can do… and they work!

    It’s like when you’re sitting there listening to a boring speech, and suddenly the guy is like “hey, let me tell you a story.” And you’re like “okay yes, please do”. It just naturally grabs your attention.

    Thanks again Ben. Appreciate it… :-) Eric

  7. Proof that it works: I really want to read your grappling ad!

    Nice work Ben.

  8. Common thread with each type of story…they all involve triumph.

    I think that more often than not, the storytelling formula that works best in sales, is one that shares an experience of victory – overcoming obstacle and emerging triumphant.

    Maybe I’m just stating the obvious.

  9. This is the simplest, least stressful sales copy advice I’ve read in some time! Thanks, Ben.

    Eben Pagan wrote a sales letter about how he got married, and it seems to have a little of all three story structures: http://www.doubleyourdating.com/l/seminar/1204_vegas/

  10. Your article is timely, especially given the recent story by NPR: Lifespan’: What Are The Limits Of Literary License? (http://www.npr.org/2012/03/08/148040132/lifespan-what-are-the-limits-of-literary-license).
    I would love to hear your opinion on how author John D’Agata justifies his less-than-truthful stories – that the “greater point is more important than the details”. Does his “artistic license” and your “telling a story never gives you a license to lie” stand in direct opposition, or is it contextual, with each being a valid choice depending on the subject? Personnally, I can not accept D’Agata’s arguments and believe he does authors (and readers) great harm by his methods.

  11. All marketers tell stories, yes? Great article and to the point.

    One of the hidden super powers of a good story is that the media loves them. I work for small business owners and I’ve spent a lot of years pitching clients’ stories to the press. The results are nothing short of amazing. When Forbes tells the world the story of why to buy “this” coffee, or People Magazine follows an artist across the country, people buy.

    You’re spot on. Stories sell.

  12. Ben, you have done a terrific job of summarizing a huge and growing perspective for copywriters and for all of us just trying to stay alive. Looking around and seeing our own lives in these ways is a very healthy exercise, too, whether or not we sell the story to others. Wow, I’m serious, you have truly inspired me to push through my SEO writing and get on with my own story today!!! Thanks for that…

  13. Does anyone have any stats on how storytelling performs better? I’ve heard a lot about how well it converts, but practically I’m seeing less and less of that format. Short, simple, with lots of pictures seems to be the prevalent form nowadays.

    I’m coming out with a product soon myself, and I’m torn between the two formats..

    • The only way you’ll see if a story converts better than another approach is to specifically test it for your product. If the story wins, come up with another story and see if it can beat the first story.

      That said, some of the most effective sales pieces from direct mail have been in story format, including the famous Wall Street Journal piece that earned billions of dollars.

  14. Perhaps storytelling should be taught more in schools. I know that would be good for several potential employees and entrepreneurs that could benefit from knowing those kinds of skills in their professions!

  15. I agree— I’d love to see any stats regarding the “story” sell. I am a devotee of using creative nonfiction and storytelling, particularly through guest blogging, and would be curious to know if there is information on conversion rates.

    Great post, thanks!

  16. Valuable post, Ben! I totally agree with making the stories personal. I really think that’s why my ebook (as well as paper) has been so successful. When folks are “real,” they’re much easier to relate to… and people are much more likely to buy from you.

    Thank you. I will be sharing on my blogs.

    In health & happiness,
    Jennifer

  17. Thanks for the great reminder of story telling. I am a professional writer who writes blogs about Boomers and Tech but I often get stumped when starting out, since they are informational pieces. I will use the “story telling” method more often. At first I thought it was a bit cheesy, but then hearing it again, makes me realize it’s the way to go. Thanks

  18. Oh stop it Ben. Hardcore copywriters know the best way to sell has always been — and always will be — to tell a story. Hardcore copywriting demands one be a great storyteller.

    You know this as much as Claude Hopkins, John Caples, Eugene Schwartz, David Ogilvy, Joe Vitale, Big Daddy Clayton Makepeace and way too many multi-million and billion dollar selling copywriters to mention here.

    The best saleswriter in my book is William Shakespeare ~ they’re still running his stuff and peeps are still buying it.

    Peace and profits,
    Tia D.

  19. Hey Be, thank you for this wonderful tips! Short but extremely powerful. I just put an e-course up and I want to split-test my sales pages. I’m definitely going to try a number of the ones you’ve suggested and see how that works or which works best for my audience. Then maybe I can tell the story about how I searched for the perfect sales letter and then I came to Copyblogger;).

  20. Ben, I think you’re absolutely right that story can carry the sale.

    For instance, I’ve been writing copy for personal check designs – product descriptions…literally THOUSANDS of them. But a check is a check. When you get right down to it, every single one has the same basic features and benefits. The only thing that differs is the design printed on the paper.

    So I use stories, or at least storytelling elements to create an emotional connection with the customer that makes them feel like a particular design is the perfect choice for them. Sometimes it’s a “fictionalized” personal story, or more often a “customer hero” type story.

    History and interesting facts are also effective for creating copy that sell. But you have to be careful too. I’ve got to remember I’m not trying to educate I’m trying to sell!

  21. I love this! Maybe it’s because I love telling stories, or because I love personal touches in ad copy or sales letters, but I always take notice of brands/people who use this strategy to make their points. It takes the copy to an entirely new level and humanizes it. And I’m glad you included the snippet about making sure your stories are real! A lie would transform even the most riveting story into a complete mess and do unnecessary damage.

    Kudos to you, Ben! This was a stellar read! :)

  22. Awesome post! I’ve found that while writing narratives is hard at first, you can get better at it the more you do it. I’ve found that some of my most successful posts have been story posts. I also enjoy reading them on other people’s blogs.

  23. The real trick is figuring out how to lock your audience in for long enough to process the story. It’s all well and good to have a well-executed narrative to your marketing, but it gets trickier when you realize that most people aren’t going to be exposed to all of your marketing channels, and thus may miss pieces and lose the relevancy of what was created.

    The Top Gun example is effective, but it also includes having a captive audience for over an hour, continuously exposed to the different narratives. Unless you have some sort of substantial content draw on your website, virality or desirable atmospherics (brick & mortar), storytelling is difficult to properly execute.

  24. Eh that was a good film and the music was fantastic.

    Love the simple formula for telling the story.
    As I read through your post, it did ring a few bells.

    I’m an affiliate for Genesis themes so guess I’ll go with “The historical story”

    I had a terrible problem updating my themes to the latest WordPress version… and then…
    Starting to sound good and what’s more… it’s a true story.

  25. I’ve found personal stories are totally effective — especially when they’re slightly embarrassing. (They immediately bond you to people with “like” issues.)

    When it comes to Maverick, however, he was aspirational… They did a great job selling the idea that if you buy his sunglasses and have his job, you can be Tom Cruise!

  26. Really dig this Ben. A great story can be a call to action that isn’t explicitly stated. I think it’s a cool way to let the reader/customer feel more in control. They come up with an emotional reaction to your story, and they decide to act because of it.

    Very cool stuff. Really got my gears turning. Thanks!

  27. True story: I’m waiting tables in a local restaurant in Santa Barbara when the film Sideways comes out. Suddenly, Pino Noir is flying off the shelves faster than we can stock it and the Merlot bottles are gathering dust. I can’t sell a glass of Merlot to save my life. And Miles isn’t nearly as cool as Maverick…

    Anyway, great post!

  28. As most of the others already said, I like the personal approach the best.

    There is hardly anything more connecting than showing a reader you were there, went through the same or similar experiences, felt the pain, but you have found a way out. Again, you went through the process and experienced everything first-hand and can relate to every step of the way.

    I have used this approach with my product and the response was great. People want to hear hope, but they also want to build relationships and by combining the two, you will have a very strong point.

    However, I also really dig the historical approach. It’s something that hasn’t been done too often and adds a twist to the same old.

  29. Sharing the personal story is really one of the best techniques to carry a sale. Because it gives a reasonable example that makes customers believe in. The Story Telling Techniques will be obviously helpful for our next sales approach.
    So thanks to Ben! for sharing such type of wonderful techniques.

  30. Being a motivational speaker, with a background as a professional storyteller, I have seen this play out EXACTLY as you have described, Ben. And you put it into words much better than I have been able to. So thank you. I tell motivational speakers all the time – SELL THE STORY. I tell people who are writing text for their websites to stop selling me features and benefits and SELL THE STORY. I tell people who want me to sign up for their cause, to quit telling me how important it is and SHOW me how important it is – by telling me the story of someone your cause helped. It’s the story that sells. We all have truths/products/services/advice we want to sell/share/impact the world with. Story is how we wrap it in a way that the author will accept, embrace, and act on it. Stories show instead of tell, which is vital. And thank you for putting into words how we can create our own. I will definitely be sharing this!!!! Awesome work!

  31. Obviously Ben won’t read this, so the opinion of someone else will be welcome.

    If Top Gun was an effective sales letter, would it be a fair comment to say that telling a fictional story is okay to do?

    I welcome someone to tell me otherwise, but based on Ben’s example, I would say it is.

    Would anybody have believed Tom Cruise was flying the fighter jet?
    Would it be fair to say that nobody believed Tom’s real name was Pete Mitchell, or Maverick?

    Yet Ben says it was an effective driver of Aviator and Recruitment sales.

    The point is that Top Gun was selling an IDEAL, an DREAM, even if that was not the purpose of the movie (or was it?).

    Who here has an opinion to offer? Clearly I have not the experience in this.

    Feel free to disagree if you want.

    Jamie.

  32. Personal stories are like testimonials. They just need to make sense, convince and convert!
    I like this method as it’s such a powerful tool to persuade others to go through the same helpful process.

    Rahman Mehraby
    Travel News Distribution

  33. I have followed Ben Settle’s blog for some time. He really does have an original voice amongst every other choice out there.

    Yet this post seems like it has been coloured with the Copyblogger brush, which means it reads just like every post on here.

    If this is coincidental, fine. But do yourself a favour and go the Ben’s site – ONLY if you want to see a more original, funny side to his writing style.

    P.S. This is not an attack on this site, but this post didn’t have the same punch that Ben’s writing usually has.

  34. Everyone loves a good story: guess that’s why using storytelling works as such a strong sell. Great article. Thanks.

  35. Archie Goodwin :

    I’m surprised to see no comments on this story considering how important it is to pull readers in using these very techniques. I use these copywriting techniques myself (and variations of them) and I’m a hardcore copywriter. I think they’re great! I can’t comment on the Top Gun thing, having never seen the movie.

  36. Thought of this article when I read this passage from On Writing by Stephen King :

    Context: Stephen has to use the restroom in the woods. There’s no toilet paper. His brother offers wiping with leaves as a solution but Stephen resists. His brother then uses the power of story to convince Stephen:

    ” ‘Wipe yourself with some leaves. That’s how the cowboys and Indians did it.’ By then it was probably to late to get home [to use the restroom]; anyway; I have an idea I was out of options. Besides I was enchanted by the idea of shitting like a cowboy.”

    The story was only a sentence long “That’s how the cowboys and Indians did it.” but it was powerful enough to take Stephen from doubt to action.

    And if you’re curious and haven’t read the book, the leaf that Stephen used was actually Poison Ivy. Sad, but true. Thanks for a great article.

  37. Personal story is the best way to promote something! I’ve met some people who asked me to promote their products. I turned them down because I’ve never use it. I didn’t benefit greatly from it. I lack the conviction to sell their products.

    If I do it, the sales will not be great. On top of it, it may affect my reputation if the product doesn’t do what it claims. I must use it first, benefit from it, so I have a personal story to share.

  38. Every man has a great personal story. I am really glad to know that my personal story helps me to sell.Thanks Ben, to introduce this types of nice idea.Your 3 Simple Storytelling Methods is really helpful for me.I have to share my personal story.

  39. Larry Bowditch :

    Thank you for this article Ben. You have given me the mental orientation to start writing. I facilitate a men’s discussion group and I believe the personal stories are what have kept this group meeting, consistently, for more than 3 months. Shared personal stories are very attractive. I have not related that to writing, but now I will. Thanks again.

  40. Everyone loves a good story and consumers increasingly expect the companies they patronize to entertain them at every turn. How would you recommend how a budding entrepreneur learn to be a good story teller? What are the best books on this topic?

  41. Ben, this is really powerful! Thanks for sharing. Years ago when I entered the speaking industry, a man told me to focus on how to tell powerful stories. That’s the magic. I embraced point #1 Tell Personal Story. In no time, my speaking career took off. I told my personal story over and over. Of course, I make sure the story is crafted in a way that my audiences feel like it is highly relevant to their current condition. From poverty and diseases in a tiny village to the pinnacle of success in the United States… it’s possible for you, too.

    Here’s what’s remarkable: At the end of every speech, the audience members don’t remember the points. They remember the stories. It’s the same thing about the eBook on how to get rid of painful urinary tract infections. After reading the copy, the reader walks away thinking about the story. Simply put, they will buy the story.

    In my opinion, small businesses don’t tell enough stories. Think of Subway Sandwiches. It was the awesome story of how Jared S. Fogle (The Subway Guy) lost so much weight eating subway and walking to school that propelled them to the top. Most of the commercials on television tell a specific story from pain to pleasure. The kids messed the clothes while playing in the dirt. Then this detergent, with a potent solution, cleans them magically.

    We are conditioned to pay attention and listen to stories. On the other hand, we’re accustomed to turn off product pitches. One can tell a highly emotional and moving story that sells products or services. Hey, once upon a time… Bam! You have my attention. As adults, we are big kids. As I often say, “Life is nothing but stories in the making.”

  42. I want to learn this skill for selling my products. I see the 3 formats pretty useful. I started thinking how to prepare a story for my product. Is there any specific structure / format to be followed to build / construct a story. Appreciate if anyone can advice.