How to Weave a Story that Instantly Captivates Your Audience

image of old shoes

Yesterday, I went out to buy some walking shoes. I ended up spending $2000. And that’s not counting the shoes …

There’s a good chance those opening sentences got your attention. They sucked you in. And the reason you hear that strange sucking sound is because I didn’t start off the article like most people do.

Most people slide logically into an article.

But, most writers neglect the power of a story to captivate their audience immediately. And they neglect not just the story, but the middle of the story. Because there, smack bang in the middle, lies the real drama — the part that truly captivates your reader.

Let’s take a closer look at how this works.

How do you know what part of the story to use?

The answer is actually quite mundane — even, counterintuitive.

To get at the drama, you don’t have to pick anything in the story that is particularly exciting. You just have to make it exciting for me, the reader.

So let’s say we went back into my world of yesterday …

Were the purchase of the shoes the most important point of my little story? Or was it the purchase of a draughtsman’s table? Perhaps it could be Italian food we had for dinner. Or just about anything.

In any good story, there are at least three or four exciting points of interest, and any one of them can rise to the surface.

Yes, any point is exciting. What really matters, is how you bring a factor of excitement to the story. As you explain the details, the simple fact becomes interesting.

Master storytellers know this to be true. They know that even a mundane story can be brought to life in the way you recount it.

In a presentation at TED.com, speaker, Hans Rosling tells a seemingly mundane story of a washing machine.

Now, Hans has many options at the tip of his tongue of how to tell this story, but he chooses to talk about the “button-driven miracle” of the machine. And he stays with that angle to get your attention.

How even a mundane story can be captivating

Read how Hans tells it …

I was only four years old when I saw my mother load a washing machine for the very first time in her life. That was a great day for my mother. My mother and father had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine. And the first day it was going to be used, even Grandma was invited to see the machine. And Grandma was even more excited. Throughout her life she had been heating water with firewood, and she had hand washed laundry for seven children. And now she was going to watch electricity do that work.

My mother carefully opened the door, and she loaded the laundry into the machine, like this. And then, when she closed the door, Grandma said, “No, no, no, no. Let me, let me push the button.” And Grandma pushed the button, and she said, “Oh, fantastic. I want to see this. Give me a chair. Give me a chair. I want to see it.” And she sat down in front of the machine, and she watched the entire washing program. She was mesmerised. To my grandmother, the washing machine was a miracle.

What’s the interesting part in that story?

It could have been that the clothes came out extremely clean.

It could have been the sound and how they were captivated by the sound of the machine.

It could have been the changeover from hard labour to just a button-driven miracle.

Hans chose the button-driven miracle. But, as you can see, he could have chosen anything as long as he used emotions to drive the story home.

You can feel the excitement, the awe, as Hans tells this rather mundane tale. And it’s these set of emotions that keeps the drama going and the hearts of his audience pulsating.

A bizarre set of conclusions

  1. You can pick any story, or any subset of a story to get the drama going. You’ll often find this drama somewhere in the middle of your story.
  2. The most important factor is enthusiasm. Bring out the fear, the surprise, the sheer joy — all of those emotions are what keep the reader engaged.

One of the best ways to get the reader’s attention is to tell a story. But the best way to get that story raging ahead is to pick something — anything — from the middle of the story and using it to start your article.

And as you work your way through your story in the article, you’ll find at least two or three spots where you can harvest great emotion or unusual drama.

And when you’ve found that emotion and drama, it’s just a matter of placing it at the beginning to draw your reader in.

I’ve found it’s a way to begin articles that no reader can resist.

About the Author: Sean D'Souza offers a great free report on 'Why Headlines Fail' when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Be sure to check out his blog, too.

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Comments

  1. I know how Hans’ Grandma felt about that washing machine. I was about 10 yrs old when I saw my favorite TV show of the time (“Thunderbirds” – anyone remember that?) in color for the first time, and was amazed to learn that Thunderbird 2 was really green and not gray, as it was on our B&W TV….

    Thanks, Sean, for a great reminder that we can find an emotional perspective in almost any story, if we take the time to look for it!

  2. I have heard previously about telling a story but not really got it. I am a logical person so tend to start from the beginning and work through.

    I will take your advice Jeff and take something from the middle to start my Blogs. I will also try and work harder at the emotion. Many thanks for this remainder.

  3. Storytelling can help bloggers connect with target audience. I’ve used stories in the past and still do. If everything fails, a well-woven story could make the content come alive. I was happy when you said, we should make the story interesting, not necessarily choosing the interesting aspect. I haven’t thought about that since I started using stories in content marketing – thank you.

  4. The most important thing to remember is that storytelling makes it about your audience, not about the story teller. You are giving them something to hold onto, to remember, to feel. It’s not about how awesome you are, it’s about what you can give to them.

    • Yes, that’s a great point. But you can overthink the point in trying to get a great story. Most stories with ups and downs are great stories. If you want to see a bad movie, pick one without enough ups and downs. That movie will bore you to tears. This is why soap operas are always up, down, up, down. That’s the core element of story, once you’ve started to move the story.

  5. Thanks for an inspirational article, Sean!
    I have always been louse at story-telling. Your article gives me new ideas, to use emotions in the story.
    I still feel uncertain though.
    Could you write a follow-up on this article, with more how-to-do instructions and examples? I would appreciate it. It would be really helpful for me.

    • Yes, I could.
      You can’t be lousy at storytelling, though. I can prove than in a minute. If you’re human with a memory, you have about 500 great stories in your head. It’s a matter of how you unfold the story that counts. There’s a difference between a story and a story well told.

      • Ok, you’re right. I know lots of stories, but most often they do not catch people’s attention. I would like to be better at telling a captivating story. Like you mention, start with a drama and use emotions. I suppose timing is also important. I think many people, including me, would be interested in learning how to properly deliver a story.
        I am following your blog via RSS to catch your new articles. I would be grateful though if you decide to write such an article you would email me, so I don’t miss it.

        • Ok, I will. We have, coincidentally, been selling a product on storytelling on our site. It’s not very expensive, and it may help you sort out a lot of issues that you’re running into.

          While I have absolutely no problem with pointing out the product, I will also add a lot more articles to the blog and newsletter in the months to follow.

  6. Thanks for the great post Sean! It’s always great to have a reminder of how important it is to play to emotion when you tell stories. I think sometimes I get so busy with my blog posting schedule and what not that I forget to put as much emotion into it as I could. I’m going to add that to my blog post checklist.

  7. Okay, I’m crying so pretty sure your technique works :)

  8. Thanks for the reminder to grab the reader with emotion right up front. Stories make it personal and subsequently universal. Needed this inspiration today.

  9. Robert Littlefield :

    Hi My name is Robert and my friends call me the “Robdog”. They never really told me why and throughout the years Ive tried to figure it out but havent put my finger on it yet. It just stuck and its ok! Maybe because I get excited about things and howel at the moon once in a while! LOL anyway I came across your Blog and find its really interesting about the different things we take for granted while writing. I find that reading the alternative categorys shall we say, that it makes it even more exciting when your reaching out to people with certain message , help or ideas. Doing blogs is a good way to maybe just get a little bit more “Open” with people an be real aaaaand it seems to put a little twist to your story! How about just being your self! Have a good day today and again thanks for making me take a look in the mirror a little bit longert this morning!

  10. Thanks for the great post! I consider myself a decent writer, but I struggle with the STRUCTURE of articles, and so this was much appreciated.

    • Structuring articles is a precise science, once you learn how to write articles well, you can write pretty much better than most people on the Internet — or off the Internet. There are about 7 to 8 specific elements that you need to to create drama and flow in an article. Story telling or analogies, is one of them. But as you know, even within storytelling there are elements that you need to master. Of course, everything can be learned and mastered.

  11. I try to incorporate stories into my writings, but this was really a great and succinct help. I GOT IT! Thanks. Can’t wait to write my next post.

  12. I loved this article. Not only am I going to use this for my lipstick mirror product and my article writing, but for my volunteer job, posting our shelter cats on craigslist. Who knows, a little extra story telling about our cats and kittens might result in more forever homes. Thanks for the inspiration!

  13. “Start in the middle of the action.” Some of the oldest advice for writers on the books. I think I do this instinctively at this point, but it wouldn’t hurt to start thinking it out beforehand and doing it more intentionally. Like the way I decided whether or not to wear pants when I leave the house.

    • This isn’t advice just for writers. This is advice for cartoonists or just about any skill that you look at. The brain warms up and the real power of the story —or an article comes out somewhere in the middle. You’re just like an athlete. No matter how good you run, you still have to warm up, before things really start to happen.

  14. Having a blog that captivates your audience is an important part of writing. Getting them to come to your site is one thing, keeping them at your site is another! Great points!

  15. Quentin Tarantino is a true master of this “start in the middle” technique. I just never thought of it that way. I was so impressed with this piece I shared it everywhere (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook). Great piece, great eye opener. If the first line to a story doesn’t grab you – then what will?

    • Yes, and you can use it quite often if you choose to. You don’t have to use the story always at the top. You can slide it in the middle, somewhere halfway in the article, but ideally pull in the story before the end. However, there are exceptions here as well. A personal story jumping in right at the end is often a good summary of the entire article, which until then might have been just how-to article or very logical in nature.

  16. Transitioning from facts and logic to story telling is rather challenging….especially for a rational guy like me! But as for anything, it’s matter of practicing. I have to admit, I couldn’t resist your headline…so point made Sean!

    • I agree.
      It took some time to figure this one out. I assumed most people could drop in stories on demand. But they can’t. And yes, it’s a learnable skill.

  17. I’m not a great story teller, but I understand it’s an extremely valuable skill to have. Not only will it help with your online audience, but any social interaction as well.

    Sean, you state that we have at least 500 great stories stored up in our heads… My problem is remembering the right story at the right moment! I have little experience with story telling (compared to some people I talk with who spout off 10+ stories at every get-together) so maybe it’ll do me good to observe how they do it. And obviously, practice more…

    • The key to pulling out the right story is to know what the article is about—in one word.
      e.g. If the article is about ‘discounting’, then I’m sure you have a dozen stories of how you paid too much, a lot less, when buying something. Or then, about how you discounted at some point in time (in your business). Or how you ran into a situation where you saw a guy, dressed in a certain way, and you discounted his ability—and then found out more about him.

      So the key is to know that one word. After that, it’s easier. Not easy. For that you need to work for several weeks doing this one thing day in and day out, but after a few weeks, you’ll have so many stories that you’ll be amazed.

  18. “Constipated. That’s how I spent two days of my summer vacation.” is how I began my latest post, which to me was certainly captivating but now I’ll need to see what it does for my audience. Your openings are way better than anything I’ve written so far.

    • You have to be careful. Not all stories bring up wonderful thoughts. Most women I know, can visualise a thought as you’re speaking. e.g. if you said: a butterfly running with pink shoes, they would be able to visualise it as you said it. Most men (that I know) don’t consider that sentence visually.

      So if you have something that sickens or is gross, well, you can almost see (at least some of my friends) seeing the picture as they read. And then not reading further.

      It’s a risk.

  19. This is exactly what I try to tell the kids whose college essays I edit and proofread. Emotion! Not vanilla, but a crazy-ass Ben and Jerry’s flavor of a story. Thanks. I think I’ll keep a copy of this for the kids.

  20. Thank you for this article. My wife is starting a small business and I”m getting her setup online. I’ve been drilling her on the important of building a network and finding her niche so she can be a big fish in that small pond instead of trying to compete against Amazon. Through it all I’ve been having a lot of trouble helping her to understand the narrative. I think this article really shows why it is important and how it can be engaging.

  21. This post on stories could not come at a better time as I prepare to launch a new video series. Thank you for the reminder!

  22. I sprang from my chair, causing my laptop to crash unceremoniously to the floor, when I realized that I had spent the last 5 minutes completely neglecting the savage sounds of the pack of wolves that were ravenously attempting to dig and bite their way into my home.
    It was Sean D’Souza’s excellent post on weaving a story that distracted me from the impending doom that was baying all around my tiny cabin. I found Sean’s advice very thought provoking and promised myself that I would try to implement his suggestions for my next blog post.
    However, before I could begin writing, I hurried to my DVD player, inserted “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse”, and turned the surround system up on full. (Yes, my cabin has 7.1 surround)
    The wolves quickly departed and I was left to the quiet task of reattaching the laptop’s screen to the computer, after which I was able to stop the incipient move and write this response.
    Thank you Sean.

  23. Great stuff. This is actually positive in making your content more appealing to your audience! Story telling is a crucial way of getting your blog captivating the minds of your audience. It brings out a really picture of what happened or will happened; it is attention-grabbing and can capture your audience’s listening skills! I have to admit this works since I had a friend who had been doing so and he’s so successful, I look forward into this soon! Thanks a lot for such a great inspiration!

  24. Your ideas will work well with me. I am a superb when it comes to story telling.

  25. Ah, don’t we all love drama? That’s why Romeo and Juliet is a big hit, now and then. Sean, thanks for reminding us to write for humans; not bots.. Sadly, everything is so optimized these days you begin to wonder whatever happened to creativity et al..

  26. I’m still working on the whole art of storytelling, and this will definitely help.

  27. This is a great reminder about the importance of storytellig. I’m curious…when. thyou start out with a story, do you worry at all about SEO keywords in the first paragraph? I’m more the “storyteller” type, but I have toned it down since being advised to include SEO keywords in the first few sentences of my articles. It seems I get more pageviews when I include keywords at the beginning…but I’m much happier when I just let loose & tell a story without worry. Thanks for the awesome article!

    • Well, SEO folk can sell us anything, right? IF they could, they’d tell us to create National Geographic and all our story books with SEO keywords. Well, it’s your call. I don’t look for mass audiences. If you need a mass audience, then yes, go with SEO alone. But if you want the few who arrive at your site to stay, subscribe—and then buy somewhere down the line, then you have to relate to a human, not a machine.

      Having said that you can do SEO in storytelling, but as you can also tell, it’s clunky and often contrived. To me, the goal is to educate and entertain, and we’ve run a very profitable business for 10 years online (yes, 10 years online is like 100 offline) without pandering to SEO.

    • The SEO benefits (never mind all of the other benefits) of links and sharing you’ll get from a post that actually gets read will far outweigh the benefits of starting off with anything that doesn’t serve the reader. Some content, like tutorials, are a natural fit for a keyword strategy, but as soon as things get even a little clunky, you have to back up.

      As I said at Content Marketing World last week, search engine robots don’t have credit cards and they can’t become your customer. Serve people first, *then* search engines.

  28. Captivating indeed! :) It’s not very common, at least for me, to find an article that’s light to take in but with a lot of value and insights put in. Content is what drives our audience to engage with us, so it’s definitely worth noting these tips you gave, Sean. Thank you for the read.

  29. Thanks Sean! This is such a timely post as I am trying to draw more readers into my blog. I will start adding more story telling into it to drive the enthusiasm and engage the audience.

  30. What an eye opener! I too tend to approach my blog writing logically. And though I’ve heard the advice to start with the middle, you really brought the idea home for me. I have to look for where the emotions are in the story, that’s where I’ll find the drama, and how I’ll hook a reader. Pricelss! Thank you!

  31. I used to find that I started writing with an introduction, and would often get bored by the time I got the the actual content. I’ve definitely improved since I started the juicy bits first, then the rest of the post or article seems to write itself. I’ve never thought about putting that first though, but it certainly makes sense! Great read Sean.

  32. Really enjoyed the post. I have always heard the phrase ‘facts tell – stories sell’ . It is easy to forget that when writing a post.
    Thanks :)

  33. Thanks for the reminder. I know that I always enjoy the blogs that tell a story and let their own personality show through. It is definitely something to strive for.

  34. You provided new ideas to me. Inject emotions and energy in not just writing, also speech.

  35. Hi Sean,
    Great post! Thanks for the insight on storytelling. You’re right, creating shared emotion and dramatic energy through our words keeps readers engaged.