On a Blog or In the Boardroom, This is Still the Most Powerful Way to Persuade

Image of a Storyteller

He’d been on the job just two short weeks.

Two weeks at the most prestigious publication in his industry, and he was already on the brink of bringing The Entire Machine to a halt. With a thud, not a screech.

With a Wednesday deadline looming, on Monday morning he had nothing but the few beads of sweat forming on his brow. Those were something at least, so he didn’t wipe them away.

He procrastinated. He hopped from link to link, half-reading in between his worries … a mere 29 minutes from the conference call where he’d be asked by the top brass about the obviously gaping hole in this week’s schedule. Wednesday. Damn Wednesday.

His number was up. He was about to be found out.

Then a headline caught his eye. And he knew it was the inspiration he’d been looking for …

The most indispensable lesson he’d ever learned about persuasion would save the day.

Stories persuade

Stories about dying, mothers, and fighting for your ideas.

Stories about snowboarding, subdural hematomas, and the secret of life.

Hell, even made-up stories about CEOs on ether trips shooting social media darlings with elephant tranquilizers.

They persuade in different ways and for different goals. But they persuade.

And the storytelling doesn’t even have to be so blatant.

You don’t need to narrate your own neurotic work worries in the third person to grab an audience’s attention. (Though you can, like I just did.) You don’t need to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets.

No, you just need to “find ways to connect with your audience on an emotional level.”

These are the words of Cliff Atkinson, author and communications consultant, as quoted recently in the Wall Street Journal. Yes, even a publication known for numbers and news knows that when it comes to persuasion, stories succeed.

But not just any story.

So how do you tell a good story?

You make sure that you have the five elements that every great marketing story needs:

  1. A hero
  2. A goal
  3. An obstacle
  4. A mentor
  5. A moral

Number 4 is where you come in.

As Sonia Simone wrote, “You are the wise mentor who can provide essential information and tools that allow the hero to attain his goal.”

So weave yourself into your story as such. How? By demonstrating authority. Take your audience on a journey that solves their problems and satisfies their desires.

You can do this by relating with your audience how you overcame an issue they might be facing, like the guy who hates Copyblogger.

You can do this by sharing special anecdotes from your own experience that teach people universal lessons they feel warm and fuzzy learning and re-learning, like this ode to a blue-collar genius.

And you can share the stories of others, like the man who rescued the family furniture business with nothing but a book and a killer work ethic.

And if you want to tell not just a story, but a remarkable story, add the following:

  • Know your audience
  • Select your frame
  • Choose your premise

That means understanding the worldview of who you are talking to, then framing your story in a way that makes it resonate with your audience, and finally delivering the story — and its message — in the best way possible.

Stories have been retold over and over throughout the ages — some are just better told than others.
~ Brian Clark

When you tell a good story, when you tell it better to an audience than anyone else, you earn the privilege of persuading them.

Tell it with confidence and …

Facts, figures, and PowerPoint presentations can’t do what a narrative can do. Narrative conveys. It relates. It distills. Most importantly, narrative promotes understanding and cultivates connection.

Paul Smith, an associate director for P&G’s market research, learned all about the power of storytelling …

As Dennis Nishi retells it in the WSJ, Smith spent three weeks assembling a PowerPoint presentation he was to give to P&G CEO A.G. Lafley. But on the day of the presentation, Mr. Lafley never once looked at the slides. He just watched Smith speak.

The CEO of a multinational corporation didn’t care about slides. He cared about stories.

Which is why Mr. Smith now uses far more anecdotes in his presentations. Which is why Mr. Smith now has far more success selling his ideas.

So take it from him:

Confidence and authority help to sell the idea to your audience.

To develop your confidence, learn how to feel great naked.

To develop your authority, learn the time-tested methods that work from the people you trust.

And then the next time you inevitably get in a pinch — like I was this past Monday — needing something to say but not just anything … something good, something persuasive, something worthy of your audience’s time … tell a story.

Not your facts and figures. Not your ideas. But your facts, figures, and ideas woven into a story that connects, solves, and satisfies.

Yes, after all these centuries, stories are still the most powerful way to persuade.

It’s a lesson that rescued me.

And it might one day make you a hero.

Image credit: Albert Anker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Reader Comments (48)

  1. says

    Hi Jerod,

    You’ve made an excellent point with the following:

    No, you just need to “find ways to connect with your audience on an emotional level.”

    I think half the battle is finding your target audience. Once you figure out who they are, you can write blog posts, articles, white papers, etc. that connect with them on an emotional level. It also helps to get “out of your head.” Some writers, including me, have a tendency to over think posts. Some days I tell myself, “Just write.”

    • says

      Thank you Amandah! As they say: “write drunk, edit sober.” Meaning, on first drafts just get it out there. Bang away on the keyboard. Let the thoughts out. Then pare, adjust, and rework later once all your brilliant thoughts are there like wet word clay. :-)

  2. says

    You are 100% right that stories matter. I used to give a LOT of speeches, and a good anecdote was literally worth thousands of dollars to me, because it would be so memorable that it would sell more speeches.

    But I am not convinced that effective stories require five elements. If I tell you that Kodak’s orange film boxes were once so ever-present that it seemed unimaginable the company would ever be threatened, I do not need a hero to raise the question in your mind whether your firm might also one day declare bankruptcy.

    • says

      Bruce, here we may be running up against the subtle differences between anecdotes/examples and stories. A story will indeed have a hero who is transformed as the story progresses. An anecdote/example may not necessarily need a stated hero to be effective. It’s more of an implied hero. Ostensibly you are sharing the Kodak anecdote with other business owners who might feel bulletproof to remind them that if Kodak can go into bankruptcy that ANYONE can go into bankruptcy.

  3. says

    Confidence and authority help to sell the idea to your audience – authority is everything, it doesn’t ‘just’ help in this case…

    …thought leadership sells. Ultimately, it is going to be difficult for anybody to get an impact from their story if nobody knows who they are or why they should even care.


  4. says

    Hi Jerod,

    A non regular reader of your post will think you are a poet. This is damn good, away from the technical languages of CSS, HTML, DNS e.t.c.

    This model can be inculcated into content marketing, it will sure help fire up a positive conversion and broader reach.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • says

      Thank you Dare! It’s funny you mention that. The first writing I ever did — and to this day, the most enjoyable — was poetry. So I’ll take your comment as a massive compliment.

        • says

          It really does. You just have to be careful though, because poetry isn’t always about coming right out and saying what you mean. Good copywriting is, though.

  5. says

    Another story from CopyBlogger that inspires! Thanks you guys for always putting out simple yet thought provoking ideas that just ring true. I have a meeting coming up with a CEO of a great non-profit here in Montana and I was wondering what I should do to prepare for it.
    I think I have found an answer here.

    • says

      That’s so great to hear JJ! Our goal with every post is to give our audience information and/or inspiration that they can take with them away from the computer screen and into their days. So happy to hear that this post did that for you.

  6. says

    Great article, Jerod. As a long time Toastmaster, I can tell you that stories are the key to building rapport with an audience. Facts, figures and bullet point ridden Powerpoints do just the opposite. In fact, the best button in Powerpoint is the “B” key, which turns the screen black and returns the audience’s attention to you.

  7. Sigal says

    Hi, maybe you can help me solve this little mystery …
    I understand how you can weave a story into a live presentation; I see the point in sharing stories with the readers of my blog, but.. when it comes to writing a sales page, or web copy, where do the stories come in?
    How do they fit into the structure of addressing a problem & showing a solution?
    If I use a story “format”, don’t I face the risk of loosing lots of my mission oriented audience?

    • says

      The first thing I would ask you is how is an article or sales page different than a live presentation? They are more alike than different. They are all the presentation of information designed to elicit a response.

      • Sigal says

        Thank you for replying :)
        Thing is, the purpose is indeed the same, but the platform is totally different..
        Being a copywriter (& an occasional poet :), there’s nothing I would have loved more than coming up with a story, either real or invented. Structure wise, where does it come in (say, in a sales page)? As an appetizer, as main text conveying my whole marketing message? Can I trust the impatient reader to go through it, understanding upfront that it’s leading to a bottom-line relevant to him?
        Seems to me there’s something I’m missing here..

        • says

          Sigal, all of those are important questions. That is why it’s not just telling a story that is important, but being good at telling good stories. There are no universal answers for where a story should go, how long it should be, etc. It depends on the medium and the audience. The value you bring as a copywriter and content marketer is knowing where a story fits best and HOW to tell it (in terms of tone and length) to achieve the desired result.

  8. says

    Nicely said Jerod!
    As a former elementary teacher turned content marketer I am never surprised that the same ‘tactics’ great teachers use in capturing the attention and curiosity of young learners are basically the same tactics great content marketers employ. We humans grow older, but don’t change all that much. We still love stories- and stories that have depth and purpose. I love it!

    • says

      Thank you Vicky. :-) Indeed, when you are trying to connect with or persuade human beings, it’s imperative that you understand human nature. And humans respond to stories. Always have, always will.

  9. says

    “Stories have been retold over and over throughout the ages — some are just better told than others.”
    What you have quoted here is an Undeniable fact. When stories are retold to suit the current trend and presented in a spectacular fashion it is often remembered, cherished and sometimes may become irreplaceable. When you hear the word titanic I bet Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio will cross your mind for sure, ever heard of Robert Wagner and Audrey Dalton? They are from the good old Titanic (1953) movie. I bet Cameron and many others have already applied what you have said now and it’s time for us to start thinking in this direction. Hoping to become a hero soon :-) , Great Post Jerod, thanks for sharing.

  10. says

    Hi Jerod – great article. I would add that a good story always involves the main character undergoing some kind of change – they’re never quite the same at the end of the story.

  11. says

    I’m always surprised at how traditional storytelling strategies can be applied to blogging and Social Media posts. Thanks for sharing!

  12. says

    Great post and great points! I really like the last sentence about maybe being a hero one day. I think all bloggers should focus on being a hero to their readers because people need a hero these days!

  13. says

    I think part of a good story is leaving your audience with a big ‘Ah, ha.’ As a Park Ranger, and blogger, I use story to help visitors connect intellectually and emotionally. They are the heroes.

  14. says

    OK, let’s see:

    1. A hero
    2. A goal
    3. An obstacle
    4. A mentor
    5. A moral

    (yes, I got them right without looking back at the text!)

    This is a great blueprint to follow in copy writing and story telling. It’s also why I think the “write one post every day” train of thinking goes against this method of story telling, simply because it takes time to write a story worth telling.

    Thanks for this blueprint, Jerod!

  15. says

    Wonderful article by Jerod. He has given a complete guideline to make up a emotional story. I heard from others that the best way to sell is to tell a story during your meeting. I am so glad, I read Jerod’s story.

  16. says

    Great article!

    I know we live in a digital, paperless age, but would it be possible to add a print style sheet to the Copyblogger site? I often print your articles. Paper is much easier on the eyes and I enjoy highlighting and making notes on the paper. Unfortunately, the layout is a disaster when printed. A print version would be a great addition to the recent design changes at Copyblogger.

    • says

      Ty, there is a button below the author box and to the right of the social sharing icons. It says “Print.” That will give you the format you’re looking for. (And don’t feel bad, I didn’t realize it was there either.”

  17. says

    This reminds me a lot of Jordan Belford’s book on persuasion. Interesting article, and i agree with a lot of the tactics mentioned here.

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