How to Write Weapons-Grade Copy

image of military tankYou might not think that DARPA (the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) would be very concerned about writing copy.

These are the folks who helped invent computer networking, Predator drones, and Iron Man-like military exoskeletons.

But in fact, DARPA is investing in one particular kind of wordsmithing: stories.

Why is storytelling, one of the oldest human activities, of such interest to DARPA, an agency dealing in technology so advanced that it often sounds like science fiction?

That stories have remained a part of human behavior for so long is exactly what interests DARPA. One of their project descriptions recently led to a request for proposal that says,

Narratives exert a powerful influence on human thoughts and behavior. They consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, influence in-group/out-group distinctions, and may affect the fundamental contents of personal identity.

Story power

In my new book Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing, I describe how stories wield an amazing power on human attention.

Scientists believe that we are hard-wired to pay attention to stories. In our hunter-gatherer days, we gained a huge evolutionary advantage when we developed the ability to communicate information with descriptive stories.

Most animals rely on experience or direct observation to learn; a mother bear can’t tell her cub not to eat the red berries if he goes into the meadow. But humans can give each other detailed narratives about food, danger, and opportunities. It’s not surprising that evolution favored those who could effectively use this form of communication.

Stories engage our brains. One experiment found that stories that described vivid action lit up the same areas of a reader’s brain as those in a person performing that action. (See Your Brain on Stories.)

In other words, read about a carpenter pounding a nail and your brain will light up as if you were actually swinging a hammer.

Another experiment used spoken stories. The scientists monitored the brain activity of both a person telling a story and an attentive listener. To their surprise, they found that the two brains began to synchronize, with the listener’s activity mirroring that of the storyteller.

All this research tells us what persuasive writers have long known. If you want to connect with your audience, whether your copy will be read or listened to, you should incorporate a story.

Instead of providing a list of facts and statistics showing how much money your product can save, tell the first-hand story of a customer who used your product to save money and get promoted.

What makes a good marketing story?

When you are writing a story for a web or print ad, you need a different approach than if you are writing a novel or even a short story.

You’ve got a limited amount of both space and reader attention to work with, so you have to accomplish a lot in a few words. A novelist can take many pages to establish a character, but you have to do it in a few words. You can’t spend a lot of time setting up a situation or conflict, either.

Here’s are some ways to get around those limitations:

  • Use characters and problems already familiar to the reader. Roles like demanding customers, fussy kids, or impatient bosses don’t need a lot of description. They can convey a lot of information in a succinct way.
  • Be specific. The protagonist of the story should be much like the targeted buyer. Just as a smart missile homes in on a specific target, you need to shape your story to persuade a well-defined customer.
  • Use vivid language. Vague descriptions and passive verbs are your enemy. Use vivid descriptors and active verbs to engage your reader or listener.
  • Set up the conflict, crisis, or threat. If you’ve ever been disappointed by a book or movie where “not much happened,” it’s because most engaging narratives feature an important conflict or threat. Whether it’s James Bond saving the planet from annihilation, or merely a plucky mail room clerk overcoming a domineering boss for career success, conflicts and threats in a story keep us interested.
  • Make your customer the hero. In engaging stories, the hero resolves the issue despite difficult obstacles and long odds. In the best marketing stories, the product is the “weapon” used by the real hero — your customer. If your customer can project himself into the story and imagine using your product to achieve similar success, your story is a winner.

Stories have a deep emotional impact and can actually change our thinking.

If DARPA, sometimes described as “100 geniuses connected by a travel agent,” wants to use stories to change opinions and behaviors, shouldn’t marketers consider tapping into their power, too?

About the Author: Roger Dooley is a marketing speaker, author of Brainfluence, and publisher of the blog Neuromarketing. He is the founder of Dooley Direct, a marketing consultancy, and co-founded College Confidential, the leading college-bound website. On Twitter, he can be reached at @rogerdooley.

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  1. Long time fan of your blog Roger, glad to see you here on Copyblogger.

    I love the use of characters that you described, I get that by using an archetype you can say a lot in a relatively small space.

  2. I might be a fool asking this, but how can we apply storytelling for a service?

    • Not really different than a product, Randy. Tell how a customer achieved some kind of success with your service, or was shocked by the low cost (or speedy work), etc. The website AngiesList has a TV commercial they repeated a million times (to the point of being channel-switching annoying) about a plumber who took the customer’s dog for a potty break when the customer couldn’t get home in time. (That might have been even better for the plumber, vs. a website that helps you find plumbers.)

  3. Good one Roger. Re: your point about vivid language. There are some interesting ideas from NLP that can be applied to storytelling too, such as ensuring that you cover different sensory experience. The idea is that different people respond better to different sensory language – some are visual, some are auditory, others are kinesthetic (touch). Your language should reflect that by using language appropriate to each sense, both literally (hard, soft, bright, dark, loud, quiet) and metaphorically (SPARKLING prose, a WEIGHTY subject, conversational TONE).

  4. Great post. I did a radio campaign years ago for a natural gas utility, using customer testimonials. It was as basic as it could be: sit folks in front of a microphone and ask them to tell their story. They said the most amazing things – much better than anything I could have written. My work was in editing them into 60-second commercials. The campaign lasted 7 years, with 263 commercials. Stories are powerful. As a writer, I take great comfort in that! The economy may force industry to reshape products and processes, but we will always need stories.

    • David, I’m sure the fact that the people were real customers, not actors, increased the effectiveness of the campaign. A story that seems invented is never as impactful, IMO.

      • Leanne Parshalle :

        What is equally interesting is that the most important voice of the consumer is already changing things over night. For instance, the recent ad campaign featuring J Lopez for Kohls briefly had a spot that was over the top with studio back-lot dancers and actors. It reminded one instantly of the TV version of “Fame”. A later spot showed polished urban streets, and a bit of documentary-style, yet it still seemed off and staged. Next came a variety of media articles about the negative word-of-mouth and viral comments that consumers were noting about the ads. The campaign was using other states as locations for New York neighborhoods, and actors. The members of the real community in New York felt as if they were being mocked. That is powerful.

    • Awesome example, David, thank you.

    • Leanne Parshalle :

      Thanks for your story David. Great advice as well.

  5. Great post! I should learn more about the ability to use stories within my own writing!

  6. I luv storytelling but here’s what I don’t understand: everyone talks about storytelling in marketing, and how powerful it is, but I don’t know anyone who actually uses storytelling on their sales copy/landing page.

    I always see the AIDA model, and the infamous bullet list ( This course will show you how to – bullet point – bullet point – etc.)

    Who actually successfully incorporates the storytelling model in their copy ?

    • Mars, I think testimonials can take the form of stories. And money-making infomercials are often stories wrapped within stories – a core success story that incorporate some mini-stories.

      Roger

    • Mars, have you ever read my Teaching Sells report? I weave stories throughout, and it qualifies as copy. That’s because it’s the beginning point of a launch sequence that acts as a sideways sales letter.

      Remember, with content marketing, the offer is usually all that’s left for a traditional sales page. The story has been told on the way there.

    • You also may not always recognize it as marketing — storytelling tends to make advertising look less like advertising.

  7. Mars – I think you see the storytelling model at work anytime you see someone develop a character who has a problem and then goes on to find the solution through the product that’s being pitched. It might not be storytelling in the conventional sense (like how I picture a group of kids sitting down in a circle listening to fairy tales), but it conveys the information in a way that’s closer to a story than strictly telling someone the features and benefits of a product.

    Just my thoughts, though – I can see how storytelling principles could be incorporated really successfully into various aspects of the copywriting process without existing solely as a narrative.

  8. Highly detailed and analytical,I appreciate the fact that you took time to explain in plain terms what readers expect from bloggers,bottom line is when people pick up a make believe story to read,they know its make believe but the attraction is when they are done and thier subconcious mind tells them its actually a true life story,when and only when you can achieve this aim,can u be cakked a highly successful blogger/writer.I already have goose thinkin about the exciting sense of fufilment and accomplishment it gives,Thanks for this post.

  9. Great post Roger!
    You make it simple, stories are just more interesting than intellectual fluff.
    Thanks,
    AJ

    • I guess I should have figured out how to turn the post into a story, AJ… “The eggheads at DARPA were stymied… how could they improve the effectiveness of communication in multiple cultures? They slumped around the conference table, occasionally refilling mugs from a restaurant-grade Bunn coffee-maker. A whiteboard at the head of the table, despite an impressive array of colored markers, was depressingly empty. Finally Dr. Cupcake, a physicist from Caltech known for his best-selling book of erotic poetry, leaped to his feet and said, ‘I’ve got it! Stories…”

  10. I didn’t know that DARPA were interested in stories, but you’re right, it makes sense. I’ve always been intrigued by the way that communicating via stories seems to ‘fly under the radar’ in a way that giving a list of facts and figures doesn’t. I’ve often found that by telling stories when I’m selling face to face, I get far fewer objections.

    I think some of the best exponents of storytelling in a short space are cartoonists. Although they have an advantage over writers in that they can use pictures AND words, the good ones can achieve a lot in 3 panels.

  11. Well, I know what I am going to be doing today, crafting a story about my product. Thank you for another great article. Shedding some much needed light on the mystery of great copy writing. Bless you, Roger!

  12. Roger, your “Dr. Cupcake” is actually a very serious fellow named Dr. William D. Casebeer (yes, that’s his real name) and he’s absolutely someone not to dismiss lightly. He’s a Lt. Colonel, US Air Force Intelligence and really knows his stuff. Google him.

    Am I the only one who finds it more than al bit disconcerting that DARPA is actively researching the neuroinfluence of narrative? Consider the ramifications. That’s the real story here.

    • If I used his real name, they’d have to kill me, Linda. ;)

      I think DARPA has a lot more scary stuff going on than stories… And propaganda has been around a lot longer than neuroscience.

    • Linda, if DARPA can use storytelling to change local minds and behavior (say, to make terrorism less attractive) without resorting to a full military solution, isn’t that a good thing?

      • Yes, Sonia – that is of course the best case scenario. Worst case, mind control. As Roger mentions, propaganda has been around a lot longer than neuroscience, but it’s propaganda PLUS neuroscience that gives me pause. As a hypnotherapist I often use the power of story to create changes in my clients’ neurology. The key difference is that it’s done in alignment with their goals (not mine) and with the their consent.

        To bring this all back to copywriting, it feels like a healthy practice to regularly revisit the thin line between marketing and manipulation. I’m not against using influence – especially to help people make good choices – but every tool can be used to help or harm.

  13. Makes me think about the Mark Twain quote, “A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.” Now, we’ve gone beyond character and know that brain waves can be affected, even synchronized, by the stories we tell and listen to. Excellent piece, Roger.

    PS I’ve been getting a lot out of Brainfluence.

  14. Great post Roger!
    As an ex-military guy, I appreciate the comparison of training military personnel with marketing to customers. Influence is influence. What works somewhere can often work anywhere.

    P.S. I went straight to my home page and added a few more vivid descriptions after reading the part about a carpenter pounding nails. That ‘nailed’ it for me. ;)

  15. Hi Roger, nice article. I am a public speaker. In fact, I delivered a public address yesterday. I understand the importance of utilizing illustrations in my delivery, but for some reason I have never incorporated this tool into my writing.
    I am so excited about this concept..

  16. Another thought. A friend of mine told me that his teen aged daughter told him an illustration she heard during Bible study. Therein lies the REAL benefit of stories and illustrations. They make the information we hear and read more memorable.

    • To echo your religious theme, if you’ve ever had to sit through sermons in church, you’ve seen how the speaker can engage you by recounting a personal story, and put you to sleep by lecturing about expected behavior, theological arguments, etc. It seems like Sermonizing 101 would put a strong emphasis on narratives, but it’s a point that many miss.

  17. Stories are great to use in general corporate communications beyond selling. I was working with a company that makes candy and gum, and they wanted to demonstrate their commitment to safety and quality, which is a huge issue in the food industry. But instead of highlighting their many processes and procedures, we put their people out front, telling stories. This one line worker showed us the code on the bottom of the gum package, explaining that it shows where the gum was made.

    She said her kids can read the code and when they go to the store they run to the candy aisle, turn over the packages of gum, and tell everyone around that their mom made that gum. Much more compelling than facts and figures, this story showed that you could count on this company for quality — it’s good enough for your family because she’s there every day making sure it’s good enough for hers.

    A company’s customers, employees and other stakeholders represent a vast, often untapped source of great characters and stories just waiting to be told.

  18. As a television news correspondent, I always tried to tell stories that used narratives wrapped around a protagonist or antagonist–for example the little guy fighting city hall. My most engaging stories featured people or animals as the vehicles for telling the story. During my stint embedded with the lead elements of the U.S. Army during the invasion of Iraq, the stories that hooked viewers were those that personally conveyed the feelings of soldiers in the midst of battle, not their hardware. I reported on a homeland security air patrol in the wake of 911. The story could have simply focused on the aircraft and mission. We told it through the eyes of the airmen responsible for the mission. Here’s a link: http://bit.ly/RobertRiggsPost9-11AirDefensePatrol
    I believe the same storytelling principals apply to videos about products and services. Put a human face on the story.

  19. Great stuff.

    I believe stories are also an excellent way to teach. Since you create a context in which the listener can see themselves in and learn from.

    Theories are good and all. But combined with a story which explains or shows the theories in action – can make a profound impact.

  20. Good,Interesting

  21. Hi, Robert, thanks for stopping by. Stories about people, particularly those that involve emotions, are certainly the most compelling. Cool video!

  22. Roger:

    I’m a little surprised to find that no one referenced Walter Fischer (late of USC), whose Theory of Narratology has been around for years. Outside of Malinowski, Geertz, and some others (Levi-Strauss, etc), Fischer has done more to advance the idea that the telling or CRAFTING of stories is something that’s both natural and highly salient. He calls humanity “Man, the Narrator.” The others may differ in terms of nomenclature and structure (except the structuralist, Levi-Strauss), but it bears our remembering that whether myth, legend, story, or meme, all of these little chunklets of memorable themes fit in with the architecture of our brains, which is probably why they’re so vivid, and impactful, anyway. Which reminds me of a story. . . .

  23. James, thanks for the suggestion. Both scientists and marketers have recognized the benefits of stories for years, but all too many marketers forget their power to engage the brain and instead focus on (comparatively) boring product data.

  24. There is no doubt that stories have a deep emotional impact and can actually change thinking. This can be achieved in a systematic way by consistently interacting with the audience and with presenting evidence after evidence till they believe. Only a master storyteller can achieve that.

  25. Another great post! In most cases, unless the speaker is using stories, I phase out fast. This is a great blog.

    Thanks!