Ad and marketing creatives

Your Marketing Story: Seven Steps to 'Happily Ever After'

You already know that stories are the foundation of comic books, novels, biographies, and screenplays. Here's what may not seem so obvious: the principles of storytelling are equally as important in successful business communications.

Stories transform facts into arguments. They turn ideas into calls to action. They create suspense... and resolve it. They tap into the deep wells of our collective imagination.

As Canadian journalist and critic Robert Fulford puts it in The Triumph of Narrative, "Stories are the building blocks of human thought; they are the way the brain organizes itself." Yet when it's time to write informational copy -- web sites, brochures, sales sheets, speeches -- people in business and organizations often forget or ignore the power of stories. Instead, they recite lists of facts (also known as "product features"), begin every sentence with "I" or "we" (also known as "the networking introduction"), or reduces narrative to a series of bullet points (also known as "the PowerPoint un-story").

If you'd like to give your business stories a happy ending, here are seven ways to start:

  1. It's all about you. The second person is the first person you need to consider when you're crafting your story. Talk directly to your customers or users and they'll pay attention. Talk about "us" -- our features, our services, our fifty years of matchless experience -- and they'll turn the page or click to another site.
  2. Find your personality. If your product were a dog, would it be a St. Bernard, a Labrador, or a poodle? If your company were a person, would it be male or female, young or old, sophisticated or just-folks? And what about your customers -- where do they shop, what do they read, how do they vote in national elections? Your company, your brand, your products, and your customers have personalities and voices. Effective marketing copy distills the personality and projects the voice. Reading it, your customer believes she's being addressed by a real person who understands her life.
  3. Stop clearing your throat. Great stories hook you with the first sentence: "Call me Ishmael." "Scarlett O'Hara wasn't beautiful, but men seldom realized it..." By contrast, a lot of marketing copy reads as though the writer is revving the engine and going nowhere. Your opening paragraph or home page needs to be instantly compelling. Try these techniques for openers:

    • A question: "Where Do You Want to Go Today?"
    • A short, punchy sentence: "Just Do It."
    • Three powerful verbs: "Eat. Drink. Be Merry."
    • A multiple-choice quiz. Cosmopolitan magazine has been enticing readers for decades with this device.
  4. Cancel the clichés. Jettison the jargon. A cliché is a metaphor that's outlived its expiration date. Jargon is a cliché in work clothes -- the industry lingo that marks you as a member of the inner circle and leaves non-insiders scratching their heads. Both weaken your story. If you can't create an original metaphor, go with straightforward, simple language instead.
  5. Enlist nouns and verbs. Imagine Winston Churchill's most famous speech if he'd said "bright red blood, backbreaking toil, flowing tears, and damp sweat" instead of the more dramatic "blood, toil, tears, and sweat." Your message gets its juice from words of action and essence: verbs and nouns. Use adjectives and adverbs the way you'd use expensive perfume: sparingly.
  6. Make every word count. Have you said it before? You probably don't need to repeat it. Can words be removed without robbing your story of its meaning? Use the delete key. On the other hand, less isn't always more. Long copy can be riveting -- and effective -- if every word pays its way. The ongoing ad campaign for the Mini Cooper automobile -- copy-dense blocks of well-crafted text that end with the rallying cry "Let's motor" -- is an excellent example of highly readable long-form copy that tells an engaging story.
  7. Tell the story! When you find your story, keep exploring it. Every communication -- from your corporate name to your mission statement, from ads to annual reports, from Web content to conference keynote -- is an opportunity to broaden and deepen your story. Take the time to create your story, develop it, and polish it. Then tell it as often as you can. We want to hear it!

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.