One of the best ways to sell is to use a narrative format, which is a fancy way of saying tell a story. Stories are engaging and enjoyable, so they don’t feel like a sales pitch.
Plus, if done well, a story will prompt prospects to convince themselves to take the action you want. This is because compared with more direct attempts at persuasion, well-crafted stories allow readers to draw the conclusion you want on their own, and people rarely second-guess their own conclusions.
There are many types of selling stories. Here are a few examples:
- Retelling a news story that naturally supports your sales positioning.
- Telling a personal story of overcoming an obstacle that your prospects face.
- Using a historical anecdote to create an analogy to current market circumstances.
- Sharing a customer success story in the form of a case study.
Sticking with the fourth example, one of the best ways to craft an engaging case study is with a hero story. A hero story is a narrative where one of your customers or clients is featured as solving a problem, and your solution is the crucial supporting character (you may want to read my article on hero stories before proceeding with this one).
When I wrote that article on hero stories a little over a year ago, many people asked for an example of how to create one. Better late than never, here’s a step-by-step guide to writing a hero story that sells.
1. Just the Facts, Ma’am
The first step is to collect the elements of the story you want to tell. Who is the main character (hero) and what happened? Put your storyline together before you begin to write, so you’ll have a roadmap that will keep you on track.
For this example, we’re going to tell the story of Michelle, an in-house marketing specialist for a small real estate brokerage. The firm brochure-ware website has turned out to be an expensive albatross with no measurable impact on sales, and it’s Michelle’s job to fix that.
This is just something I’m spinning out off the top of my head as a guide. I’m sure you’ll do better.
2. Nail the Headline
As with any other piece of writing you want people to actually read, the headline is critical. You can usually focus on revealing how certain results were obtained as the beneficial promise to the prospective reader.
How One Smart Online Marketing Move Made an Extra $116,321 for This Small Business
3. Set the Stage
You know how important it is to open strong and hold the reader’s attention. Your opening also sets the stage for rest of the story, so try starting in the middle of the action to accomplish both goals at once.
“This website is a complete fiasco,” the boss bellowed as Michelle tried to disappear into the bottom of her seat. It had been Michelle’s job to head up the website effort for Bain Real Estate Brokerage, and things had not gone well.
The bottom line by the time the boss stomped out of the conference room was simple. A measurable return on investment from the site within 3 months, or it was gone (presumably Michelle with it).
4. Is This the Solution?
A possible solution appears, but is it the right one? Will it solve the problem? If your hero tried other solutions before yours, feel free it throw in a red herring in order to increase dramatic effect.
After wracking her brain and searching the web for ideas, Michelle stumbled upon a copywriting consultant named James Simone who specialized in real estate marketing. He told her the entire site needed to be re-done. Michelle knew she couldn’t go back with that answer, so she pleaded for alternatives. James said he though he could work up a first step that would get the site generating solid, trackable leads for the firm, and from there the other necessary changes could be made over time.
5. Tension Builds
Make sure you build tension even after the hero adopts your solution. Everyone is apprehensive before something actually works and solves the problem, and acknowledging this in your case study adds credibility and enhances the emotional payoff.
James proposed creating landing pages that promote opt-in tutorials for both buyers and sellers. Each page of the site will drive traffic to the landing pages, and the opt-in allows the firm to communicate with buyers and sellers over time, which should boost business. Michelle thought this sounded like a good strategy, but she was terribly anxious. What if it didn’t work? There wouldn’t be enough time to try anything else.
6. Climax Relieves
It worked! The hero resolves the problem thanks to the major benefit provided by your solution.
After three months, the opt-in tutorials were directly responsible for two new selling clients and five new buyers, including one wealthy relocation that would bring in at least $30,000 in commissions. Plus, new leads were coming in each and every day. The boss grumbled something along the lines of “Keep it up,” and Michelle breathed a huge sigh of relief.
7. Happy Ending
Don’t forget to touch on the ongoing benefits and positive changes that the hero enjoyed going forward. It’s ok to leave most of this to the reader’s imagination, as long as you close the story by pointing the reader in the right direction.
By the time the firm Christmas party rolled around, that single change to the website had generated $116,321 in money in the bank. She thought the boss even smiled a bit near the tree, but it may have been the eggnog. Michelle now had authorization to revamp the entire website with James Simone’s help, but she was starting to see the power of online marketing done right. Who knows where next Christmas might find her?
8. Call to Action
If the reader relates to your hero, then that reader may be imagining herself as the potential hero who solves her own problem with your solution as well. The connotation of the story did the selling, but you must expressly ask for the next action—to call, email, opt-in for more information, etc.
Contact James Simone today at 555-1234 to see if he can boost your bottom line by six figures, too.
You’ll notice that the entire story is written in the third person. This helps you focus the story on the hero and the results, and resist the temptation to brag about yourself. Choose a relatable hero and tell a compelling story, and you can let the connotation do the selling for you.
About the Author: Brian Clark is the founding editor of Copyblogger, and co-founder of DIY Themes and Lateral Action. Get more from Brian on Twitter.
Reader Comments (80)
Steve Olson says
Brian, thanks for the tips. I got into blogging to tell stories and I haven’t been doing that as much lately. The stories I told when I started, got the blog off to huge start. But storytelling must be simple and understandable, nothing complex like fiction. And it has to have a payoff for the reader if you want them to stay and subscribe. This post is a good reminder to get back to the basics, thanks. Best wishes on all your endeavors.
Brian, nice story and a strong call to action. I always used to wonder how people come up with stories so easily. Now I understand how easy it is. The main thing is that the elements should be in place and our copy should have some emotional effect on the buyer right?
One question: When copywriting for others, do you come up with your own story or ask the product owner for a story and you develop it?
Thanks for the good article
Brian Clark says
Ramkarthik, the story should be the client’s if it’s a case story. The copywriter just figures out how to tell it well.
If a client has no customer success stories (maybe its a brand new business) than you would look for other sources, such as news or historical anecdotes that allow you to create a compelling story that supports the goals of the business.
Brian, thanks for reply. I have been freelance writing but have never written a copy before. I have just started to learn copywriting. I’m also in the process of creating a swipe file which has examples for every element of a sales copy like headline, opening lines, bullets etc. And for story, I’ll add this to my swipe file.
Sheryl Schuff, CPA says
Exactly what I needed to hear today!
I’m working on a step-by-step course on how to start your own home-based business and some hero stories about folks who have done just that in “bad” economic times might be the best way to get my message across.
If you or any of your readers have a story to share, please let me know.
Thanks again for all you do to help others in the blogosphere.
Steve DeVane says
Excellent post. Great step-by-step guidelines.
People love to read good stories. Writing good narratives is one of the most important skills one can learn. It’s interesting to note that even some journalists are now favoring the narrative format as opposed to the old “inverted pyramid” which listed details in descending order of importance.
FINALLY an article about effective story telling that actually shows examples, thank you!
James Chartrand - Men with Pens says
James Simone… hehehe
I wonder what website copy would look like using this technique, come to think of it. Hm, hm…!
Bryan Eye says
Brian, you just gave me an idea about how to adapt http://www.Scripdr.com, an online app I’m incubating, to help bloggers template out a narrative post… hmm. I’ll have to play around with that thought.
Thanks for this great post. What a great approach you’ve suggested.
Great article Brian. Good storytelling always keeps a reader engaged whether its a potential customer or just a friend.
Casey Hibbard says
Thanks for the excellent example of how to apply the hero-story concept to a customer story. There are a number of companies out there that make storytelling the very foundation of ALL their sales, marketing and PR communications and it’s been extremely successful for them – eHarmony.com, Kiva.org, Sage Software (sage360.com), etc. The key is using those stories everywhere you can once captured – in written, electronic and verbal communications.
This is great advice. I always enjoy reading copy that is more of a personal story rather than a sales pitch. Even with magazine articles, for instance, it’s easier to relate to if you put your message in the context of a person’s story. Awesome post!
Hosting Reviews says
Nailing the headline is a big one. It’s often the first thing your visitors will see and one of the only things they may take away from reading your article.
Great step-by-step bit, but difficult to apply, I suspect. I must break some habits!
I’ll try it tomorrow.
Ryan McLean says
These are some great tips. I like that you linked story telling to selling. Very interesting.
I am about to launch an ebook on how to make money commenting in the nexy week and I will definately use these tips to do that effectively. Thanks
I’ve been struggling in my head with how to create a story that sells for months upon months now, and have been at a loss on how to do it.
It was only with this play by play breakdown that the ideas are really starting to flow.
Thanks for the carefully done analysis, and hope to see more such breakdowns, both here and elsewhere.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to you and others who are familiar with these stories & their elements, but great examples like this with microscopic analysis really help connect the dots for those who don’t quite get it (yet).
Evelyn Lim says
Wow…this is incredible advice. I love to narrate stories on my site. You’ve just provided some useful tips to make them more compelling! Thanks!
Nice post. Sometimes it seems we try to think through things too much instead of just telling the story.
It’s like telling a story of seeing the latest box office hit or a great vacation you just got back from. We just tell the story rather than being overly analytical.
Mark Eckenrode | HomeStomper says
lovely thing about stories is that the reader tends to read themselves into roles in the story…
of course, the story leads them to the conclusion that all will end well if they take the described course of action. therefore, if it helped Michelle, it’ll help me too.
nice outline, brian. much helpful for laying it all out.
Tom Egly says
As to the amount of copy to be written, I think David Ogilvy would disagree. Have you read any of his books?
It’s amazing what was written 40 years ago is still important today.
Hi, I find it hard to write constantly while keeping in mind everything about SEO optimizing and at the same time trying to keep the articles readible. I love this article but I’m unsure on whether I can apply it in the short time. Still, it’s a good one and thank you for sharing your idea.
Jeff Przybylski says
Great advice as usual, but I’d like to add the fact that you should also be careful not to begin every story with, “Once upon a time” or to end with “and they all lived happily ever after.”
Graham Strong says
What is referred to as “the greatest sales letter of all time” is actually a story in its own right. I’m sure you heard of it — the Wall Street Journal comparing the lives of two business people, one who subscribed and one who didn’t.
(Actually, just found out you DO know about it, and blogged about it here: Wall Street Journal Letter)
Not to take away from your example, by any means. But this is the first thing that popped into my mind when I started reading this post, and is a great example of your point.
Graham Strong says
Hmm, that link didn’t seem to take. Here it is to cut and paste:
This blog is very educational. Thanks for taking the time to writing this post. As a blogger that has just began his own blog this post will help me along the way.
Christopher Ross says
With the money market and the housing market in chaos, web bloggers have an interesting opportunity to help a lot of people build their online businesses through effective communication, I think your article here is a perfect example of how to help people write better stories on their sites to increase readers.
Nancy Sustersic says
Hi Brian, You are so AWESOME! Thanks for the wonderful posting on writing a story.
I’m going to use it to do a format guideline for a 15 minute presentation that’ I’ve been working on for a “Women in Wellness” event in Jan.. So your timing was perfect!
Happy New Year!
Writing FAST says
This is quite possibly the best article I’ve seen on the Copyblogger site. And that’s saying something, because I think this site is generally exceptional.
Also a great reminder to create links to past articles throughout one’s site. 🙂
Excellent post. Great step-by-step guidelines.
Liane YoungBlogger says
Well done Brian! I learned a lot in this article (which I found thanks to Maki of DoshDosh). Brilliant! 😉
good work Brian, the tips have been helpful for my assignment.
thanxs alot and nice to have people like you who guide us to our dreams
Liked this a lot. We used the HERO approach in a very successful comedic strip for a supposedly “boring” topic. We got a write up on BNET, and lot of customer interest and distribution.
great story writing article… with examples, even better. I’ve been trying like crazy to improve my writings and I see a couple of things you’ve mentioned here that could help.
marc tarragona says
Thanks for the examples, it’s easier to write a story this way.
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