Updated: Jun 11
You've probably heard a lot about "storytelling" in advertising, especially when people talk about copywriting and content marketing. It seems like every marketer and entrepreneur identifies themselves as a "storyteller" right now. It's almost become a cliche.
So, what’s the big deal with stories anyway?
At the risk of sounding like a writer, I must tell you that a well-crafted story is the most powerful tool in your kit. If you want to capture people's hearts and minds, use a compelling narrative. It's actually the key to our success as a species.
Stories Made Us Who We Are
The defining feature of humans is our ability to cooperate in large numbers, even if those humans don’t know each other. Chimps won’t work with members of a different troupe to achieve a common goal, and the same is true of other primates. Except us.
How are we able to do this? By telling each other stories.
Mankind’s greatest achievements have all been the result of storytelling. It took about twenty years of back-breaking labor to build the Great Pyramid of Giza. Why did the Ancient Egyptians bother?
They believed their ruler was a living god.
They believed in the might of Egypt.
They believed in the value of the money they were paid.
These are all stories that carried emotional weight for the people involved.
(If you want to learn more about the Cognitive Revolution and how stories have shaped us as a species, I highly recommend Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.)
How Does This Apply to Copywriting
Copywriting is about getting people to take action. If you want someone to do something, you need to make them understand why it benefits them. To do that effectively, tell them a story they can connect with - a story where they are the hero, and your product or service helps them "slay the dragon".
Stories always begin when the main character is confronted with an external problem. When you write copy, you have to identify what your customer is struggling to do and explain how your product is going to help them.
Stories also have what writers and actors call a "character arc." This is film industry talk for, "how the character is changed by their experiences in the story." Your copy needs to include this as well - it's called the deep benefit. What emotional needs will your product or service satisfy?
Here’s an example of a tangible benefit versus a deep benefit:
Say a frozen food company has a line of microwavable vegetables targeting busy mothers. A tangible benefit would be the time Mom saves cooking dinner. The deep benefit is the emotional satisfaction she gets from feeding her children a healthy meal. It makes her feel like a good parent.
But how do you build all this into a story? Let’s take a look at the Hero’s Journey.
What’s the Hero’s Journey?
Way back in 1949, a professor of literature by the name of Joseph Campbell published a book called Hero With a Thousand Faces. The book was the culmination of all the research he had done comparing myths and stories from around the world. Through all this study, he was able to pick out a series of common threads that became the "steps" of the Hero's Journey.
There are twelve steps in the Hero’s Journey, but these are the ones you should focus on:
The Call to Adventure
This is where the trouble begins. Your main character (the customer), is confronted with a problem and has to take some sort of action to solve it.
This is the point in the story where your customer faces their problem but realizes they can’t solve it the way they thought. Something has to change. In copy, this is when you describe your customer’s issue in a way that resonates with them.
Seizing the Sword
The hero realizes what they need to do. In this case, the “sword” is your product or service.
Return With the Elixir
The hero returns home victorious. In copy, this is where you describe what life is like after your customer’s problems are solved.
One way to tell if you’re doing this right is by telling the story to yourself like this:
Once upon a time…
And every day…
Until one day...
And because of this…
And because of that...
And every day since…
If you can fill in those blanks, you have a complete narrative. You understand what's going on with your customer and how you fit into their "story." If you can't fill in one of those blanks, you need to put yourself in your buyer's shoes. Do more market research, interview people in your target audience, and create buyer personas based on your findings.
How Can This Works In Copy
Let’s take a look at some actual sales copy for a second and identify the steps of the Hero’s Journey:
Sabrina Philipp has an excellent sales page that really drives home what it means to tell a story with your copy. Let's go over the section where she talks about she got started. In this example, think of her as the "hero."
Call to Adventure - Sabrina moves to Bali and becomes a social media manager.
Ordeal - Sabrina realizes she has a lot to learn about managing an online business.
Seizing the Sword - Sabrina buckles down and begins her self-eduction in marketing and business.
Return With the Elixir - Sabrina uses her newfound knowledge to become a business coach. She’s featured in Forbes, Goalcast, and Business Insider.
It would easy for Sabrina to just rattle off a list of her accomplishments to establish her credibility. But, she doesn't do that. Instead, she describes her personal journey, the struggle she went through, and how she overcame it. It shows how she can help her clients in a compelling, meaningful way. This is how you marry story with the benefit to the reader.
If you go over Sabrina's entire sales page, you'll see the steps of the Hero's Journey multiple times. Now that you know what to look for try to find them. Look for other examples in social media ads, landing pages, and sales emails. Pay particular attention to the ads that work on you. Ask yourself why.
Tell Stories. Create Connections.
Mastering the art of storytelling can do more than save your copy. It can make you a more effective speaker and conversationalist. It can help you get grants and appeal to investors. It can help you get talented people on board with your project. It can move people to your way of thinking.
Remember, we don’t just tell stories to entertain. We tell them to create connections, accomplish great endeavors, and effect change. They are the foundation of our society and the fabric of culture around the world. They make us who we are. They make us human.