5 Storytelling Tips for Compelling Business Writing

Business Letter with Storytelling by John Caples

One of the most famous sales letters in history makes excellent use of storytelling. (Click to enlarge)

We don’t normally think of business writing and the art of narrative storytelling as having much in common. It doesn’t seem likely, after all, that the person writing a corporate brochure or promotional flyer is also the author of your favorite adventure novel. But at the same time, which of those things are you most likely to actually want to read?

One of the most famous examples of direct mail marketing – a sales letter written by John Caples in 1926 for the United States School of Music – was structured around one single, compelling story. It’s summarized nicely in the headline: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play…” Even this simple story synopsis gives the reader a clear, vivid image. It also illustrates a benefit of music lessons that you might not immediately expect: social acceptance from peers. This ad was so successful and prolific that it spawned generations of imitators; today, it’s practically the model for most effective sales letters.

It’s no secret that people enjoy reading a story more than they like reading an academic lecture or a laundry list of the features of your brand. It’s the same reason that events like the TED conferences are so popular; they use stories to present complex ideas in a way that’s easy to understand and digest. For this reason, marketing writers will often lead with a story that grabs their audience’s interest and highlights the benefits of whatever it is they’re promoting.

Storytelling has a flexible definition when it comes to marketing; it’s a useful strategy whether you’re working with written, visual, or oral communications. Storytelling techniques can help to revitalize your corporate writing and pull in an audience that might otherwise lack interest. But as any accomplished author will tell you, telling a good story isn’t always easy. We’ve assembled some tips to help you out.

  1. Use a narrative arc

    Every compelling story has one thing in common: structure. Setup, conflict, resolution – this three-act structure is the staple of any effective narrative arc. You can find it in your favorite movies, books, and television shows… but you can also find it in many business communications.

    Even our sales letter example from earlier uses a three-act structure. Caples introduces the setup by establishing characters: Jack and his friends. He then establishes a conflict: the protagonist is dismissed and laughed at by those around him. Finally, he presents a resolution: our hero Jack surprises everyone with the musical talents he learned from the U.S. School of Music, gaining acceptance and adulation from his peers.

    When using storytelling as part of your marketing copy, make sure to utilize a writing structure that supports it, preferably one comparable to a narrative arc. The indirect “AIDA” approach will likely serve you best here; begin by establishing an identifiable problem, then present a solution (your product or service).

  2. Write with purpose

    Stories can be entertaining to read, but when used as part of a business strategy, your goal is likely to do more than just entertain; it’s to convince your audience to take action.

    Book-Themed Cake - Example of Good Business Storytelling

    Storytelling is only useful when the story demonstrates the benefits of your product or service–for example, a story about worried customers who found the perfect book-shaped cake for their theme wedding. Photo Credit: Flickr user ‘skpy’

    The story in our original example works because it only includes the most relevant points: “My friends were dismissive of me, but then I impressed them with my musical ability. Here’s how you can impress your friends, too.” If the story had included extraneous details (such as the fact that Jack was recently engaged, an extensive backstory about the purpose of the social gathering, or an unrelated tangent about one of the guests), it might not have had the same impact.

    As such, make sure the story you tell and the points you include are relevant to your ultimate purpose. A funny anecdote about an unusual customer at your cake shop might be interesting to read, but unless it also encourages people to visit your shop, there’s not much point in including it in your marketing. A story about a frustrated couple who finally found the perfect cake for their literature-themed wedding, on the other hand, presents a clear, unique benefit and actively works to promote the product.

  3. Maintain your voice

    If you’ve ever browsed a J. Peterman catalog or looked at their website, you’re aware they they use very distinctive and unusual storytelling to market their products–stories about exotic locales with colorful imagery described in rich, ponderous detail. It might seem like a risky move, but it works for them because it’s a part of the corporate voice that they’ve spent years establishing for themselves. It’s a voice that’s instantly recognizable, even in the “J. Peterman” character portrayed on Seinfeld.

    Using the same sort of techniques isn’t a good idea for every business. In fact, the flowery, grandiose language found in J. Peterman’s marketing is generally more likely to alienate your audience than attract them, especially if you’ve made a habit of implementing a more accessible, conversational tone. The most important thing is consistency; once you’ve established a voice to tell your story in, do your best to stick to it.

  4. Endorsements aren’t always enough

    We’ve previously talked about using customer testimonials in your advertising, and it’s a strategy that often intersects with corporate storytelling. Most testimonials, after all, are also stories–a customer describes a problem they were having and how the product or service in question was able to help them.

    There’s a difference, however, between a full testimonial and a brief endorsement. “I would definitely buy from this company again” is technically an endorsement, but there’s no story; it tells us nothing about what the company was actually able to do for the customer or the problem they helped solve. It’s not as compelling as a more narrative-like testimonial that provides us with more details.

    Not every testimonial will work in a story format, and you can’t always rely on direct quotations from your customers–especially if they lack the desired storytelling skills. You may need to paraphrase their endorsement in your own words, but keep our guidelines for using testimonials in mind: make it clear that you (not your customer) are the one telling the story.

  5. Keep it authentic

    Charles Atlas Marketing Example

    This famous ad for Charles Atlas’s fitness program works because it’s authentic and easy to identify with. (Click to enlarge)

    Charles Atlas’s famous print ads for his fitness program appeared in many comic books throughout the 1940s. Even if you’re not from that era, you probably recognize the story: a 97-pound weakling gets sand kicked in his face by a bully, so he orders Atlas’s program, becomes more muscular and gets his revenge.

    This story is easy to identify with because of its authenticity. Atlas spoke from personal experience; according to him, he truly was a “97-pound weakling” at one point and was tormented by bullies. What’s more, his story easily resonates with anyone who’s dealt with a bully or felt unsatisfied about they way they look (and who among us hasn’t?).

    The best kind of business storytelling is the kind your audience can trust. Creativity is important, but even more important is making sure your marketing is honest and believable. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a story that did happen (unless you’re expressly claiming that it did), but it should at least be a story that reasonably could happen based on the reality of your products and customers. It’s tempting to embellish the truth, but you’ll get a lot more benefit out of using a story that both you and your audience will believe in.

Conclusion

Business pundit Frank Luntz once said, “So often corporate America, business America, are the worst communicators, because all they understand are facts, and they cannot tell a story. They know how to explain their quarterly results, but they don’t know how to explain what they mean.”

Stories creates direction. They allow us to turn raw, formless data into a format that captivates, persuades and influences people. With the right story (and by implementing proper storytelling techniques), you can give any marketing dilemma a happy ending.

Did you find this post helpful? Got any interesting tips for effective business storytelling? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

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5 Storytelling Tips for Compelling Business Writing

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Posted in Copywriting

2 Responses to “5 Storytelling Tips for Compelling Business Writing”

  • You’ve made some useful points.
    Thank you!!

    - Dorothy Morris (copywriter)

  • Iris says:

    I must confess. This is the first time I’ve heard of story- telling as an approach in business-writing and I’m sure it does work. I believe in out-of-the-box thinking . and if it’s done in a way that’s relevant to the issue at hand, then it cannot but work to your advantage.


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