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Let me tell you a story: the importance of narrative in copywriting

April 1, 2014 | By | 1 Reply More

For some strange reason, a lot of people seem to think the business world should be a grey, lifeless place that exists between 8.30am and 5pm (if you’re lucky).

People assume that you’re not allowed to be interesting, that you have to talk in facts, figures and graphs; the boring stuff, basically.

You only need to scroll through the average inbox these days to see so much copy that is dry and void of life, you must wonder if robots write it.

narrative copywriting

“Make sure your copy follows a narrative,”

It’s strange…

Because the fact is: in the most successful sales writing you’ll ALWAYS see an element of intrigue, an engaging narrative of some kind that makes you want to read on.

Of course, if you prefer you can forgo well-written copy and use flashy logos instead. Or you can try to associate your business with inspirational images. Maybe even come up with pithy brand strap-lines if you must.

But to be honest, all that stuff’s a bit arse.

Your message will be communicated so much more effectively if you stop concentrating on the special effects and focus your attention on integrating an engaging story into your copy.

Take a look at this example:

“Imagine yourself wearing a top hat and tails, on the balcony of a private rail car, the wind whistling past you as you sip the finest French champagne…

“It’s 1850; the railroad is growing like a vine towards the west. And, although you don’t know it yet, the same rail that you are riding on today will soon more than triple your wealth, making you and your family one of the great American dynasties…”

Good, isn’t it?

That’s that opening two paragraphs of one of the most successful sales letters ever written.

The promotion, known by its headline of ‘There’s a New Railroad Across America’, was – I believe – written by Porter Stansberry, a master at using stories to engage potential customers.

As you can see, it immediately establishes a narrative that the reader can engage with. It’s selling what might be considered a pretty dull financial product, but there’s nothing dull about the copy.

Here’s another example…

“You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees… amidst the splendour of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.



“The sky is blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.



“A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.

“For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven.



“But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle… as it would to stay in your own home!”

This legendary headline was actually used to launch International Living magazine.

Though it was written many years ago by copywriting master Bill Bonner, it’s still one of the most successful sales promotions for the magazine.

It’s a pretty idyllic scene, right?

And it puts you right in there. It’s your story, your window, your beautiful view.

Straight-off-the-bat you’re engaged and arrested by the image and you want to read on. 

It’s a great example.

Of course though, both examples – to varying degrees – place the reader in the story. And I would always encourage you to attempt to do the same, using a second person point of view.

But it’s not always necessary.

It is possible to engage your reader with an entirely third person narrative, as was done in a famous Wall Street Journal promotion…



“On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.

“Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.”



You’re not involved in this story, but it’s still engaging. 

Reading about the two young men who were so alike and are now meeting again 25 years later, you want to find out what’s happened, right?

And so you read on.

Naturally, these are just three examples – there are many more.

But three particular factors unite them, which put into practice will help you develop your own writing.

First, as evidenced in Bill Bonner’s great example, the story must be specific in detail



“…busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…”

It’s the little details that people recognise and relate to and real details like that bring the story to life.

Secondly, the story must naturally flow and relate to your message.

You can be inventive, but the underlying link must be valid.

Porter’s railroad story was all about era-defining developments that some people used to become rich. The sales letter continued along those lines, revealing the era-defining developments he believed were afoot in the modern world. The link was valid.

Finally, and most importantly…

You must throw the reader straight into the story.

As Aristotle wrote long before such a thing as a copywriter existed: you should always start in the middle of the story.

Sure, sometimes a little background might be necessary, but keep it to a minimum.

Remember, a little mystery can often be what’s so engaging about a story anyway…

After all, you have to read on to find out what happens.

Best,
Glenn

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Category: Emotionals

About the Author ()

Glenn Fisher is a professional copywriter, founder of AllGoodCopy.com and author of Write Better Copy. He is an expert in long copy sales letters, having written copy that has so far generated more than £10 million in revenue. Born in Grimsby, he now lives in London.

Comments (1)

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  1. Robert says:

    Just shared this on Twitter, thanks for sharing Glen. Great copy and well thought out website.

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