The Art of Storytelling: How to Tell Stories That Actually Convert Customers

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By now, companies and brands should be aware of the pressure to tell great stories – not every new startup is going to get the publicity like a Snapchat.

In the real world of business, you can’t simply sell a product or advertise anymore.

“This pen isn’t just an ordinary pen. It’s the same exact pen that George RR Martin used to write the first three books of the Game of Thrones. I also heard that Abraham Lincoln used this pen to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. This pen freed slaves. Just imagine all the wonderful things you could do with this pen… Not only is this pen a significant part of history and current pop culture, it’s valued at $499, but if you purchase it today I’ll give it to you for only 3 easy payments of $29.”

Now that’s a pretty sweet pen. And what a deal! I don’t even want that pen. I need that pen.

All jokes aside, now a days you have to rethink your approach to reaching your customers and use storytelling techniques to get customers.

Not all of us are born storytellers, even if we are in charge of blog and social media content. While you may not tell stories like Scheherezade, there are a few techniques you can use in creating story-like content that are more likely to turn your reader into a customer.

The Basics Of A Story

If anyone knows how to tell a great story, it’s Pixar. Their 22 Rules of storytelling have made the rounds on the web for a while now, and for good reason: these “rules” are clear and direct in how to approach the three basics to a story:

  1. Hook
  2. Meat
  3. Reward

Get your reader to read, fill in the necessary details, and give them the reward they’ve been waiting for at the end. Stories start by making the reader a promise, something that’s worth their while to keep reading. Then, in the meat of your story, you must make your reader care. It should matter more to your reader, not you, what you write. You are not writing for your own personal taste.

The key is to think of story not as a two-hour movie or a novel, but in every way that you approach your content. It might be 140 characters or it might be 2,000 words. Whatever the size of the story, the approach is the same.

Let The Audience Do Some Work

J.J. Abrams, creator of popular shows such as Lost, explained in a TED talk that sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge. There is an allure, for readers, to keep reading because something hasn’t been properly explained.

Filmmaker Andrew Stanton echos the importance of not revealing everything in his own TED talk. “The audience wants to work for their meal,” he said. Readers want to deduce and deduct. They want to figure things out. The absence of information is what is pulling them in, not the full details all at once.

Think of the popular Allstate Insurance Mayhem commercials. Not only did Allstate personify an abstract concept, but they did it in such

a way that when the commercial started you wondered what in the world was going to go wrong next.

Each commercial begins with Mayhem stating what object he is (“I’m a teenage girl”), and then proceeds ahead with disaster and chaos because her friend just texted her about kissing Johnny.But, from those first words of “I’m a ____” the audience begins to guess what will happen next and sticks around to see if they’re correct.

Storytelling is also much like joke telling, Stanton asserts. You must know your “punch line” before you start to write. Tell your story so that there is something left to anticipate at the end.

Stories Have Heros

When you are writing a great story, there needs to be a hero.

When writing a story with an eye for converting customers, you must make them the hero. To do this, you leave a main character unfilled and you place them into the story so that they can see that they belong. For example, do you tell a story about your beach resort describing the fun people have there, showing images of them having fun? Or, do you tell the story about your reader having fun, using photos that suggest they are right there?

Testimonials are a popular tool for convincing people that what you are selling is “safe”, but they must be used to support a story that your customer fits into.

Language also plays into making your reader the hero. Are you using language that hypes you up, or hypes up the reader? Are you telling your reader that your product is the absolute best, or are you telling them how your product will make them the absolute best?

The J. Peterman Company (yes, of Seinfeld fame) does a good job of telling stories around its products that are about the customer, not the product. Take the American Baseball Jacket, for example. Peterman describes the jacket by telling the history of it, suggesting that the reader ought to get the jacket not because of the materials it is made of, but to be part of that history:

In Poland or Paris or Prague or Liverpool, they’d kill for a jacket like this. It’s something they caught a glimpse of in every other American movie they ever saw.

They saw it, but they never even got close to one. […]

Maybe you never had one. I didn’t have one either. But I always wanted one.

I think it’s time to pull it out of the attic of our memories. Like youth itself, it’s too good to waste on little kids only.

Stories have heroes, and stories that convert make the customer the hero.

We Love Stories With A Happy Ending

In Nancy Duarte’s TEDx talk “The Secret Structure Of Great Talks”, she outlines what makes a powerful and convincing speech. Her same persuasive techniques can be used in stories intended to convert customers.

Duarte suggests that when you communicate with the aim of convincing your audience to buy into your idea, you must establish what the current situation is and paint it with a brush that suggests it needs to be changed. Then, tell the audience what could be. Make the gap between what is and what could be as large as possible.

As you continue on, go back and forth between the two with the goal of showing your audience how much better your idea of “what could be” really is. Duarte compares this back-and-forth technique to sailing into the wind, where, by turning back and forth into the wind, you can actually go faster than the wind instead of being waylaid by resistance. This same back and forth technique works to persuade a resistant reader.

The big finale? End with “bliss”, or the happy ending. Show your reader the ideal result. And, if you know your audience well, make that happy ending resonate with qualities they already hold dear. For example, if your audience is all about efficiency, your happy ending is going to be about how much time you can save them.

Kraft ran a “sanity snack” campaign, showing the chaos and pressures moms felt by interviewing real moms who talked about the stress they often felt. Then, they presented the idea of how a simple snack, given to kids once in a while, would allow those moms a brief break, a moment of “sanity.” By the end of the interview video, the audience could see the change in the moms, who had started the video with serious struggles and, by the end of it, were laughing and loving the idea of a “sanity snack.”

Show how bad the situation is. Bounce back and forth as you show how good it could be. Stick the landing solidly in a happy ending.

The Power Of Because

Psychologist Ellen Langer discovered that when she phrased a question using the word “because” in it, 94% of the people involved were favorable to her request as opposed to just over half when she asked without using the word. In fact, Langer discovered it didn’t really matter all that much what reason she gave after the word “because” — just using it had the same effect.

Remember, you are telling stories to convert customers. All the regular storytelling rules apply, but with the added weight of giving them a reason to act. At the end of your content, can you answer the question of “why should I buy?” If not, then you have neglected the power of “because.”

For example: “Buy our calendar app, because it will help you stay organized.”

Seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget to tell readers clearly and obviously why they should buy. You can also have a bit of fun with the “because” technique; it need not be boring. Think of the Old Spice man commercials. They were funny, and they also contained a not-so-subtle “because”: Ladies, buy your man Old Spice body wash because then then he’ll smell like a man.

Your customers want a reason. If you’ve done a great job and made them care, you still have to give them a reason to act or they won’t ever be a customer. You can tell all the wonderful stories in the world, but if you don’t specifically give them a reason for what you’re asking them to do, ultimately, it’s just telling campfire stories.

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One thought on “The Art of Storytelling: How to Tell Stories That Actually Convert Customers

  1. Research has shown that just using the word “because” after a request increases compliance massively. We like to have reasons for doing things, and it turns out that it doesn’t even matter that much what the reason is.

    Also, just FYI, it’s not “now a days,” it’s “nowadays.” 😉

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