5 Ancient Storytelling Methods for Copywriting Today

What does Ancient Greek and Shakespearean storytelling drama have to do with copywriting today? Perhaps more than you realize. Today I’ll dissect a proven five-step process that has been used for centuries to hold the reader to the end of a story. 

Marketers clamor to have their message go viral. We want our customers to become advocates and evangelists for us. We want them to “like,” comment, and share our message for us. A mention on the evening news can skyrocket the number of views on a video into the tens of millions, all for a “feel good” moment.

How do you reach a goal to reach the masses? Most likely through effective storytelling since it’s not too likely your hard-hitting sales message is going to be shared or talked about.

This column was inspired by an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool.” It reveals how a five-step process in Freytag’s Pyramid has been a successful storytelling framework, going back centuries.

Personally, I think storytelling can be used by marketers today as part of the “for good movement” that has permeated into our culture, largely fueled by social media. Your challenge is how to engage through story, and effectively monetize these efforts better than your competitors. 

To illustrate this point, I turn to an analysis that I completed for an organization who balances “for good movement” messaging with selling. In this case, the “for good movement” messages drive interest and traffic from videos of performance and behind-the-scenes stories. We see the interest build and go viral in the likes, comments, and shares of certain types of social media messaging. More importantly, it translates into more web traffic. And more web traffic has translated into more event and product sales. The numbers don’t lie.

A few illustrations:

  • An informal video, recorded on an iPad and put on YouTube where the organization performs for a boy wounded in a school shooting, is posted on Facebook and Twitter, yet is watched thousands of times in just a few days. Nothing was sold here—just the feel good story.
  • A behind-the-scenes interview is watched by thousands so fans get something they don’t hear elsewhere. The video closes with a subtle reminder of an upcoming performance. Again, nothing sold here—just insider information shared.
  • A static post overtly selling an upcoming event doesn’t get much traction for likes, comments, and shares. That doesn’t mean it was a failure. It simply says that people don’t want to be sold. They want to choose to buy. And in this case, they choose to buy in bigger numbers when a series of stories have lead up to the event.

People want to be part of a movement, and when they can experience an event, they are ready and willing to buy. When there is product available for sale, demand has already been generated because the customer is ready to buy before you ask them to buy.

With that distinction in selling style, it’s vital that you don’t forget to strategically weave into your “for good” messaging a way to monetize the effort. That doesn’t mean that you add an intrusive sales pitch in the message. It means that you naturally lead your customers and prospects through a planned sequenced, timed in a way that takes the individual to the ultimate goal: purchase. 

Using your imagination, you can see how the five-step process of Freytag’s Pyramid applies to direct marketing copywriting and story:

  1. Exposition. The exposition is the portion of a story that introduces important background information to the audience; for example, information about the setting, events occurring before the main plot, characters' back stories, etc. Exposition can be conveyed through dialogues, flashbacks, character's thoughts, background details, in-universe media or the narrator telling a back-story. 
  2. Rising Action. In the rising action, a series of related incidents build toward the point of greatest interest. The rising action of a story is the series of events that begin immediately after the exposition (introduction) of the story and builds up to the climax. These events are generally the most important parts of the story since the entire plot depends on them to set up the climax, and ultimately the satisfactory resolution of the story itself.
  3. Climax. The climax is the turning point, which changes the protagonist’s fate. If the story is a comedy, things will have gone badly for the protagonist up to this point; now, the plot will begin to unfold in his or her favor, often requiring the protagonist to draw on hidden inner strengths. If the story is a tragedy, the opposite state of affairs will ensue, with things going from good to bad for the protagonist, often revealing the protagonist's hidden weaknesses.
  4. Falling Action. During the falling action, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist. The falling action may contain a moment of final suspense, in which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.
  5. Denouement. The dénouement comprises events from the end of the falling action to the actual ending scene of the drama or narrative. Conflicts are resolved, creating normality for the characters and a sense of catharsis, or release of tension and anxiety, for the reader.

I wrap-up with an insightful quote from author Maya Angelou that succinctly sums up why storytelling in copywriting is so important:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Feeling good is what effective copy in storytelling, and the “for good movement,” leads to. And leading people to feel good is how you move them to respond.

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Gary Hennerberg

After a lot of years in marketing and sales, this is what I know works:

Stories sell. Think unique. Stimulate emotion. Close deals. And here are a few other gems from my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code.” Know the persona, interpret your offer and let your prospect give themselves permission to buy. That’s how the brain is wired. It’s how people think.

What else? When I’m not breaking down complex topics (or ones marketers over-complicate) into easy-to-grasp stories that sell, I crunch numbers. Manage projects. Write. Teach. Lead.