To Sell More, Tell Stories

By Suzanne Wood

When I was a business magazine editor, I worked with a freelance writer who could turn deathly-dry subjects like business insurance and corporate taxation into compelling, easy reads. How? By using tools of the fiction writer’s trade.

Whether he interviewed a source in person or on the phone, he amassed an amazing array of details. Then he would craft a narrative–complete with scene-setting details, dramatic tension, and sometimes even dialogue– that would hook the reader after the first five words.

His articles would begin something like this: “Even from the 28th floor of the Boring Building in downtown Metropolis, John Doe can hear the rumble and roar of I-89 as it threads through the cloverleaf three blocks south of his office. He knows that many of the Clueless Company’s eighteen-wheelers travel the road every day bearing widgets to ports and airports across the country, but Doe never pauses to worry whether they’ll jackknife and spill their precious loads. That’s because Doe, the controller of Clueless, recently upgraded his company’s liability policy to guarantee $1 billion against losses.”

Many writers would have begun the article with a summary of the issue or an assertion—“It’s important to have liability insurance”— and piled on the facts and statistics. While it’s still possible to write a good article this way, which one would you rather read?

This approach works even when you’re writing marketing content. Stories will make your copy come alive like nothing else will. And when you can engage your reader, you’re one step closer to winning him over. Countless neurological studies confirm that people process information better when it’s presented in story form. When not connected by narrative, facts, statistics and logic have to go through too many filters before they trigger a visceral response.

You don’t need to have the talent of a Hemingway to use story forms in business content. Consider the experience of Robert McKee, a Hollywood screenwriting guru who attracts executives, entrepreneurs and office workers to his wildly popular Story Seminars. According to McKee, “Although businesspeople are often suspicious of stories…the fact is that statistics are used to tell lies and damned lies, while accounting reports are often BS in a ball gown. . . .If a businessperson understands that his or her own mind naturally wants to frame experience in a story, the key to moving the audience is not to resist this impulse but to embrace it.”

I’ve found that thinking in terms of story right from the get-go helps me discover what I want to say much more easily than if I were relying solely on expository techniques. Of course, stories require more research. Yet putting in a little more time on the front end can pay dividends at the keyboard.
That said, here are some tips to help you discover and create stories that will help influence your customers:

When interviewing a source, ask them to recall the funniest or most surprising experience they’ve had with the subject at hand. It’s helpful to give interviewees the questions in advance so that they’ve had time to recall anecdotes. Or you can create your own anecdote by having an interaction with the subject and writing about it, or watching the interviewee relate with his or her employees or public and then retelling it in your copy. And don’t overlook photos as a memory trigger: Ask questions about pictures displayed in the office. There’s a story behind every picture, as you’re sure to find out.
Befriend your company’s unofficial historian. Sometimes the only thing it takes to unleash the floodgates of memory is a little curiosity on your part. You could end up with enough anecdotes to last you through several writing projects.

If you don’t have company testimonials, seek them out. Use short versions for your Web site and brochures and longer ones involving scene-setting details—exactly how a product or service helped your customer—for annual reports, case studies and sell sheets. If you already have a file of testimonials, re-interview these customers/clients—expressing your continued gratitude, of course—and try to elicit some detailed stories.

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