Five ways authors could show us a thing or two about copywriting and two ways they can’t.

By Anna Warren on Feb 03, 2021

Storytelling opinion piece

Am I a storyteller now or am I being a wanker? Is it a marketing buzzword that makes us feel cooler about our jobs? Yes. But is there a nugget of truth that can really help us out? Yep. There’re actually five nuggets – that’s almost enough for a Maccies. 

Nugget one – storytelling makes us listen 

Pretty much anything can attract your interest if you’re told it as a story. 

Imagine this, it’s another Friday night in lockdown and you’ve got to choose between two Zoom calls (although by now, most of us would probably say neither). One mate likes to talk about this week, the footie results (I think that’s probably still on), the queues at Asda. The other mate has outrageous stories, stories they’ve heard from the guy in the pub from a guy at his work from a fisherman they once met at sea. 

Hello… perhaps your lockdown Friday night won’t be so G&T for one. 

What I’m trying to show-not-tell you here is that everyone loves a storyteller. Maybe Mate B is giving you the same info as Mate A, but the footie results sound better when they’re said in a seafaring voice.  

Nugget two – copy should be delivered like a story 

Storytelling isn’t just reading books. We all love a bit of gossip, a Pixar film, a run down of our friend’s Tinder date. But what makes it a story and not just an inane conversation is the delivery.  And this is where you might want to pick up your pen.

There are three elements of a story’s structure that make it memorable, intriguing and readable:

  1. The hook – grabbing in the reader.
  2. The build – escalating tension, suspense, excitement.
  3. The payoff – bringing it all home with a bang.

And if you don’t have all three, you have nothing says Dave Trott, copywriting extraordinaire. 

Funnily enough this structure works pretty nicely for copywriting an ad – hook them in, keep them interested, leave them with something to take away. 

Nugget three – don’t forget your punchline 

Andrew Santon, film maker of the likes of Toy Story and Wall-E, said storytelling is joke telling – know your punchline, and then make sure everything else leads you there. Of course, the punchline of copywriting is our Call To Action (CTA). 

Nugget four & five – get a connection & tell the story the audience wants to hear 

American children’s TV legend Mr Rogers kept a note in his pocket written by a social worker that said, “frankly there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” 

Even this little story makes me feel something, and I’m sure (unless you’re a cold-hearted bunch), you’d agree. 

So, let’s have a look at how it works, and see what we’ve just learnt:

  • Intrigue – he keeps a note in his pocket – why? What does it say? I’m hooked.
  • Emotion – it’s from a social worker so I instantly think of children with lonely childhoods.
  • Payoff – it doesn’t spell it out, the reader does a bit of the work here.

Now, I’m of the belief that in advertising, the reader also likes to do a (very tiny) bit of the work. Or as my mate at Pixar says, give the reader 2+2 but don’t give them 4. 

Sure, we’re all busy. But we’ve also all got a brain. And we feel satisfied when we use it. Copy, ads, messages — they need to be simple. But if they didn’t have a little more than surface to them, if they didn’t invite the reader to engage in them, we wouldn’t make a connection. 

Here’s a prime example, and it doesn’t even have copy on it: 

Lego advert

There’s one more nugget we can take from the note in Mr Rodgers’ pocket and it is this: your brand can be loved if they tell their story in the right way, by doing everything we’ve all just learned.  

Let’s count our nuggets:

  1. Storytelling gets to us all
  2. Use a basic structure that has a hook, an emotion, and a payoff
  3. Remember the punchline, our CTA
  4. Give 2+2 not 4
  5. Tell a brand story with the audience in mind

With all this said – why am I still going to call myself a copywriter and not a storyteller? 

One, because I don’t think I could pull it off, but also for some core differences between storytelling and copywriting. 

The first difference – our goals 

If I put myself in an author’s shoes I’d say the main goal in storytelling is to do it in such a way that the reader will read cover to cover, with the extra ‘nice to have’ goals of recommending it to a friend and maybe winning a Pulitzer. 

The main goal of copywriting is not for the consumer to read my words, it’s for them to do something with them. Visit a website. Remember a brand. Grab an offer. Reach for our product over the competitors.

And this is where we have to part ways in considering ourselves whimsical storytellers. 

The second difference – we’re not open to interpretation 

A story can have a group of English Lit students scratching their chins and offering different interpretations. A copywriter’s words cannot. We have to be absolutely clear. No misunderstanding. No room for alternative meaning. We want you to think/feel/do XYZ.

Let’s wrap this up

Be a copywriter who can tell a story with those five delicious nuggets but keep those differences in your heart and keep calling yourself a copywriter.