The Keys To Telling Great Marketing Stories

When was the last time you really felt engaged by technology marketing?

From writing whitepapers about virtualization to developing case studies about modular building systems, folks like us are called upon by our clients to tell their stories. That’s our job. It’s not always the easiest one, but it is a critically important one, and we’re proud to do it.

Story is the human element – and at the risk of sounding all warm and fuzzy, when you’re selling machines, you really need the human element to be there. Someone, somewhere is getting out of bed this morning with a problem weighing heavily on their mind, and their stress is impacting the quality of their day. Other people around them are feeling it. The plots of life are rising, cresting, falling, crashing and lifting off again. And we turn those plots into meaning.

In other words, we all live in story. Story is how we identify ourselves. And if you’re serious about selling technology to people, you have to know how to tell a story that makes them want to change – and to be happy about changing.

When we take on a new technology marketing/copywriting project, we look the certain hallmarks of a good story. These are the basic keys we hunt for:

Reader Identification.

When I start a copywriting project with a new client, at least half of the initial call is typically consumed with a single question: “Who is your reader?”

Age? Gender? Job title? How long have they been in the job? What do they care about the most? What keeps them up at night? The more information we have about the target reader, the better we can reach them.

A larger project (such as a website build) might involve a more comprehensive and formalized version of this methodology – called personas in the user interface design world – but we try to answer the core questions for all of our projects. If you don’t know who you are talking to, you have no way of knowing if you’re successfully doing it.

The way I describe it is this. When a new reader hits your copy for the first time, they’re going to scan the headline and perhaps the first twenty words. You want the light bulb to go on, the inner voice to exclaim, “This is ME! They’re talking to ME!”

That’s reader identification. If that bulb goes on, the rest of the job gets much easier. If it stays dark, your task then becomes near impossible.

Tension.

Your reader has a problem. They probably know it. They’ve probably been living with it. You could fly in and fix the problem today and they’ll be much happier and more successful for it. You can tell them that. And still, nothing gets done.

Why? Because there’s no tension. Change, even when clearly beneficial, is still hard and painful. Risk is required, and doing nothing is easy. If they can live with the problem, then it’s not really a problem – not until, at least, it becomes a real problem. That difference between a “problem” and a “real problem” is the tension between status quo and change. It’s the factor that makes doing nothing hard.

Once we know who our reader is, then we start looking for the tension. What’s driving the stress? Why will they make a decision today, rather than tomorrow? Why today? Why – today – is doing nothing not an option?

Think about the Wizard of Oz. Without the tornado, Dorothy could have just slept in that day. Life would have continued as normal, for better or for worse.

With the tornado, however.. change became inevitable.

Progression Towards Change.

Dorothy needs to see a way back to Kansas. That yellow brick road needs to lead to a shining Emerald City, visible in the distance. The change you are proposing has to look like a manageable, rational risk with a clear payoff at the end. You need to draw a map back towards easy.

Every great story is about growth, constructive progression that leads to epiphany and change. This is probably the single biggest stumbling block in tech marketing today, because progression takes time and the allure of tech is the power of the magic bean. But without the willingness to tell your reader, “Now just wait a minute – be a little patient, and you won’t regret it,” your marketing will lack any sense of anticipation. And they need that, in order to change.

The Next Step.

No question is more fundamental to storytelling than “What next?”. Dorothy has journeyed to Emerald City, has had adventures, has overcome challenges, and now she’s there. What next?

Next it’s time to click the ruby slippers together and go home.

In sales and marketing, we call it a Call To Action (CTA): the direct closing statement that tells the reader what to do next. But the Next Step is more than that. Your Next Step must be simple, concise, a seemingly easy step to take. On the other end, there must be a human sales process that doesn’t instantly make things a lot more complicated.

When you think about your marketing’s conversion steps, think about Dorothy’s red slippers. If your Next Step isn’t as simple as clicking them together, it’s not simple enough to ground a great marketing story.

The “We Believe It” Note.

Without a doubt, the single most important element in telling your story.

Most of good writing is about knowing all the tricks of language that create the illusion of confidence. There are many tricks, and a good copywriter knows them all. He or she can cover a lot of sins with active verbs and short sentences. But that’s not enough.

The heart of storytelling is the bedrock belief that words and images together can make a direct, material change in the world – not just a manipulated thought or feeling, but a physical movement that shifts the very world on its axis. If that belief isn’t there, rhetoric can’t fill that hole. Without that all powerful core, marketing is just smoke and mirrors.

Ask yourself: Why do we matter?

Why does this story matter?

And why will this story be worth retelling?

Without that heart, your technology story is just a shambling machine, getting from place to place but incapable of inspiration. But with it – and a sharp eye towards the other components of effective storytelling – you can build a sales narrative that takes on a larger life of its own.

Story matters. And if your offering matters, its story is one worth telling. Don’t leave your readers buried in ambiguity, confusion and deflated tensions. Be the hero of a tale worth telling – and retelling – and your customers will reward you handsomely for it.

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