The most potent form of human communication is storytelling. Listen to any candidate running for any office, and you will find storytelling at the heart of their campaign. The candidate who tells the best story, all things being equal, usually wins the election.
Comic books, romance novels, superhero movies, and even documentaries are all powered by story. Therapy is all about learning how to tell yourself a better story.
Story is the most efficient way to spread a message that is a mixture of facts, myth, and feelings.
The best marketers know this.
Look at these ads widely considered to be among the most effective ads ever:
“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”
“Where’s the Beef?”
“They All Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano…”
“Tale of Two Young Men”
All of these ads tell a compelling story. These ads not only hook you, but they’re enjoyable. They make you want to watch or read the whole thing. They’re easy to remember and beg to be shared.
The Hero’s Journey Isn’t Storytelling
But, when you’re writing content or copy and trying to leverage the power of story, it’s easy to screw it up. Many self-proclaimed marketing experts are obsessed with The Hero’s Journey. They have memorized this framework that Joseph Campbell eloquently documented, and slavishly try and incorporate it into their campaigns.
Often it doesn’t work.
Almost every month I get an inquiry from a potential client asking me if I know about The Hero’s Journey.
I know right away this is a client I will not be working with. This question is a little bit like asking a builder if they know about walls. These clients usually aren’t ready to use actual storytelling.
They want to treat copywriting like a store-bought cake mix. They want you to add a cup of The Hero’s Journey and mix with two tablespoons of a compelling calls to action.
The Hero’s Journey is a framework; it isn’t a story. You can’t just put up four walls and declare that you’ve built a house.
If you want to make storytelling a part of your copywriting you need to study all kinds of stories.
Marketers who are obsessed with The Hero’s Journey tend to want sales copy that reads like a cheap version of Star Wars.
I love Star Wars. I own enough Star Wars t-shirts that I could wear a different one every day of the week for a few weeks. But, when it comes to selling your internet security SaaS, Star Wars isn’t the right story.
Think About Genres
If you are a fan of movies or books or high-quality TV shows, you already know all about The Hero’s Journey. Even if you can’t articulate it, you have absorbed the steps it takes to tell a good story. The point of Joseph Campbell’s work is that this framework is in your DNA.
When you want to use storytelling in your copywriting you need to pick a genre you’re going to steal from. You want to center your work around a certain mood, a specific emotional response. Are you writing a horror story? A romantic comedy? Or something else?
One of the best ways to learn about storytelling is to study screenwriting. Screenwriters have about 100 pages to tell an epic story that will convince cynical Hollywood producers to open up their wallets.
One excellent book about screenwriting is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. In this book, he takes apart popular movies to see how they work. He also has categories of movies where all of the films in a given category have a common set of tropes or beats.
Snyder’s Monster in the House is one of my favorite genres to use in my copywriting. This genre includes movies such as Jaws, Alien, Psycho, and The Quiet Place. All you need is a location where you’re trapped, like a house, small town, or rundown motel, and a monster.
Writing a Monster in the House Sales Landing Page
Let’s go back to the imaginary internet security SaaS I mentioned before. If I’m going to tell a story that gets results in this niche, I’m telling a horror story. I’m telling a Monster in the House story.
The monster is going to be a shadowy, dark web-based criminal cartel intent on compromising your customer data. Hackers are coming for all of your confidential business information.
The house is going to be your IT infrastructure. You can’t afford to build an entirely new IT infrastructure. You can’t go offline. Your business is trapped.
During the first few paragraphs, I’m going to ratchet up the suspense and the fear. I want to make sure you know that I understand your problem and that I see the danger that’s coming for you.
In the middle of the page, we will talk about the risks of doing nothing. I may give a few well-known examples of other companies who didn’t have the right weapons to fight and who were overcome by the hackers.
But, by the end, I will show you how you can triumph where others failed. I will show you how you can beat the monster and escape the trap unscathed.
The secret is going to be a subscription to the internet security SaaS product the company is selling.
I will sprinkle in a few facts and case studies throughout the page. But, the driver of the sales page is going to be the Monster in the House I sketched out here.
Isn’t that more riveting than a plain story just using the basics of the “Hero’s Journey”?
Immerse Yourself in Story
Stories sell. Using the right story will increase engagement, and it will increase conversions. But, there isn’t an algorithm you can plug in to know what stories you should tell.
That’s why writers are so critical. That’s where the right copywriter can make or break a marketing campaign.
If you want to write better copy or content, you need to study story. You need to read stories; you need to watch movies. You need to learn the craft of storytelling through a combination of osmosis and application.
If you’re looking for a place to start, I recommend getting a few books about screenwriting. You should also try and read all the screenplays you can get your hands on.
Storytelling in movies is more digestible than storytelling in novels. You can see the entire structure unfold in 90 minutes as opposed to several days or weeks.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read too. Read compelling fiction and page-turning non-fiction. Watch Broadway plays. Study comic books and enjoy feature-length animated movies. The deeper you go with your story exploration, the deeper your well of resources will be when you sit down to write.
The walls are critical to the construction of a house, but the beauty of any house is in how the walls are laid out in connection with the rest of the construction.
As a copywriter you’re not just a framer putting up walls, you’re a builder creating a beautiful home.