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Be a Good Storyteller, Be a Better Copywriter

I was sitting with a client the other day in a marathon on-site session. We were putting together a high-level presentation for a major executive pitch coming up in a few days. They’d brought me in because the presentation, in its current form – for the most part cut-‘n-pasted from an earlier version – just felt choppy and disjointed.

His goal was to build the case for his company to this audience, and knew from experience that I’m good at doing that kind of thing. It was a lot of data, information about the company and how they do what they do, but as he reminded, “It’s still a story. You have to tell a good story…”

How true. You have to tell a good story. As kids, it was our mantra to our parents, “Tell me a story!” But no matter how old we get, we never tire of hearing stories. And that’s never truer than with the audiences for the commercial writing projects we create for our clients. It’s something magazine and newspaper journalists have been doing forever (so if you hail from those arenas, put those chops to work here…).

Proposals and presentations – like the one described above – if they’re going to hit home, MUST tell a good story, must lay out a rational step-by-step case for what’s being “sold.” That doesn’t mean boring and linear – hardly. The good ones are exceptionally creative and will jump around, while always knowing exactly where they’re going and the most effective path to get there.

Marketing brochures – from simple tri-folds to lofty corporate image pieces – can tell the story of a company’s history and evolution, complete with testimonials from satisfied buyers. They can give a prospective customer a compelling narrative, which, when done well, can more expeditiously move that prospect along the sales cycle.

Every description of a product or service within a brochure, sales sheet or newsletter can be enhanced by creating a one-paragraph mini-story that showcases the experience of someone (even if fictitious) actually using the product. And in the process, demonstrating its features and benefits. An example…

In a newsletter for UPS I worked on years back, instead of just describing the features of one of their services, I told the story below. And I put it together simply by asking my client who might use the service and for what reason:

It’s late morning. One of your best customers calls – frantic. A key machine on his 24-hour production line just threw a part. With no spares on-site, he’s dead in the water. Overnight me a replacement, he says. I can do even better than that, you reply. Thanks to UPS “next-flight-out” Sonic Air service, the part’s on its way within an hour, and by mid-afternoon, it’s been installed. Production is restored at 4:00 P.M., not 10:00 A.M. tomorrow, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think he’ll remember you the next time the competition comes to call?

Using characters and a dramatic story line (where possible, and as dramatic as such a subject can be, of course…) makes far more interesting and credible writing than straight marketing copy. Stories draw in readers, and make it more likely a piece will actually get read (i.e., The Goal, in case you forgot…).

Course, the above (and other story-telling strategies) could be used in web content, white papers (a story as well – one that leads a reader along a very specifically-plotted path), trade articles, direct mail (especially the long-letter type…) – even ads. And what about a case study? It’s the quintessential story.

Before starting ANY project, always ask yourself, “How could I make this more interesting to read?” Be a storyteller and you’ll be a better copywriter. AND people will notice, and that can only be a good thing.

How have you used storytelling in your commercial writing practice?

What specific story-telling techniques have you used effectively in your writing?

Can you give some examples of how being a storyteller improved the effectiveness of a piece?

What kind of feedback have you gotten from clients when you’ve suggested or implemented storytelling in your marketing copy?

What Would You Do About a Client Like This One?

Got a note from a fellow commercial writer recently. She wrote:

I have a client who’ll give me two or three days to write something (when I really need a week), insisting such a tight deadline is necessary, and then take a week to review it, revealing the deadline wasn’t real after all. I know they’re not getting my best work because there’s no “dwell” time. I’ve pulled all-nighters to get projects done, and then hear nothing for days or even a week. When they do come back with comments, I might get a day or two to generate a second draft.

The last time this happened, I did ask for a rush fee and got it. But the extra money isn’t worth the extra stress. After all, reducing stress is one of the biggest reasons I became a commercial freelancer.

Yes, I’ve brought this up to them, but it’s come to nothing. They try to do better for a week or two and then the old habits return. Moreover, these conversations just seem to make our otherwise genial relationship tense. And other than this, they’re great clients: they’re fair on other matters, pay promptly and I’ve worked with them for seven years. A commercial copywriting client like this is a godsend in this crummy economy. Is this just the way it is? Or can you suggest some tricks I might be able to use to manipulate them into better behavior?

My reply:

Alas, no tricks, but you may have more leverage than you think. If you’ve worked with them for seven years, obviously you deliver a lot of value and they know it. That being the case, you should be able to make your sentiments known without them freaking out. Clearly, while they may appreciate what you do for them, they’re not showing you much respect. Though, I suspect there’s nothing malicious in their actions, but rather garden-variety cluelessness.

To repeatedly insist a job is a rush job and then repeatedly take a week to review it shows they believe, perhaps even unconsciously, that their time is more valuable than yours. If it were me, I’d draw a line in the sand. But obviously, you have to weigh the value of this otherwise good client vs. the stress this situation causes.

If you decide to have this talk, make sure you ARE prepared to walk. The old sales adage, “He (or she) who cares least, wins” was never truer than here. If you’re truly fine with losing their copywriting business (and it’s totally okay if you’re not), you’ll come across with conviction and confidence. Which, I suspect, might just impress the heck out of them and have them suddenly see you in a brand-new light.

Many commercial freelancers have “come-to-Jesus” chats with problem clients that turn out just fine. The client develops new respect for the writer, AND often, the writer has an epiphany along the way, suddenly “getting” their own value. After all, if their client changes an offensive behavior as a result of a talk, they realize it’s indeed a two-way street, and that the client didn’t want to lose them.

I’d thank them for their ongoing confidence in you, but I would NOT go overboard in thanking them for all the copywriting projects they’ve given you over the years. Remember, this is an uncoerced market transaction: if they weren’t getting as much, if not more value out of the relationship than you are, they wouldn’t keep hiring you. They’re not hiring you out of charity, so don’t go to them hat in hand.

Explain that, as a copywriting professional, your goal is to always deliver superior work, and these conditions make it impossible to give them your best effort. But, that you could even live with THAT if the constant tight deadlines were legitimate deadlines, but they’re obviously not.

I’d wager they don’t kick you to the curb after all these years. How long would it take them to train a new copywriter? And do they want to go through that, when they could simply start making deadline requests based in reality, not whim?

Bottom line, nothing IS going to change on their side unless you somehow interrupt their pattern of doing things as they always have by getting their attention in some way.

What would you suggest she do in this situation?

Do you agree with my take or would you do things differently?

Have you had such a conversation with a client and how did it turn out?

Where do you draw your line in the sand with a “problem client”?