The Only Place to Start Your Stories

Stories Start Here Waldorf Astoria

Last week, I did a Facebook Live video explaining that all stories are not created equal. We talked about a story-based email sequence/landing page combo I just wrote that, in the client’s words, “murdered” the long-standing control. “Murdered” meaning “more than doubled sales.”

(If you’re not a member of the Email Copywriting Corner Facebook group, you missed it.)

Today I wanted to give you a little more insight into writing stories that sell. I’d like to illustrate with a fictional story that created a real-life story. Everything will come together at the end.


Once upon a time in a land called Zamunda, a handsome prince left home to avoid marrying a woman his parents picked for him. The prince wanted to find true love for himself.

Before the king and queen “rescued” their son in the faraway city, they checked into the royal suite at the Waldorf Astoria…

You may recognize this story as the plot of the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America. When she was a little girl, Coming to America was one of my wife’s favorite movies. And even though the Waldorf played a tiny role in the film, my wife dreamed of staying in a room at the storied hotel someday.

The dream came true this past weekend, after nearly 28 years of waiting.

She woke up on the 15th floor of the Waldorf Astoria Chicago on her birthday.

Where All Stories Should Begin

When you write emails with the ultimate goal of selling something (product, service or idea), it is critical that you begin with aspiration.

Getting a room at the Waldorf was one of my wife’s lifelong aspirations. The moment I learned about it, it became MY aspiration to make her dream come true.

Your reader aspires to:

  •     earn more money without abandoning his family 20 hours a day
  •     have gorgeous, healthy hair her friends secretly envy
  •     retire comfortably and ON TIME
  •     find true love without flying from Zamunda to some faraway land
  •     get rid of back pain without surgery
  •     …or whatever.

Connect – and connect quickly – with your reader by telling stories that tap into their specific aspirations. Yes, problems work too; people aspire to live without their struggles.

Your stories introduce them to a world where their aspirations can be realized…make it seem eminently possible and even easy…with the help of your product or service of course.

No hard-selling necessary.


Marketing Wisdom Hidden in Christmas Movies

We watch a lot of Christmas movies at my house. A lot, like the DVR is 78% full just from Christmas movies.

Most of the time I’m too much of a tough guy (in my own mind) to admit that I like them, but it’s one of the ways my wife and I spend quality time together during the holidays.

Something interesting happened while we were working our way through hours of these movies this year. Some prominent themes jumped out at me as particularly helpful in terms of marketing and business growth. As you’re thinking about resolutions and goals for the new year, these ideas could very well impact how you move forward in 2014. Even if you’re too tough to watch Christmas movies.

1) If It Ain’t Broke…
How many versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have been turned into movies (not to mention plays and books)? Dozens.

How many spoofs of the “I wish I’d never been born” motif from It’s a Wonderful Life have you seen?

And I don’t think I can stand to see even one more fake holiday relationship that ends in a marriage proposal on Christmas Eve, followed by the falling of winter’s first snowflakes.

These films are produced year after year after year. And we keep watching them.

One thing that becomes eminently clear as you pay attention what Hollywood is cranking out is that when something works, keep doing it. Too often, entrepreneurs and marketers feel the need to be original and creative. There’s nothing wrong with that desire, but why reinvent the proverbial wheel? The legendary David Ogilvy noted that most marketers “worship at the altar of creativity, which really means originality — the most dangerous word in the lexicon of advertising.” When you have a message that keeps generating the results you want, don’t throw it away until you find something even better. If a marketing channel is producing high return on investment, don’t abandon it to chase after the hot new fad. Always feel free to test, but don’t give up on anything that hasn’t stopped delivering.

Remember, business owners often get bored with their own marketing before their audience does.

Also, consider taking inspiration from what is working for other successful people and businesses. Modeling is one of the fastest ways to create effective systems, products, services and messages. Sometimes taking a shortcut is the smartest thing you can do.

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” ~ Salvador Dali

2) Envision The Alternative
I can’t tell you how many Christmas films I watched over the past month used the aforementioned motif from It’s A Wonderful Life (or the more recent Family Man). The protagonist has some sort of character flaw or they’re about to make a bad decision when they’re magically transported to an parallel dimension where they’re married instead of single, middle class instead of wealthy, etc. They’re “blessed” with the opportunity to see things how they should/could/would be if they did things differently.

This is precisely the purpose of your marketing. You need to create a vision in the mind of your prospect, showing him how much better his life will be when he starts using your product…how much he’ll miss out on if he will be if he procrastinates…the danger he puts himself in if he trusts the “low cost provider.”

Don’t hand out brochures or send emails or make webpages that simply state cold facts about your business, product, service or founder. Tell stories that paint a picture of the better future that comes along with what you have to offer. Answer the question “what’s in it for me?” thoroughly and vividly, from the perspective of the would-be customer.

“We did this” and “we have that” and “BUY NOW” probably won’t get the job done, especially if you haven’t already established a solid base of happy customers.

3) Don’t Buck Tradition
Christmas has more tradition associated with it than most other holidays, and many of the people who uphold them are borderline fanatical about keeping them. In several of the movies I’ve seen recently, commitment to these traditions often drive the plot forward and add structure, silliness or some other significant element to the story.

Roman poet Ovid noted thousands of years ago that “Nothing is stronger than habit.” Traditions are probably a close second.

Pay attention to your customers’ traditions and habits.

Attach yourself and your products to their currently-existing traditions; take a cue from Maxwell House’s Haggadah.

Make it easy to form a habit of buying from you.

4) It’s More Blessed to Give than to Receive
When you were a child, the holidays, including your birthday, were all about the presents you were about to get. In adulthood, most of us (especially parents) find that giving is much more satisfying than receiving ever was.

This concept doesn’t always translate easily into the business realm. We operate our businesses to gain a profit. That’s not just the way it is, it’s the way it should be.

But we should not base our decisions primarily on how we can extract the most money from the people we do business with. Rather, we should commit to giving as much value as possible to the other party. Then we set our prices accordingly. Always give more than you plan to get.

On Christmas day, a terrific story about giving was posted online. You really should listen to The Big Give, a 15-minute story by Jim Signorelli. A lot of things come into perspective as you listen to Jim describe one particularly memorable Christmas.


Isn’t Selling to the ‘Lizard Brain’ the Goal?

In The Art of Planting Ideas, we talked about how the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the human brain goes dormant while watching movies on the big screen, television shows and sometimes even marketing videos.

Understanding people, how they think and why they do what they do is the foundation of marketing. Knowing why certain tactics and triggers work makes you much more effective at applying the what and how of selling and marketing.

Why does the relative inactivity of the PFC even matter? Don’t people always buy based on emotion? Isn’t the goal to sell to the “lizard brain” anyway? First, let me say that I find the term “lizard” or “reptilian brain” ridiculous (although the phrase itself is both visual and visceral, making it a great use of language). This part of the brain – the limbic system – is not some genetic hand-me-down of an evolutionary process. (In fact, the “three-brain theory” has been largely rejected by modern neuroscience. Most marketing educators are clinging to old, invalidated information.)  I find that the radical self-interest of the human race can be traced back to choices Adam made back in Eden. The more I learn about psychology and neurology, the more clearly I can explain why marketing works from a Biblical perspective. (Maybe we’ll talk about that another time.)

I prefer the term “old brain” instead of “lizard brain“?

Back to the point…

The desires that drive our decision-making, including purchasing decisions, do come from the old brain. They’re more emotional than intellectual. That’s why we focus on appealing to the emotions in sales and marketing.

But the prefrontal cortex is still in control of the executive function, i.e. the ability to guide thought and action in accordance with internal goals. We aren’t lizards! Desires still have to make it past the PFC, which processes the logical outcomes of acting on that desire. This is the reason why “reason why” advertising works.  Marketers have to provide the necessary ammunition to rationalize the purchase. Check out Simon Sinek’s 2009 TEDx presentation explaining why “why” matters. (I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but it’s still worth watching.)

Ultimately, desires are rooted deeper than logic and rationality, but the PFC almost always has the final authority.

Have you ever wanted to punch someone right in the mouth? Have you seen yourself do it in your mind’s eye? Most of us have. But most of us don’t act on that desire. That’s the executive function at work, overriding emotion.

That means you sell to the emotions, but you can’t neglect the intellect in the process.

So, is the PFC-paralyzing power of video good or bad? It is inherently neutral. It can be used for evil purposes, e.g. the Nazi propaganda film “The Triumph of the Will.” It can also be used for good. In either case, it’s effective.

A good story can have a similar effect on the brain. When you’re engrossed in narrative, the brain makes its own mental movie to watch the story unfold. Robert Collier said it well: “The mind thinks in pictures, you know. One good illustration is worth a thousand words. But one clear picture built up in the reader’s mind by your words is worth a thousand drawings, for the reader colors that picture with his own imagination, which is more potent than all the brushes of all the world’s artists.”



How Do I Get People to Want What I Sell? Part 3

In Parts 1 and 2 of this short course, we’ve been talking about intensifying your potential customers’ built-in desires and directing them towards the thing that you’re selling. There’s a common thread tying together each of the points we’ve covered. Perhaps you’ve noticed.

You use your words to paint vivid, evocative images in the minds of your prospects…their response will correspond directly with their desires, motivations and priorities…

You base your marketing messages or sales pitch on the quest they’re on, the vision they have for their lives and the way they see their place in the world…

You do your best to be convincing…but those who become your customers are those who convince themselves that you can deliver the results they want.

Do you see it? Conversion is essentially a self-initiated change. All persuasion is self-persuasion.

Persuasion’s Passive-Aggressive Nature

“No matter how brilliantly an idea is stated, we will not really be moved unless we have already half thought of it ourselves.” ~ Mignon McLaughlin

If you’re honest, you know deep down that this quote speaks to real experience.

As irresistible your message may seem to you, what really matters is how it matches up with what the hearer thinks–about himself (his quest)… about the problem you’re addressing or promise you’re making… about you.

For example, if he believes he was born to be an entrepreneur and that reading a book can speed up the process and increase his chances of success, he’ll actively search for those kinds of books.

If he believes that “I could never succeed in business” and that starting a business a risk reserved for richer, more educated people, “be your own boss” products won’t appeal to him.

Vision Is the Delivery Mechanism

In order to get someone to buy from you, you need him to be convinced that your product or service will give him what he wants. To do that, you have to give him the materials he needs to convince himself. That brings us back to the concept of building vision.

When you’re helping your prospect imagine all the wonderful tomorrows that are sure to come after he buys your product… when he can see himself enjoying a brighter future because of you, he’s really selling himself on your proposition. Of course you’re doing your part: feeding him the raw materials he needs to see that mental image. This is where copywriting, storytelling, demonstration and testimonials come into play.

You want him to come to a predetermined conclusion: that your product is his best option to achieve the transformation he’s looking for. Rather than stating that too explicitly (which will probably be a turn-off for most potential clients), you want to help him draw that conclusion on his own. As Blaise Pascal said, “People are usually more convinced by reasons they discovered themselves than by those found by others.”

When he decides that you’re the best choice based on his own “reasoning,” you’ve won a firmly-convinced convert.


Another Angle on Storytelling

As you may already know, storytelling can be a powerful tool in any marketer’s repertoire. Crafting and telling engaging stories is an important skill to develop. A good story can neutralize the automatic resistance that arises when people feel like someone is “selling” something by engaging their minds in a different way than ad-speak and sales pitches do.

Let’s look at this issue from a different angle. Even when you’re telling a great story about your business or personal brand, there is something important you have to deal with. Allow me to introduce the idea with a quote from Perry Marshall.

“Stories run deep. If you want to change the story you’ve been in to the story you want to be in, it’s best to just assume it’s going to take everything you’ve got. If there’s a resource that is capable of improving your story, you should avail yourself of it.”

Everyone is the protagonist of his or her own story. The story is his world and how he sees his place in it. It’s how she thinks about herself. Every day the plot progresses, characters come and go, and so forth.

The story you want to tell as a business owner, service provider, etc., doesn’t matter at all unless it intersects with your customers’ individual stories.

That’s why your selling and marketing has to be about them.

Think about it: no matter how interesting and compelling a story about lipstick may be, most men are never going to buy the product. We may enjoy the dramatic unfolding of the plot or be fascinated by the characters involved, but we’re not buying. It doesn’t impact our story as masculine individuals.

Plot Development

Every story has conflict. The main character is seeking something she wants or needs, or she’s fighting against the bad guy.

Let’s look at an example that most of us are familiar with. In the recent movie Captain America, the hero Steve Rogers starts out as less-than hero material. He’s scrawny, frail and completely unable to do the one thing he desperately wants to do: join the army and serve his country. Watching the first few scenes, you get a good grasp of the story Rogers is living in. Do you know your customers that well?

Enter Dr. Erskine, a brilliant scientist who can change the protagonist’s entire story around. He can get him into the army and give him the physical prowess to become a true force on the battlefield.

In movies and novels, magical or futuristic scientific elements, like Dr. Erskine’s technology, are often used to cause a major change and push the narrative forward. Why can’t your product or service fill that role? If you genuinely solve problems, create opportunities and improve people’s lives, you can enter your customers’ story right at that point of need.

The magic is that you’re helping people get something they’re struggling without, or helping them eliminate issues they can’t handle by themselves.


Eucatastrophe is a term coined by J.R.R. Tolkien. He used the word to describe a “sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” It is a fortuitous event which leads to the hero overcoming the conflict in the story, leading to the happy ending he always had in mind.

Your business can be a eucatastrophe in the story of your target audience. You can be the person or team who helps them attain the things they’ve been dreaming of. Those dreams may seem impossible, but you can enter their stories and bring the untouchable within reach.

Here are a few ideas to keep in mind.

1) You are never the hero of the story. You’re the “plot device” that empowers the hero (your customer) to get to “happily ever after.”

2) Yes, I’m going to keep saying this: you have to know your audience. You have to know who needs what you’ve got.

The better acquainted you are with their pains and aspirations, the more equipped you’ll be to enter their story at the appropriate point and provide awesome results when you get there.

3) Don’t be an uninvited guest in the story. In Captain America, Dr. Erskine didn’t kidnap Rogers and perform his experiments. He gave him the option. Of course he’d say “yes” because the offer was exactly what he was already hoping for.

Even if something is good for people, forcing it on people won’t work well. Offer your product or services in a way that enables those who want what you’re selling to come to you.

4) Dr. Erskine also used a weeding-out process to select the right candidate to become his super-soldier. He didn’t want to work with just anyone.

To protect your story (and sanity), be selective about who you target and work with. You may have to turn down deals and reject clients. Set your standards and stick to them.


Devious Plans for World Domination

How’s 2012 going for you so far? I hope your plans are big ones! Big visions are what leads to big breakthroughs. Why settle for small progress?

What if your goal was to rule entire planet? What would it take to pull that off?

While world domination is not in my schedule for this year, ask your favorite conspiracy theorist and he’ll be more than happy to describe who is plotting a global takeover and exactly how they plan to do it with minute detail.

Conspiracy theorists are usually written off as paranoid nutcases with too much time on their hands. But have you ever noticed not fiery adherents of any particular theory get when expressing their ideas? How loyal they are to their chosen “whistleblowers?” Could you stand to have some of these kinds of followers?

I don’t have a figure for how much money is floating around in the conspiracy theory space, but some people build full-blown careers out of it, Alex Jones possibly being the most notable example.

As business people and communicators, there are numerous lessons we can learn from how the “good” theorists operate. Let’s look at two major takeaways today.

(Note: For the record, I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I’m not saying real conspiracies never take place…)

Dramatic Characters

No one can deny that the people who concoct these vast conspiracy theories are dramatic personas. They tend to have intriguing pasts; they used to perform experiments in Area 51, or they worked in a secret office at the Federal Reserve. Because of their experience, they’ve become privy to information that is being concealed from the rest of us regular citizens.

There’s a good chance that there have been attempts to kidnap or even assassinate them to silence their voices.

These whistleblowers take a passionate stand against the bad guys (whoever they might be) and against secrecy. They stand passionately for truth and for the good of the population at large (or at least those who will listen).

Are you or your business passionate advocates for your customers and clients? Do people in the market for what you offer see you taking a strong stand for their good? Are you boldly standing against their enemies and anything that might endanger their well-being?

Are you revealing information clients need, but can’t get anywhere else? Are you telling them the truth when no one else has the guts to?

This sort of pathos is uncommon. It will anger a lot of people. But you will also attract more committed followers than you could ever get otherwise. You’ll definitely be harder to ignore.

Intense, Comprehensive Stories

It’s nearly impossible to find stories with more intricate detail than good conspiracy theories. They dive deep into the shadows of events and organizations we don’t fully understand, uncovering clues of hidden agendas. They paint pictures illustrating the reality behind the mysterious. They answer unsolvable questions, point out inconsistencies and point fingers at people we know (but don’t really know). Breaking news meets secret history.

Controversy is appealing. Mystery is magnetic. These narratives take our curiosity and run. You almost have to question everything you thought you knew.

And they cover all their bases. Claiming George Washington was a Martian invader won’t cut it. They provide extensive “documentation” to prove it! Then they explain all the implications of those facts.

Are you making big statements that call into question harmful myths that are hurting your audience? Are you appropriately controversial?

Do you add proof elements and “documentation” to back up the claims you make about your business? Do you offer complete solutions and have answers for any questions your customers might want to know?

Do you have a well-thought out, customer-centric company narrative, culture and/or value system?

Conspiracy theories also create a scary bad guy, or at least define exactly who the bad guy is. They channel paranoia, distrust and anger toward this source of evil. Having an enemy is a powerful motivator. Assembling a group around a common enemy creates an incredible bond. Think of the Cold War. Every American knew who the enemy of world peace and progress was: communism, most clearly expressed in the Soviet Union. The culture and many of the policies of the entire nation were shaped by the fear and hatred of the enemy.

Americans also knew the threat posed by this enemy: nuclear war. That’s what was at stake.

Who or what is the “bad guy” your audience is up against? It could be something like a lack of respect they face in the marketplace or a difficulty getting clients. It could be a governmental policy that’s bleeding them dry.

What is the threat this enemy poses? What’s at stake for them? Bankruptcy? Heart attack? Embarrassment when speaking in public? Don’t be afraid to attack the bad guy! You can be the knight in shining armor, helping your customers fight off their foes and protect them from their version of nuclear war.

Most of your peers promote their products and services like this: “We are Acme Co. We sell anvils and dynamite to coyotes like you.” But Wile E. doesn’t want anvils and explosives. He wants to finally catch that slippery Road Runner and have a tasty meal. How much more interesting would their message be if they talked about that?

Think about it.


Sharing The Other Side of the Story

Storytelling is a very hot topic right now, and I chimed in from a unique perspective in my December newsletter.

It’s rare that I do this, but I’m making this edition available to the general public. I think it’s that important.

Take a gander at “Another Angle on Storytelling.

My point, as tends to be the case, is this: even when telling your story, IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.


Recommended Reading:
lowercase branding – What’s really important when it comes to building an incredible brand?