Bring Your Badass Story Home To Your Reader

Thursday, 5:34pm
Reno, NV
Okay, I’m tired of snow now…


Let’s take a deep dive into storytelling, what d’ya say?

And, if you’re still up for it, let’s do another exercise to get our chops honed to dangerous “street-wise salesmanship” levels.

If your final goal is to sell stuff, then you need to be able to bring your story home to a reader.

And before anyone starts huffing about how “crass” that sounds, let’s get straight on something right here:

Most of the stories in our modern culture are about selling.

Movies sell stars, and sell themselves.

Television stories are just attention place-holders for commercials. (You think actors get the big bucks because they’re “good”? No way. It’s because they connect with a paying audience. Bob Hope was one of the richest actors to hit the stage, and he never even tried to “really” act — he just goofed his way through a stunningly-lucrative career. But people identified with him, and he cashed in on that identity.)

If you think stories should be “pure”, then move away from society.

Even your weird Uncle Whazoo has an agenda with most of his stories.

He wants attention, he wants to shock and entertain, or maybe he just feels family gatherings would kill the young-un’s with boredom if he didn’t retell the adventure behind his filthy hula dancer tatoo.

So, just to refresh: If you offer something that your prospect needs or wants… then shame on you if you don’t use every tactic available to get your sales message across so the poor guy can justify buying it.

And stories are a killer way to set that situation up.



So… back to the lesson.

Limiting your stories to just 3 lines will help you become more concise.

Even the most rollicking tale can put people to sleep if it’s too long, and has too many tangents.

And most people are not natural storytellers… so they ramble off on quirky paths, repeating themselves, unable to clearly explain plots, and bombarding the listener with irrelevant bullshit.

Like this:

“Did I tell you about the UFO that attacked us? No? It was Tuesday last week… no, wait, it was Wednesday. Yeah, it must have been Wednesday, because I was headed to IHOP to meet Suzy for waffles — you know they have specials every Wednesday, don’t you…”

↑ That there is how people get strangled.↑

In my long experience trying to force people to tell better stories, the first task is nearly always trimming the excess verbiage and fluff.

The outline to follow is:

  • Set up (the tease of the payoff to come)
  • Plot elementsaction (the fulfillment of the tease)…
  • The moral. Which doesn’t have to actually be “moral” in any righteous sense — it’s just the punch line of the story.

You have a reason to tell your story. It could vary from pure entertainment, to pure desire to sell lots of stuff.

When you’re done, you want your listener or reader to FEEL something.

  • Happiness (aww, the puppy got rescued)…
  • Alarm (my God, I’m gonna keep a loaded gun by my bedside from here on out)…
  • Astonishment (my neighbors are doing what at night?)…
  • Or, yes, even greed (hey! I want that kind of deal, too!)

To be more biological about it… the process can also be described like this: Foreplay… climax… resolution.

Stories, like sex, benefit from a focus on the goal. The less extraneous interruption, the better.

In other words: It’s not about you at all, even if you’re the star of the story.

Rollicking stories are always about your reader.

Need a fast and inexpensive way to hone your copywriting chops? You can’t go wrong with doing it in an afternoon – for FREE. Get all the details right here.

Ideally, your reader will “see” himself in your story. Or feel like he’s temporarily “in” the world you create with your words.

Have you ever read a story to a kid? Once they get the taste for it, just saying “Once upon a time…” will glaze their eyes over, as they eagerly prepare themselves to be transported to a world far different than their own.

(Side rant: I think it’s a friggin’ travesty that kids today are being shielded from the violence and chaotic messages of such wild tales as the Brothers Grimm laid out. I had zero idea what life was like in the Middle Ages, but I readily suspended all disbelief because I craved the story so badly. If everyone was wearing lederhosen and eating gruel — whatever that was — then fine. Just make sure the wicked witch or headless horseman scared the bejesus out of me.) (And I grew up fine. The real world, and all the people in it, is not some Kumbaya fantasy… and the often morbid lessons of classic children’s tales are damn good preparation for living amonst the deceit, the unfairness, the unpredictability, and the raw unbridled terror of reality. So there.)

This concept of “transporting” is critical, by the way.

You’re driving the story, and it’s your responsibility to keep it on the road. Your reader will abandon you at the first hint you don’t know where we’re going… and he’ll despise you for getting his hopes up for a good tale, if you then dash them with a feeble punch line.

That’s why striving for pithy, concise stories is so important for writers. Set up… action… punch line.

This 3-line classic is one of the best: 

“I’ve been poor. And I’ve been rich. Rich is better.”

No need for any other detail. In this example, the words “rich” and “poor” are Power Words.

They carry their own payload of emotional backstory with them, because in this context nearly everyone will have a feeling about the concept of being rich, and a feeling (probably very personal and visceral) about being poor.

No one needs a long-winded rant about HOW poor you were, or HOW rich you were.

Concise, memorable stories pack a punch.

Even better, there is a segue into the life of the reader in that 3-line beauty. “Rich is better” may seem like an obvious statement, but coupled with the set-up lines, it delivers a strong message that smacks of truth.

Now, the classical “rags to riches” sales pitch requires more detail, of course. But not so much that you lose the flow of a quick story, told with feeling, ripe with implications for the reader.

However, good ad copy doesn’t rest on implications.

It’s got to move quickly to specifics.

So here’s a simple tactic from my Bag of Tricks that has helped me bring many a story “home” to readers:

  1. First, you tell your story, and you aim for the kind of breathless prose that makes your prospect afraid to exhale, for fear of missing a delicious detail.
  2. Then, you tidy it up. Deliver the punch line, or the moral, or just the ending. Don’t try any clever transitions back into your sales pitch.

Instead, you merely say:

“And here’s what that means for YOU…”

When reading fables to kids, any such attempt to explain the moral would ruin the transcendant pleasure of listening to stories. Ideally, you’d want the end of the story to rattle around in their heads, while they mulled over the ethical implications and came up with their own (right) conclusion. (Kids hate it when adults wag fingers and try to force lessons on them.)

But when writing to adults, you can’t assume anything.

Adults are so numb to incoming data, they will suck up even a great story, absorb it, and move on to the next volley of arriving stimuli without coming to any conclusion whatsoever.

So, as the copywriter, it’s your job to complete the thought.

Not in any condescending way, of course. You just continue the thread, going deeper into your sales message.

“I’ve been poor. And I’ve been rich. Rich is better. And here’s what that means for you:”

You can continue on with your life believing that ‘money can’t buy happiness’ if that makes you feel better… but I’m here to tell you that having a pile of extra cash is actually a fabulous feeling… and your life will get better almost immediately. Plus, since I’ve already done the hard work of going from clean broke to filthy rich, I know all the shortcuts… and I’ll share them with you…

Et cetera.

Ready for your assignment?

Tell a short, 3-line story (using the concept of set up, plot, action and punch line)… and then write a one or two line segue bringing your story home to your reader.

You’re allowed to be non-sensical for this exercise. In other words, you don’t actually have to be selling anything. You can make it all up.

Just think — really, really hard — about how the moral or punch line of your story MIGHT lead to a sales message.

(Another side rant: If you read all the stories in the comments section of my previous posts, you probably noticed the frequency of “we met, we kissed, something went wrong” stories in the submission pile. That’s great — to get good at story telling, you first want to practice (a LOT) with telling tales that have emotional impact or meaning to you. Everyone remembers their first legitimate kiss. (Those sloppy pecks from Auntie Mame don’t count./End rant)

Most people’s stories tend to be pretty typical, but if they’re told right, they can still be funny, or shocking, or even corny in a way that gets the reader nodding in agreement.

And while it may not seem obvious that you could possibly sell anything, after sharing the humorous story of your first fumbling efforts at romance in junior high… just reflect on all the commercials and ads you’ve seen that blatantly couple sex and product.

Heck, they sell laundry detergent with sex.

And while Warren Buffett might put you to sleep with his theories on compound interest, a real entrepreneur would explain the exact same concept from the deck of his yacht, surrounded by bikini-clad beauties. And get more attention, too.

Be concise, and bring it home to the reader.

You cannot “fail” at this exercise, because you’re just warming up your chops.

And, as a number of commenters noted, these are MEGA-important exercises if you want to get good. You COULD have been honing your storytelling chops all along, every day of your life. But you didn’t, did you.

Because no one challenged you to do it.

So, here is an excuse to engage that scary brain of yours, and force it to work for you, for once.

You don’t learn to ride without hopping into the saddle. And it’s okay to fall off, as long as you climb back on.

Stay frosty…

John Carlton

P.S. Stories sell. It’s just that simple… That’s why honing your storytelling chops can change the game for anyone who is an entrepreneur or copywriter…

You’ll find a lot more about storytelling and other pro copywriting tactics here… 

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  • David D. says:

    John, just wanted to say that not all kids are shielded from the grimness of the Grimms. As good Waldorfian children, mine were raised on a diet of unadultered Grimm. And they were (and are) constantly being told stories in the Waldorf school that instruct and inspire and help them develop. They even learned their 3 R’s with stories. Math, for example, was frst taught with stories of a king whose gnomes added, subtracted, multiplied and divided his wealth. (Waldorf is big on gnomes. The joke is that when they get to Waldorf high school and take a computer course, they’ll be told there little gnomes inside the machine transporting the data around. And my son has oxymoronically christened the basketball team “The Fighting Gnomes. But I digress.)

    Seeing how stories have helped them has given me a real appreciation for the power of stories. In February and March I’m taking a workshop in storytelling with a local storyteller. And, of course, improv is all about telling stories.

    Perhaps ironically, what I’ve always found most difficult, though, is making up stories on the spot for them.


    David D.

  • John P says:

    I’ve had 2 sultry scorching love affairs in my life.

    The first lavished me with 2 breathtaking children. The second red-hot love affair was transcendent.

    Both women were shocked when I asked them out by responding with “Who Me?”

    This is critical because it illustrates you never know where life-altering results present themselves.

  • Pavel says:

    You’ve got to know WHAT to do, and HOW to do it. That was the line he heard over and over. Yet one day he came to realize… something was missing.

    …and he figured it out. In the first place, it’s what you do it FOR. And that makes all the difference.

    Now you may ask how on earth it may relate to this message. Let me tell you something, nobody in this field will ever tell you. I will.

    (the end of teaser:))

  • Greg Thompson says:

    Sex for the first time shook me to the core with anxiety – but when the moment of truth arrived, her flushed skin and silly expression screamed “you’re the best I’ve ever had” more than any words ever could describe.

    Looks like memorizing all those sex books beforehand wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.

    What this means to you is there’s no need to buckle down and study anything – simply flip through my book to any page and in minutes you’ll grasp skills the likes of which Cassanova himself would be jealous.

  • Leo says:

    But above all, the most painful part of the whole experience was the way my wife looked at me when they told us that the whole thing COULD HAVE BEEN EASILY PREVENTED!

    No marriage should ever have to endure what ours did (in fact, some couples decide to just give up as a result).

    The good news for you: my story does not have to be your story, too. You can save yourself all of the hassle and the disappointment simply by….

  • Michael says:

    Been attending too may funerals lately…..seems winter brings the passing of too many of the good ones in a gray and bitterly cold winter laden Ohio…and yet as for me? I plan to live forever….in the event, different plans prevail…I plan on living until I die.

  • Nick Maxwell says:

    Hey John,

    Love your blog – keep it comin’.

    Okay, I’m dumb – where ARE the stories? Looked in all the corners and under the carpet, can’t find’em.


    PS ‘Sick of the snow’ ??? Hence ‘Stay frosty’?

    PPS I’m in Spain, no snow… just really good wine

    PPPS and cheap too…

  • DonGraff says:

    PeeWee was the ultimate friend.
    You’d never doubt her loyalty or conviction.
    But as the pickup truck turned the corner,
    you knew my life was about to change…

  • DonGraff says:

    …( PeeWee Part 2 )
    The message was clear. You cannot continue as you have.
    > PeeWee showed me the Truth, & it’s here for You.
    > If the student is ready, the message will appear.
    > Your answer is waiting, delivery is moments away…

  • John McCabe says:

    The woman who is now my wife and I were steaming up the car windows one night after a date. I kept asking her if she was ready to go farther. “Yes, keep going…” she kept moaning. By the time the sun rose, we’d gone almost 300 miles…

    So what does this mean to you? Buddy, you need to get a clue like I did, and start listening to what your woman really wants; you’ll get a lot more scrambled eggs with her wearing one of your shirts, and a lot less blue oysters. And I’ll teach you where to find the clues you need…

  • Jay says:

    The wise man sat on top of the mountain answering questions from visitors across the world.

    He didn’t move for years because he was sought by so many and so regularly.

    He died at 42, he was obese… was he wise?

  • Emette E. Massey says:

    Hi John,

    Your server rejected my previous post so I’m submitting my “assignment” again . . .

    After a long night of diligent drinking, the super heroes emerge from the depths of our souls ready to conquer the lofty top of a construction crane and back down.

    Why stop when another mission is wooing us nearby—testing the waters of an Olympic sized hot tub filled with near scalding water.

    Soon after our capes vanish, our souls returned to normal and our super powers traded in for aching heads.

    Youth sometimes overrides common sense and rarely obeys, but alcohol has a mind of it’s own and always obeys it’s true desires.

  • Kevin F. says:

    If you own or operate an online business, and you would like to turn that business into a giant, profit-generating machine in as short a period of time as possible, then this just might be the most important message you ever read!

    Here’s why:

    There is a man who lives out in Reno, Nevada named John Carlton who (in my opinion) knows more about how to take any online business and almost immediately force it to produce HUGE piles of cold, hard cash than almost any other man alive!

    Now John doesn’t work with just anybody, and normally you would have to stand in line for months and shell out thousands of dollars to even get him interested in working on your project, but now, because of…

  • Ken Calhoun says:

    That’s the single best explanation of what storytelling should be about, that I’ve ever read. Thanks a million, John – now *that’s* what I’ve been looking for, and you delivered exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks so much. All the tips about transport, prospect involvement, the ending – brilliantly told. I’m printing out this post.
    Thank you.

    -ken calhoun

  • Emette E. Massey says:


    I was just sitting playing (in my head) an old Eagler tune “Hotel California” and something just occured to me . . .

    Many of the greatest songs ever written seem to follow alot of the same outline and theme you are suggesting: setup – plot – action – punch or moral.

    In fact most songs tell a complete story of sorts with few words. If you actually read lyrics you really gain a true understand of what the songwriter is trying to convey.

    Just a thought.

    I appreciate you providing these excellent mind stretching assignment and you’re feedback to boot.

    I forget who said it but the idea was if you want to be a writer you must write. And this purposeful prodding is great for developing our writing talents.



  • martino says:

    Hey man. Love your blog. Just a quick idea John

    You seem to have a TON of experience. You probably know the big markets inside & out.

    You should release a ‘pain points’ type product that profiles the major 20 or so markets & what they are REALLY looking for, so that marketers could focus on those issues in their letters.

    It’s too hard to decifier the real wants of particular markets from existing letters b/c 70%+ of letters seem to have the wrong focus.

    I’d buy such a product. Even it was just a 2 page pdf. I’d buy it for $100, no questions asked.

    Rock on.

  • Nick says:

    Being fat is miserable. Losing weight is not easy, but it’s worth the effort.

    I’ve been in your shoes. I know the frustration and self hate that comes with failing at yet another diet. After a while you convince yourself that it’s impossible for you to be thin, that you have bad genes or a slow metabolism… And you’re probably right! That means you will have to work a little harder then the next person to get a lean attractive body, but it’s more then worth it, and with my 24 hour dieters hot line I’ll be right by your side every step of the way.

  • Bill says:

    I fell guilty about it even today, but while my earnest and hard-working older brother busted his ass to get good grades only to get into the local state university, I did every drug known to high-school students and missed so many classes that my English teacher once asked who I was when I finally showed up one day.

    And yet I got into the same top university that rejected him.

    Worse yet, I got in because I took the option of writing an essay on the application, which I used to confess all my drug addled sins.

    “What sort of justice is that?” my father moaned.

    Well, being a copywriter, he should have known…

    It’s the power of words.

    Words can trump the reality, experience and perceptions of those who read them. Words open doors, change lives, destroy lives, and even change history.

    Obviously, then, even the humblest of words can sell stuff.

    Oh hell….. I overwrote again.

  • Louis says:

    I finally realized why I’d agreed to judge the middle school science fair. Before my eyes was a project with a picture of an iPod with it’s USB cable plugged into an onion to charge it. The data said the experiment had succeeded zero out of two trials and that he should have used Gatorade instead of Poweraid because it had more electrolytes.

    The moral of the story is not to believe everything you see on YouTube.

  • Udo Hoffmann says:

    So you want a 3 line story that sells eh? Oki here ya go.

    At Thermopylae 300 Trojans stemmed the advance of 200,000.

    Today 1 Trojan can stop half a million.

    We’ve gotten better

  • Patrick says:

    A few years ago I heard about a guy in the concrete industry who was a legend. Not at laying concrete, but his ability to get the job right then and there on the spot.

    As rumor had it, he could walk around the house with the owner
    once …and by the time he got around the other side he had the job and a deposit in his hand.

    I worked for the guy for a while and he used to boast gleefully… “That Patrick, I taught him everything he knows. He was good… but I never taught him the last chapter!” Then he laughs his head off about it.

    That’s the truth, he never did teach me, I had to learn it
    myself… and that’s the thing with selling, nobody
    (including sales coaches) ever tells you the bit that really counts. They come right up to the edge of it, and don’t tell you that crucial ingredient.

    By the way, now I’m the one who gets the quote first, on the spot, and when he gets there, it’s already long gone.

    Heres what that crucial ingredient will do for you . . .

    Back to my blogging buddies.
    “Yeah, I know it’s goes over three lines, but that is a true story, every word of it”

  • FS says:

    As I stepped to the edge of the cliff my heart started pounding so hard I was sure I’d pass out if I didn’t jump soon. Once my body was airborne, it all went away – no thoughts, no fear, no time, no concepts, just reality one heartbeat at a time. Little did I know that I would use this experience repeatedly throughout my life as a tool for pushing through fear and taking action.

    Here’s what that means for you: If you often find yourself paralyzed by fear at the critical moment of making a potentially life changing decision, I can tell you from experience that pushing through the fear or failure to do so will have a greater impact on your future than the outcome of the decision itself. Having been there many times, I can show you the secret of how to push through your fear and into the zone where action is taken and dreams turned into reality.

  • Ian says:

    For 12 years my dog has chased thousands of small animals, never catching one.

    This morning she got the edge on a squirrel, clamped down on its tail and slung the furry projectile 3 feet in the air.

    After a quick THUD it vanished into the safety of the bush, her only catch was gone.

    Look: You can chase something your whole life but never know what to do when you get it! That’s why you should read about my new book about keeping the girl of your dreams happy.

  • Joni says:

    Good to see you are doing well…hope you are happy!

    from your ol massage therapist….j

  • dmh says:

    The drunken Mets fan shouldn’t have stood a chance against this sober, muscular 4th dan black-belt – not a burning chance in hell.

    But, within just four sloppy and brutal seconds this slow and predictable oaf had left a ‘karate-master’ out-cold and bleeding on the sticky barroom floor.


    Basically because he knew some simple and constantly overlooked secrets to street-fighting that are so easy, he could even use them blind-drunk to beat-down a black-belt! If you want to find out how you can use these to…then…

    (Thanks John, hope I’m improving!)

  • Rodney Daut says:

    I used to dread parties with pools. I never wanted to take my shirt off and have everyone see my “man boobs.” One spring I was already dreading the summer months and decided I’d had enough. I was going to lose the fat no matter what. I did some research to find some simple ways to lose weight that even a lazy bum like me could use. I learned that I could raise my metabolism by…

  • […] Did you know that a lot of top copywriters refer to storytelling as the million dollar step? It’s quite simple. Stories sell. Want to get my inside secrets for crafting a riveting tale? Here’s a great place to start that’s also free. […]

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