Category Archives for storytelling

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… 

You, The Movie Version

Sunday, 6:35pm
Reno, NV
Crispy clear evening, with a canopy of stars twinkling like lighters during a Neil Young encore…


I’m gonna ask you to write a little mini-script here in a minute. For your “inner” home movie.

You did know your life is a movie, right?

Okay, maybe you’re no DiCaprio or Clooney or Scarlett… or even Giametti… but you’re the star of your own show just the same.

There’s a script, which you have enormous sway with. You don’t like the way things are going, do a rewrite.

There’s direction, and even lighting. You want something flashy or big to happen… well, you can arrange it. Whatever you want, as long as you’ve got the cojones to get after it. (No, you’re not guaranteed to get what you want… but if that’s how you want your movie to go, you can at least call for it in your script. Run for prez, dude, if that floats your boat. Heck, if the current crop thinks they’re worthy, then most of the rest of us are, too.)

Lighting, by the way, plays a bigger role in your life than you might realize. Most of us live under ridiculously harsh wattage, both at work and at home… and it’s like blasting angry music into your head all the time. It can change the way you see yourself, and act in the world. Heck — bright lights are used as “extreme interrogation” methods by the CIA. So is Barry Manilow music, as well as thrash metal. Because relentless use of it hurts.

As a side note: Experiment with the subtle elements of your life. Get some indirect lighting for your office, use non-white bulbs or even candles… you don’t have to go for any kind of gaudy bordello-style mood, but just try lighting your stage differently for a little while. See how it affects the way you do things.

Same with music — get out of your rut, for sure, but also stretch a bit. My iPod is crammed with rock and roll, but also lots of classical and acid jazz and country and folk and alternative stuff. And I carefully plan out hour-long playlists that create a mood, and keep it going.

When you live like you’re a star, you pay attention to these kinds of details.

The benefits: Time slows down… routines become exercises in pleasurable rites rather than zombie habits… and your awareness level kicks up a notch.

All are excellent tools for living well… and being a better marketer.

Especially the “awareness” part.

Have you ever wondered where the knack for finding stories and hooks — the main ingredient of any great copywriter’s bag of tricks — comes from?

It’s a direct result of being hyper-aware. Of living life like the greatest movie ever filmed.

Think about your life.

No, seriously. Think about it.

Most people have trouble “seeing” themselves in the world at all. Without a mirror, they’re not even sure they exist. Their daily experiences are like watching a “monkey cam” — the filmed result of attaching a camera to the back of a chimp and letting him wander off.

It’s not a smooth, thought-out, coherent narrative. Instead, it’s jerky, chaotic, and (unless there are “happy accidents”) mostly boring.

There. I’ve said it.

Most people lead boring lives.

And do you know why?

It’s because they refuse to believe they have any control over the script, plot, or action of their life. And, if you don’t believe you do, then you don’t. That’s the way it works, most of the time.

I’m not talking about adopting a selfish attitude of “it’s all about me”. No way. Most of the really savvy people you know — the ones who have their personal and biz lives put together well — are not selfish weasels. And yet, they live like they’re the center of the action, because they are.

Doesn’t have to be a “movie” metaphor, either. Think of yourself as the protaganist in a great novel, or the hero of the best video game ever created. (Don’t be that guy who dresses like a Wookie, though. When you finally kick your life into high gear, it will be part action, part comedy, part drama, part tragedy, and yes, part fantasy… but try to think in well-rounded terms. It’s a mistake to get hung up on any one thing, because it’s so limiting. Expand. Live large.)

Whatever works for you, works. It may take you a little time to get clear on what kind of script you really want — most novice goal-seekers screw it up the first few times (like thinking they really, really, really want something… and then being disappointed when they get it).

But you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly, if you just realize this gift of consciousness you’ve been given. The natural tendency of any human being who has attained some measure of creature comfort, is to sleep-walk through the rest of his days.

And that’s not living. That’s zombie city.

Living your life like a movie means that you are constantly aware of the ROLE you play. It can change, or mutate, or solidify… but all of that can be your choice. Part of the plot twist, if you want.

You can never control EVERYTHING, of course. No one’s ever said you can. Every second of your existence is fraught with unpredictable events, from earthquakes and heart attacks to stalkers and food poisoning. Or an unexpected call from the ex. Or a hacker discovering your bank password.

Nevertheless, there remains a HUGE portion of your moment-to-moment life that you CAN control. If you choose.

And getting into the swing of writing your own script as much as you can, will redirect your life in ways that please you. You become the captain of your ship.

The OTHER advantage of living this way… is that the STORIES of your life become more vivid.

And the best copywriters and marketers and salesmen in the universe… are all great storytellers. Without exception.

Again, think about your life.

Consider how it has progressed in actual chapters, or acts. Maybe it’s as straightforward as childhood, adulthood, starting a biz, getting married. Or maybe it’s more nuanced, in peculiar ways that make sense to you but may sound fuzzy to outsiders. (I know guys who have sectioned thier past under the heading of whichever female was in their life at the time: Jo (junior high), Nancy (freshman year), Roberta (summer he got his license), Yolanda (first part-time job),etc. They will fry your ear with great stories, too.)

The more precise you can be, the better your stories will become. And the better your OWN parcel of stories are, the better you can spot — and use — stories from the world around you when you’re writing to influence and persuade.

I was really lucky to grow up in a family of storytellers. And since I was the youngest by 8 years, I learned quickly to be pithy and interesting… or to lose the floor (because few people have the patience for meandering stories with no punch line, especially from kids).

My auto-biography is already written, you know. In my head. It’s been a work in progress since the day I first realized I was alive… and I remember vivid, interesting stories from every minor period of my life.

Stories aid memory, and retention, you know. Every ancient culture on earth was based on stories until writing came along. They HAD to be short, fascinating and memorable, too… because any story not retained, was lost forever.

Even if this “consider the movie of your life” concept is new to you… you should be able to look back and see how certain periods of your life evolved. You don’t have to get it all organized right away… take your time. Focus on some pleasant period, and re-gather the stories from that period into a mental file cabinet.

I also urge you to write these stories down. In short, well-thought-out vinettes that pass the “won’t bore your buddies” test.

In other words… leave out the dull parts. You can write up the longer version — the “director’s cut” that only you will truly appreciate — for personal indulgence… but while you’re honing your storytelling chops for the outside world, focus on short, crisp, rollicking tales that get to the point quickly.

The best stories are concise little mini-movies. With a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or, like a good joke, with a premise, a set-up, and a punch line.

They can be serious, or funny, or rueful, or just “hmmm” inducing.

But they must be complete stories. Remember Suzy, your first real relationship? Sure, it went on for a long time, and any day-to-day explanation would put even someone tweaked on speed to sleep.

So start editing, with an audience in mind. For example, to strut your credentials for understanding young love: “Suzy, the first love of my life. Teenagers, convinced we would live forever, and no one had ever felt a love so strong before. We spent most of our time in the back seat, or in secluded spots, fumbling with biological imperatives and hormone dumps. Torrid affair. Shocking heartache when her biology shifted away from me. Sad, sad boy, convinced no one had ever felt such pain before…”

Or, something more mundane: “Interviewed for my first real job right out of college. Cinched up my tie, answered every jack-ass question seriously, shook hands like a candidate. Got the job. Hated every second of my life for six months, never quite caught my breath, and then got fired. Joy, again.”

Or, here’s a tidbit from my own biography: “We were vandals as kids, mostly ineffective and innocent, but occasionally stunning models of terrorism. Asked an engineer how many railroad ties his cow-catcher could handle… and the next day, put all those plus one on the tracks. Derailed the train, and our genuine horror of success was deepened by the realization we better watch our asses if we were gonna engage with the adult world like that.”

Three sentences. Yeah, long ones, but three coherent, correct sentences. A complete story, with entry point, action, and quasi-moral ending.

Consider how looooooooooooong I could have dragged that tale out, and been absolutely justified in doing so. Because, hey, the thing took place over a couple of days, and there are details of our gang and the neighborhood and the derailment that are fascinating.

Just friggin’ fascinating.

But longer stories should only be told if you’re invited to tell them. As in, writing your thousand-page biography, and selling it. Anyone buys, it’s a tacit agreement to put up with every long-winded tale you’ve got up your sleeve.

Watch a bad movie tonight. Not a good one, or even a cult sleazoid one, appreciated for being bad.

No, watch a dull, plodding, no-thumbs-up disaster. You’ll discover that it has nothing to do the stars in the cast, the money in the budget, the director, the studio, or even the script. (People have screwed up Shakespeare, you know.)

Watch it critically. Consider WHY it’s boring you. And think of ways it could speed up the pace, nudge your attention, be better. The culprit will almost always be the storytelling.

Now, it’s your turn.

Leave a 3-sentence story from your life in the comments section. Don’t be shy — we’re all trying new stuff this year (or should be). Trashing old limitations, stretching new boundaries, waking up and engaging the world on new terms.

I promise to read every one. I’ll even toss in a few comments myself, when warranted.

This is a SAFE forum, you know. We’re all friends, or at least cohorts in the quest for better living and finer biz results.

Honing your storytelling chops requires releasing your shy restrictions, and just doing it. Get comfy with the concept, and get better with the details each time you try again.

I won’t mock anyone, and I’ll read every submission. Some of you are already damn good, others can use a lot of work… but we ALL need a kick in the butt once in a while to continue getting better at storytelling.

C’mon. Three lines. That forces you to be concise, to consider every single word carefully, and to crunch large chaotic experiences into tidy little narratives with a point.

I’m not looking for funny. Not looking for tears. Not looking for anything profound.

Just a story.

For some writers, this will be a true test, because you aren’t used to pushing yourself like this. However, the best already do.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

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