Four Reasons Why Your Storytelling Stinks and Doesn’t Sell

stinky storytellingHate to break it to you, but your storytelling is going over like a fart in church.

It’s not that you don’t know how to write. You really are pretty smart – and quite entertaining too.

But there might be something rotten in the mix, because the stories you use in your sales letters, product descriptions, newsletters, landing pages and articles just aren’t getting the results they should.

Marketing and advertising agencies all over the country are lauding the all-encompassing power of story! They say they want to tell your company’s story. Talking about the magical effects of storytelling and marketing is almost cliche.

Storytelling really can be a great tool…when it’s done effectively. Telling a story isn’t a guarantee for success. You have to tell the right story the right way.

Avoid these four storytelling mistakes and you’ll be much more likely to get the outcome you want.

1.  You’re Not Balancing Storytelling and Selling

If you’re reading this, you probably already know how simply pushing a product or service on potential clients is a terrible approach. Like many small business owners and marketers, you hate selling in that “used car salesman” sort of way.

We can also go too far in the other direction. Too much story and not enough selling can be a problem as well. You want to make sure the stories you tell are persuasive – not just captivating.

Two brands that make extensive use of storytelling in their marketing are The J. Peterman Company and Erbert and Gerbert’s Sandwich Shop. Both these companies tell great stories – but I would argue one strategy is more effective than the other.

Erbert and Gerbert’s

Erbert & Gerbert’s founder, Kevin Schippers, based his sub sandwich shop on two characters in bedtime stories his father used to tell.

Each sandwich is named after a quirky character the two young brothers meet on their adventures. There’s Boney Billy, Comet Candy, Tullius and my favorite…The Narmer (among many others).

The stories and silly little morals are fantastic, but do they really sell sandwiches? Or is it simply a clever marketing gimmick?

If you read the stories, you’ll notice they have nothing to do with the actual sandwiches. The Boney Billy is basically a turkey sub. The story is about a friendly skeleton who rescues Erbert and Gerbert inside a haunted house. Comet Candy is a ham sandwich. The story is about a female comet with a tail of slushy ice that brings the boys to the planet Venus.

See the connections? No, neither do I.

However, while the stories don’t directly sell the food – they do create an emotional connection with customers, and help Erbert and Gerbert’s to stand out from the rest of the sub sandwich shops. It’s probably effective to a point – but the stories don’t persuade you to buy. They don’t make your mouth water for an Erbs and Gerbs sub.

The J. Peterman Company

Everyone knows about J. Peterman thanks to it’s role in the show Seinfeld.

Maybe you remember Elaine Benes trying to come up with something for the Himalayan Walking Shoes.

Yes, J. Peterman is a real company and a real person. Many say the product descriptions in the J. Peterman catalog and its website are second to none.

The copy is often the story of how a new piece of clothing was discovered during travels around the world. Other times it celebrates a certain era while evoking a sense of timelessness around the products.

Here’s a piece of a description for a J. Peterman trenchcoat:

“A man who puts on a trenchcoat is naturally inclined to become a bit braver, a bit kinder. Part of the reason, of course, is that the trenchcoat was in all those black-and-white movies. But it wouldn’t have been in those movies if it didn’t have the right stuff to begin with.”

The copy paints a picture, but it’s still persuasive. For one thing, it creates an intriguing atmosphere, and it also points out emotional benefits. The text makes you believe wearing a trenchcoat helps you be a better person. But later on in the description, the copywriter still lists the features of the coat without sacrificing the intrigue:

“English-Style Trenchcoat (No. 1869), with authentic storm flaps, epaulettes, and D-rings, like the one in the scene where they say goodbye at the airport, the sound of propellers turning. Doublebreasted. Fully-lined. Aged brass hardware.”

This kind of storytelling makes you want the products being described. J Peterman Company’s stories are so effective, they don’t even need to use photographs of their products. Although – the hand-drawn illustrations are part of the charm.

2. You Focus Too Much on Facts and Too Little on Feelings

Interesting facts can often help create a good story. Most people have some sort of desire to keep learning new things – especially if it’s about a topic or product they love.

But you can take things too far…

Don’t try to be the Encyclopedia (or Wikipedia for that matter). In most cases – people are not looking for every single bit of information.

Now it’s certainly true that more consumers are researching products online. But make sure you’re only giving them the information they need to make a purchasing decision. They don’t need to learn the entire history and evolution of the washing machine in order to decide on the right one.

Sometimes interesting facts can give you amazing storytelling ideas. The trick is choosing facts that actually help you be more persuasive.

For instance…let’s say you’re trying to sell artwork of bald eagles.

It might make sense to include some interesting facts about bald eagles. How high can an eagle soar? How fast can it fly? How massive is its wingspan? Better yet – write about the eagle’s cultural significance. These sorts of things – when written with finesse – could help portray the sense of majestic freedom we associate with eagles.

Here’s another interesting fact about bald eagles… Eagle chicks will sometimes attack and eat the smaller one in the nest.

Interesting? Sure. A good fact to help you sell your eagle artwork? No, sir. Unless you’re writing a book about sibling rivalry – it’s way too disturbing!

Use facts and educational information in your storytelling strategically and somewhat sparingly.

3. You’re Arousing the Wrong Emotion

A good story makes you feel something. A story that sells makes you feel like buying.

Usually that means focusing on the positive. Now you might tell a story that points out a customer’s problem or a common fear shared by your target market. But a good copywriter always brings it back to the benefits of what’s being sold.

How will a product or service solve a problem? How will it alleviate a customer’s fears?

While trying to promote Pepsodent toothpaste, advertising great Claude Hopkins discovered people were more likely to respond to beauty than prevention. That means they’d rather buy a product using  images of people with beautiful smiles than be scared into buying with images of decayed chompers.

In one of my jobs,  I was part of a copywriting team that had to write thousands of descriptions for personal check and address label designs. Each product had three or four versions – so we had to write about the same design over and over again. This often caused creativity issues.

One of the writers on our team had to come up with something for Swan checks. We already had a couple of other designs with swan themes using copy with the romantic idea that swans mate for life.

But this writer decided to take a different direction. She wrote about how occasionally swans cheat on each other and even get divorced.

There was an attempt to make it humorous and human. But the damage was done. The romantic image of swans was destroyed. It gets you thinking about the harsh realities of marriage and how sad it is when a relationship ends. Instead of being inspirational – it is just plain depressing.

Making people feel something is a good idea. So is writing about things they can relate to. Just remember to bring it back to the good feelings – especially when you’re talking about what you’re selling.

4. You’re Telling Your Story – Not Theirs

There’s a reason marketing agencies say they want to tell your story. It’s because they’re trying to sell themselves to you!

They’re doing a good job at being persuasive.  But when push comes to shove – they should be telling  your customers story – not yours!

The agency makes it about you because that’s who they are trying to win over. You need to make your stories about the people who are in your target market.

Make them the heroes. Make it easy for them to relate to the story by telling familiar tales from their lives. Solve their problems. Calm their fears.

Brian  Clark of Copyblogger and now Entreproducer uses Star Wars as an example of the classic hero story. Think of yourself as Yoda, and your customers as Luke Skywalker. They are the hero. You are the wise teacher guiding them through their adventure. Brian calls it Jedi Content Marketing.

The most important thing you can learn about writing stories that sell is the simple concept that it needs to be about them – not you. Focus on that – and you’ll probably be at least one giant step ahead of the competition.

Kasey Steinbrinck is co-founder of Copyjuice Media and he wants to find out what you want to learn about content marketing. He specializes in copywriting and content creation for better small business SEO.

Image Credit: Helga Weber

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    1. Kasey,

      Awesome article. I agree that story telling is one of the most effective ways to sell and you must master it if you want to be able to pull in significant revenue. I’ve been actively working on my story telling skills and I think that I’m getting much better at it. My content is very interactive and I always entertain and sprinkle lots of humor in it so it does a great job as catching and keeping my readers attention.

      As far as my story telling side goes, it could use more work and I’ll be referring to your piece to help me improve. Oh, and I LOVE your brand “Copy Juice” by the way, VERY innovative ;). Thanks for sharing this with our BizSugar community. I appricate it!


      • Thanks Ti!

        Humor is definitely part of good storytelling. It doesn’t have to be once upon a time – what I mean is it doesn’t have to be a complete/classic story. It’s about using familiar storytelling elements that connect with people – such as your sense of humor!

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