Stories/Storytelling Archives

The Stephen King approach to writing email stories



The dumbest reading decision I ever made was the time I read Stephen King’s Cujo novel.

I was living in a rental house with four other ladies during my junior year of college. One weekend all of them were away, which normally never happened.

For some reason that’s the time I chose to read my first Stephen King novel.

I scared myself half to death reading about that crazy dog Cujo. All these years later I still remember that dog attacking people trapped inside a locked car.

I couldn’t sleep because reading Cujo made me afraid of my own normally safe surroundings.

Every little noise was a potential thief – or Cujo – trying to get into my house.

Yet I couldn’t stop reading and finished the whole thing that weekend. I did have to pull the damsel in reading distress routine and sheepishly ask my future husband to come over and sleep on our ugly flower print couch so that I could get some sleep.

Such is the power of a great story. It pulls you in even even if you don’t want it to. This is why stories are an important part of email copywriting.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing he talks about how stories create themselves and it’s a writer’s job to let them grow. He doesn’t believe in plotting.

He describes a one sentence question you should ponder before writing a story.

If you don’t have this one sentence then you won’t have a story at all.

This applies perfectly to copywriting, because I couldn’t help but notice this is the same formula used for a certain type of copy headline. In uncovering this nugget about your product or service’s story, it will expand into headlines, bullets, and email stories. These three elements all feed off each other.

I go into detail about this in week 11 of my A Year of Email Copywriting course.

When you sign up I can get the first 11 weeks to you right away if you ask, so you won’t have to wait. Just let me know.

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How to use the Star Wars approach to storytelling in your email copy


Star Wars. Yawn.

Way back when the first movie was in theaters our class took a field trip to see the movie, but I was underwhelmed.

In college I sat through marathon viewings of however many Star Wars movies were available at that time (I was probably trying to impress the guys), but I still wasn’t impressed

I haven’t attempted to watch a Star Wars movie since and lately have happily been binge-watching House M.D. on Netflix instead while others are going off to the theaters to watch the latest movie.

Star Wars has one big thing going for it, however. As soon as I learned it I saw instantly how it applies to developing the storytelling skills necessary for writing email copy.

George Lucas was a friend and student of  writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Lucas followed Campbell’s stages of the Hero’s Journey when writing Star Wars, which is why that story endures and endures.

In thinking back over the clients I’ve had over the years, the most successful are those that have had these types of stories and used them in their marketing.

It was never difficult to write email copy for them, because I could always use elements of their story in the emails when necessary.

Some entrepreneurs don’t have a story they want to share even if you try and browbeat it out of them and have no interest in stories. These are clients to run away from.

The worst are entrepreneurs who insist they want stories in their emails, but it quickly becomes clear they request this only because they think it’s the latest fad. Oddly, these folks won’t pony up any details you can use for a story, so you either have to write fiction, or run away. I recommend the latter.

Fortunately there are many sane entrepreneurs out there who recognize they need a copywriter’s help to draw out their story. In week three of A Year of Email Copywriting I give you the template to use to create a story for a business based on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

It’s a 17 steps process that gives you a story from which you will be able to write many emails that build rapport with customers and get more sales.

Photo: JD Hancock

“Feel the Bern” in your marketing


Yep, it’s campaign season again.

I know. Nothing but hot air so much of the time. It’s always interesting, though, when a marketing insight manages to float to the top of all the hot air.

Regardless of what you may think of the man, you gotta admit that the way Bernie Sanders is drawing crowds these days is intriguing.

After all, he’s 73-years-old, doesn’t seem to care about his appearance, and isn’t all hope and change-y in his message.

Yet Millennials love the guy.

And while Trump is busy hogging all the hot air, and Hillary is having to yap about her email scandal, Bernie is drawing bigger crowds than both of them.

So what’s up?

And, more importantly, what impact can it have on your business?

Here’s a clue:

He seems to go through the motions of reaching for the emotional connection that other candidates try to seize…

But the people don’t come to hear Mr. Sanders’s story. They come for his analysis of what’s gone wrong.

Mr. Sanders is clearly a different sort of political animal. If the tradition is to campaign in poetry and govern in prose, Mr. Sanders does both with a long list of bullet points written on a yellow legal pad he looks at when he speaks.

This reminds me of that marketing truism: “Don’t tell me about your weedkiller. Tell me about my crabgrass!”

Yes, it’s important to use stories in your marketing. But the story should be about your customer’s problems and not all about you.

Now, go forth and “Feel the Bern” in your marketing.


Quote source: NYT

Breaking Bad in your marketing

I have yet to watch an episode of Breaking Bad, largely because I heard it was violent, so I was too squeamish about it.

I changed my tune after reading a profile of the actor Bryan Cranston in the New Yorker. For the first several years he didn’t have any significant roles. Then he started to shift his approach to auditions:

It incrementally came to me that when I audition I’m not trying to get a job, but to give them something, my acting. The victory is not ”Did I beat that other guy out?’ but ‘Did I present that character as believable as I could?’ That was the turning point.

This is applicable to marketing, of course. And I have an anecdote from my own experience to illustrate this.

A day or two after I read the Bryan Cranston profile a prospective client contacted me. He was referred to me by a client of mine. What helped convince him to hire me was a comment I left on John Carlton’s blog more than three years ago that he had recently stumbled across.

My comment is #73 out of more than 100. It’s a story about when I took three of my daughters in for a blood draw and, let’s face it, it’s out of place on a blog that is mostly testosterone-laden. I knew that but didn’t care and posted the story anyway, never once thinking it would promote my copywriting services or anything. Yet three plus years later a prospective client read it and said it was by far the most interesting story in the thread, and he hired me.

Go figure. But that’s what happens when you focus on giving instead of getting.

Getting customers the Big Red way

It’s college football season, which I normally couldn’t care less about.

But there was a game here in Madison, WI last Saturday that was so big, with so much hype surrounding it, that even I started paying attention.

I even found myself reading articles about the Nebraska Cornhuskers. What?

So I figured if even I was noticing the game, then there must be a marketing lesson or two in it.

Sure enough there is.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers had been in the Big 12 conference for 100 years and then joined the Big 10 (Wisconsin’s conference) this year.

This was Nebraska’s first game against Wisconsin since 1974 and their first game with Nebraska as part of the Big 10.

Both teams wear red and white so it was Big Red vs. Big Red. It was billed as the biggest Wisconsin game ever and 81,000 fans crammed into the stadium.

Wisconsin has been to the Rose Bowl and has had its share of important games, so why was this such a big fat hairy deal?

Well, Nebraska doesn’t have a pro football team, so the Cornhuskers are the main attraction for football fans in Nebraska.

Also, even though the college football season is fairly short, there’s at least one article in the Nebraska newspapers every day of the year about the Cornhuskers. (Hint: that’s marketing lesson #1: consistency in telling your story).

Madison was overrun with Nebraska fans last Friday and Saturday and the energy of that was fun. I’ve never seen so many fans from the opposing team strolling the streets and stores of Madison. Apparently not even a recession can stop Cornhusker fans from spending lots of money on tickets and travel.

All of this piqued my curiosity and made me tune into the game and watch almost three full quarters of it (I shut it off after Wisconsin’s lead became insurmountable).

Which brings us to marketing lesson #2: In marketing and sales, curiosity draws people in even more than desire does.

Here we had a “product “that was more than 100 years old, predictable as can be, and yet a new story gave a freshness to it and made even non-fans who have no desire for college football curious and interested in it.

By the way, just so you know, curiosity… stories… freshness… these are all things that email copy can deliver day after day.

The most important ingredient of email copywriting

“Believability is far and away the most important requirement of advertising,” said the late great copywriter Bernice Fitz-Gibbon.

Here are four ways to write believable copy (quotes below are from Bernice):

1. Love people.

2. “Sharpen your powers of observation. Learn to look at a thing as if you’ve never really seen it before in your life.”

3. Be inquisitive and acquisitive. Good copywriters are “curious about people, curious about new products, curious about everything.”

4. Write what you hear. This means writing the way people in your market talk.

It’s been said Hemingway looked at everything around him as if it was his last day of being alive. A copywriter – especially an email copywriter who has to come up with multiple stories for email copy on a regular basis – should do the same.

How a rescued cockatiel can rescue your sales

So I recently found myself standing at a busy intersection, whistling like a mad woman.

I drew WTF looks from drivers but I didn’t care.

There was a cockatiel in a tree and I was determined to rescue it.

I knew I had my work cut out for me, however, because I was a stranger to the bird and didn’t know his name.

Cockatiels are friendly birds but won’t fly to the shoulder of just anyone.

He was cheeping the way cockatiels cheep when they are anxious or calling out to a cockatiel buddy.

I imitated that cheep as best as I could and made eye contact with him. He calmed down.

He wasn’t budging, though, so I walked to the other side of the tree and started whistling songs cockatiels usually know: the wolf whistle, the Adams Family and Andy Griffith theme songs.

He kept staring at me and gradually felt safe enough to fly to a lower branch.

I wanted to close the deal, however, especially when the waiter at a nearby Mexican restaurant… the guy who made me aware of the cockatiel’s presence in the first place… said sadly, “If you don’t rescue him, he’ll die, won’t he.”



Plus, cockatiels are nomadic creatures when in the wild, so I knew I had to close the deal now or never.

This anxiety was making it hard for me to continue to whistle, so I switched tactics and started saying words a cockatiel might know:

“Food.” “Water.” “Step up.” “Pretty bird.”

I used a sing song-y voice in a higher register than my normal speaking voice because cockatiels like higher pitches.

Those words really got his attention and he kept dropping down to lower branches one at a time until he was on the lowest branch.

Suddenly there was a flurry of feathers but I remained still.

He landed on my head.

I ever so carefully walked to my car and slid into the front seat.

He insisted on remaining on my shoulder so I let him stay there during the drive home so as to maintain my bond of trust with him.

Sometimes he hopped onto my head, which probably drew more WTF looks from drivers, but I didn’t care.

The moment I put him into the bird cage at home (we have a small aviary of parakeets and cockatiels at home) he wagged his tail from side to side vigorously, the way cockatiels do when they are happy.

Then he ate and drank for 30 minutes straight.

Which brings us to the “La-Di-Frickin’-Da, what does this have to do with my business” part of the post.

First, there isn’t any one thing that closes the deal when selling to a customer.

Sure, I could conclude that my using words like “food” were what closed the deal, and that I should just launch straight into that if I ever happen upon a cockatiel in the wild again.

Just like some marketers think their fancy-pants sales page is what closes the deal and they fixate on that and neglect their email list.

But it was a large sales funnel, so to speak, beginning with his previous owner, who, based on what I now know of his temperament, clearly had a loving bond with this bird, enabling him to give me the time of day in the first place.

She probably cried and kicked herself for days afterwards when he escaped during a half second of inattention, but her care for him the years beforehand played a huge role in my being able to save him.

The other parts of the funnel:

I spoke/whistled in his language.

I very clearly communicated I had something he desperately needed – food.

I focused completely on him and drew upon the very specific knowledge I have about cockatiels so I could build trust. I didn’t focus on myself at all.

I didn’t rush or push for the sale.


Marketing really is for the birds. 😉

Talk soon.

P. S.  Bottom line: send out a variety of emails to your list. Use a combination of stories and how-to info to gradually build trust.

Eventually one of those emails will finally hit the right hot button and snag the sale, thanks to the funnel that came before it.

It’s a tough thing to do on your own, however, so have a copywriter do it for you.

The 3 necessary elements in a selling story

All stories needs a beginning, middle and end. Any form of written communication, from blog posts to email copy to stories, should have those three pieces.

If you’re wondering what to actually write about in the beginning, middle and end, this post by Nick Usbourne outlines the three elements:

1. The challenge.

2. The struggle.

3. The resolution.

If, for example, you sell a weight loss product, the challenge is losing a certain number of pounds. The struggle would be the difficulties you faced in losing weight and finding an effective weight loss method. The resolution would be the solution that finally worked.

Quite often a story will be missing one of these three elements. Usually it’s the case where the story is all middle and missing a beginning or ending.

Be sure to use recent stories too. People long for authenticity and respond better if they know you’re a real human being. If you’re a size two with a successful weight loss product, don’t be afraid to write the occasional story that talks about a current struggle. Don’t always rehash the story about how you lost 50 pounds five years ago and kept it off.

Keep in mind a good ending/resolution will cause a beginning in the reader. You’ve done your work in delivering your story. Now it’s up to the reader to take the message and run with it, and, in the case of a selling story, purchase your product. Your story will create a new story within the reader.

On protests and copywriting

As you may know, I live in Wisconsin and there has been significant political turmoil here the past few weeks.

I’m not going to go into the politics of it in this email, but I want to point out a couple of principles that are also pertinent to marketing and copywriting (from Neighbor Against Neighbor in Wisconsin in Books & Culture):

In 21st-century America, 70,000 people do not hit the streets in sub-freezing temperatures for political strategy. Policy does not motivate like that anymore. What does motivate is emotion: anger, joy, fear, loathing, celebration, and so on.

I’ve been a copywriter for almost four years and find I have to regularly remind myself and my clients that what matters most is how you make your clients and prospects feel.  It might seem shallow, but providing how-to content and information, although important, isn’t fully motivating unless the emotions are also engaged.

From the article again:

…this conflict remains at heart a local story. It is about the culture of public spaces and public works in a quirky state. It is about who we are, and who we are becoming.

Most of us in Wisconsin feel part of this larger narrative and have felt compelled to spend some time at the capitol building or other venues to participate in the expression of this story. We sense this is history in the making and being part of it in some tangible way like that is important.

Your business has a story, too, and the more your clients and prospects can be a tangible part of it, even in small ways, such as through Facebook fan pages and writing a customer review of your product, the more they will trust you and become a repeat customer.

Emotions. Story. No good protest or marketing campaign can do without them.

Why your emails should be bloody

I taught a blogging mini-course at the University of Wisconsin this month and one of the things I told the students was, “the more you bleed, the more they’ll read.”

An email list or blog becomes one-dimensional so quickly when there are no stories.

Here’s an example of someone who gets it right, in a niche you might not expect:

Cellist Zoe Keating has prospered online selling 35,000 of her self-produced albums through her website and iTunes.

She says telling stories and divulging personal information is a key to her success. ““They want to buy my records five times just to support me because of that.”

“It’s important for me to always be authentic. It’s me on those websites. If I were to use my Twitter account just to publicize things, it wouldn’t be authentic.”

By the way, she has 1.3 million followers on Twitter.  She didn’t build those followers by giving cello tips (unlike the many marketers who think they have to tweet endless marketing tips – ZZZZZ) but simply by being real. The world doesn’t need another tip, but it can always use another story.

So when you write an email or blog post, ask yourself if there’s a detail you could add to make it more real, more personal…more bloody, if you will.

As sportswriter Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter, open up a vein and bleed it out drop by drop.”

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