It was a breezy, cold morning. I was standing on the roof of the office. The sun was just coming up, so the only heat I felt was in my palms, radiating from my freshly made coffee.

I was troubled. I had to send out a newsletter in just 25 minutes or we would be late for the start of our campaign. I had absolutely no idea what to write in the subject line.

I was growing more and more nervous by the minute, feeling it in my gut, tapping my foot on the ground.

I was watching as people on the street were on their way to work, some were unloading merchandise for nearby shops, some were just smoking cigarettes. What can I write in that subject line so that people open my email?

After a couple of minutes, my coffee went cold – I didn’t even notice. I looked west and started to think about the road leading to the nearest lake. My boss had left that way early that morning, still in the dark to hold a lecture in the afternoon on the other side of the country.

In three seconds I ran down three stairs to reach my laptop as soon as possible. I had an idea for the subject line.

I found my forgotten coffee on the roof three hours later.

Now if you felt something reading that story – the cold, the smell of coffee, or even how worried I was – then I managed to tell you a good story. About that subject line – you can find what it was in the first article in this series. But now, I will teach you how to tell a story like (or better than) this.

Digital marketers, copywriters, online advertising agencies – we all have something in common. We are the storytellers of the digital era.

We sit around the digital campfires, and thousands upon thousands listen to the words we say.

Well, or they don’t. Really, it depends on those words.

This article is the fifth piece in our email copywriting series. Please check out the other articles below.

Ingredients of a good story

There are a few things a good story cannot exist without in the traditional sense. Think about what your favorites have in common. Like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter. And not just fantasy or science fiction, almost all of them.

I will tell you: they follow a protagonist, who has a problem with their world. Not this may not be conscious, and the problem with their world might be a dysfunctional relationship instead of a lord of terror reigning over it.

They want to fix it, learn how to do that, embark on a journey, and either fail or succeed.

Storytelling in marketing is just the same. You just have to get the right pieces. You need…

  1. A character, the hero
  2. With a problem
  3. Who meets a guide
  4. Who gives them a plan
  5. And calls them to action
  6. That results in [the desired after-state], or…
  7. Failure

The most important question is how you position yourself.

Chose your hero wise

Let me ask you: what is your elevator pitch? Does it start with “I” or “My company”? Because then you are positioning yourself as the hero and you are all wrong about that.

(Just to be clear: an elevator pitch is how you introduce and basically sell your company or idea to a complete stranger in the time of a short elevator ride.)

You or your company are not the heroes. Your hero has to be your customer, your audience – in their story, you are merely the guide.

This is because we are used to seeing that heroes sort out their problems themselves. It might be hard or a nearly impossible task, but they want to be able to do it and not just see someone else solve it for them.

Imagine how enjoyable Star Wars would be if Obi-Wan cut down Vader on the Death Star then blew it up with the Force. There goes your entire third act – no satisfying end to the story.

The mission of the guide

So, what do you, as a guide do? The most important things actually.

First, you tell the hero about the “broken world” – how it must be fixed. As I mentioned, they might not be aware of the problem they have, or maybe they don’t really know why they should solve it.

They may slightly desire a comfortable office chair. But they don’t know that sitting in an uncomfortable one for months or years can lead to dozens of serious health problems.

If something is broken, it is heavily implied that there is a fix to it – a desirable outcome, a better after-state, which you also have to tell them about.

I will provide you with one of Ryan Deiss’ favorite example: 1-800-GOT-JUNK.

They take away your trash.

But they don’t sell that. They sell you freedom because you don’t have to deal with taking that trash yourself. They sell you the free space.

This is the same with every product. You don’t sell gardening, but free weekends with no back pain. (More on this in our article about features and benefits.)

Ok, the journey is now clearly drawn up – we have a starting point and a desirable goal to reach. But how to do that?

Heroes cannot succeed on their own. They have to accomplish the deed, but they need help. They need the Force – may it be a lawnmower or teeth whitening in their instance. This will be your product: the tool merely, which is going to help them achieve what they want.

You only have one thing left: to call them to action.

Not only the actual text but the design of the call to action matters too. Subscribe below and join thousands of users of our platform and get early access to the 200+ free responsive email templates we have.

Consequences of failure

I understand that many of you have doubts about communicating negative things to your audience. But you also have to tell them that you understand their problem, so they will believe that you can really solve it.

You have to press on their pain points, and for that, you have to talk about negative things. But with storytelling, you can do this without alienating them.

You can include personal stories about how you or one of your previous customers were in a position similar to theirs – and what solved that problem.

But you should also tell them later about the consequences if they do not act.

Most people don’t even realize they have problems.

To stick with storytelling examples, take the Lord of the Rings. Our hero there is Frodo, who lives a perfectly comfortable life in a really nice place, far from any troubles. Of course, he is in very real danger, but not for a couple of years or even decades. He needs the guide, Gandalf to tell him what will happen if they fail to act and succeed.

As the guide, you should explain that too to your future customers. Don’t be afraid!

One of my colleagues once sent out a newsletter for a company selling ergonomic office chairs. The headlines were:

You are sitting yourself to death right now.

It delivered some of the best results I have ever seen in my career.

Pro tip: never tell your audience that they have done something wrong previously, that they have made a bad decision.

This is persuasion 101. It is very hard for anyone to admit they were wrong about something. Even for those who say they are open to any ideas and measure everything objectively – on a subconscious level the brain defends itself from cognitive dissonance.

If you try to force an idea like “you have chosen the wrong service before, but what I offer will truly solve your problem”, then cognitive dissonance is what you get.

The reader should accept that they were wrong, feel bad about a decision, and this is merely likely to lead to antipathy towards you and in the rejection of your message.

How storytelling affects the brain

There is a reason we not only remember the names of the heroes but also those who told us their stories. Homer is just as well-known as Odysseus and Mark Twain as Huckleberry Finn.

Great storytellers have a very unique gift: they can change how we think about the world and ourselves. Literally.

The key is of course still empathy, and that is why your story needs to be personal. It needs to tell something about a hero your audience can relate to.

When you are presented facts, numbers, statistics, certain parts of your brain get activated to deal with the information. These are Broca’s area (which mostly deals with speech and various language tasks) and Wernicke’s area (mainly linked to comprehension and understanding of written and spoken language).

What neither deals with directly are emotions. A nice infographic may be an awesome way to present some otherwise uninteresting facts, but you still only reach parts of the brain that process the information in a logical way.

So: how can you reach other brain areas with only words?

It is actually beautifully simple. Do you want the audience to associate your product with a certain smell, or a form of movement? In most cases, you can simply write down the words.

MRI scans confirmed for example that while words like “key” or “chair” only activate the previously mentioned areas in most people, “lavender”, “cinnamon” or “coffee” also reach the primary olfactory cortex. (And yes, yours probably just lit up.)

Actually, you can affect the sensory, motor, frontal and olfactory cortexes with storytelling.

storytelling in email marketing

Source: Sarah Doody

And for that, you have to use language which describes what you think about as clear as possible.

In our previous article, we talked about how to present benefits to your audience. Let’s say you are in the gardening business – then the benefit of using your service for the customer is

  • having some me-time or time for their family instead of gardening and
  • avoiding back pain and exhausting work.

Assume that a segment of your target audience consists of 35-40-year-old males. You also know that they are mostly physical workers, they like to watch TV in their free time, they like beer and barbecue.

Imagine that after a hard week of work you are sitting home on your couch, relaxing your muscles. A cold beer in your hand, you feel the cool drops of water on your fingers. Your team is playing and the commentator is screaming “touchdown”.

You see how the quarterback hits the ground with the ball… And you suddenly realize you have to cut the grass. Bring out the lawnmower, go out in the sun – it will be a good two hours of work.

You look out the window. And you suddenly realize that there is no work to be done. You also realize that you have been smelling fresh cut grass all morning.

This is not only a scenario they will relate to but one that they will imagine in detail. This is called neural coupling. This is what allows the audience to make the story their own – and what makes it possible are phrases like “cool drops of water” and “smell of fresh-cut grass”.

Another effect is mirroring: the audience will mirror the brain activity of the storyteller if that story is told in an emotionally charged way.

illustration of how storytelling effects the brain

“How am I supposed to use this in email marketing?”

I’m glad you asked.

You will have to figure out the details yourself. I cannot tell you exactly what words to use – but a little product and audience research will.

If you liked this article about storytelling you’ll like our other’s too. Subscribe below to get updates when we publish our new articles.

Find someone who uses your product or service and interview them about the experience. Not just about ordering gardening, the feeling of looking at the garden or such things. Ask them details about what they do in their free time instead, what they like, how they feel. You get the point.

Mirroring can be achieved if you use convincing social proof like real testimonials. People who you’ve helped can describe the solution in a way that it is emotionally or at least lifelike enough for mirroring to happen in your audience’s brains.

But let’s take a look at the larger picture. I mentioned before that you should have a calendar for your email sequences. In this, you can attribute certain parts of the story to individual emails in a campaign.

  • In the first, you introduce the hero and the problem.
  • In the second you give a glimpse of the plan. Hope that the broken world can be fixed.
  • In the third, you introduce yourself as the guide and offer proof that the desired after state can be achieved.
  • In the fourth you call them to action by describing in detail what they can achieve – and what consequences they have to face may they fail.

This is just a quick example: you know your own story, you should decide in what order you want to tell it.

Now you know the basics of storytelling. More than enough to get you started. Later on, we are going to talk a bit more about this – I am going to share more about user-generated content and data-driven stories.

But for now, get your calendar and draw up your first storyboard: tell your hero what journey will you send them on.