September 4, 2018

Core Story 01: The most powerful story you can tell

I start all of my copywriting projects with a process called the Story Map interview. One of the first questions is to describe your earliest childhood memory.

My earliest significant childhood memory is of my Grandad (my Dad’s dad). I was four at the time, so the year would have been 1990. It’s easy to second guess your memories when you go that far back, but a lot of what follows has been verified by my Dad.

Both of my parents worked, so my sister and I spent a lot of time with grandparents growing up. My paternal grandparents were the only smokers in our family. I didn’t noticed the smoke at the time, but I remember the house had a distinctive smell. It was only years later when my grandmother (who we called ‘Nan’) died that I realised how smoke stained everything was.

I remember my grandad as being slightly standoffish. The sort of guy who would shake your hand rather than play with you.

I only have a handful of memories of BOTH grandparents together. I remember walking round nearby Victoria Park with them. The park felt huge at the time; like we were walking for miles. I remember my Nan pushing something on that walk, which in hindsight could only have been a pram.

I’ve never asked, but I doubt my grandad ever pushed a pram in his life. He was the provider in the family: the person who gave my Nan her weekly allowance.

I remember another time sitting in their backyard on a sunny day, while their pet tortoise Tony charged around chewing lettuce. My grandparents both lay nearby on sunloungers, smoking. As far as I can remember I was basically left to my own devices.

My Dad has since told me his experience growing up was similar. He only really got to know his dad when he turned 18, and was old enough to go for a beer with him.

One day, my sister, my Nan and I were sitting in the living room. From where I was sitting you could look out the front window to the garage over the road. To my left was a cabinet, full of ornaments and trinkets. To my right was a 1960’s style serving hatch to the kitchen, which was never used.

My grandad came in. I would learn later that he had been to the doctors, because he didn’t feel well. He sat straight on the edge of the seat, as he tended to do. Then with a sharp intake of breath he fell forward and collapsed on the floor.

My Nan started crying, and fell on the floor with him. Neither my sister nor I moved a muscle. “Oh Ronnie!” I remember her saying. She took his false teeth out, puffed down on his mouth, then pushed down on his chest, crying. I don’t know why she needed them, but she then lost his false teeth. I remember her searching frantically around on the floor for them, shouting “where’ve they gone??

Not long after that an ambulance arrived, and my parents came to take us home. That was the last time I saw him.

When a client tells me this sort of story, my usual drill down question is: how did it make you feel?

Honestly, I don’t feel anything about this story. I remember it happening, because my long term memory is better than my short. But I was too young to understand. I have no emotions attached to the memory.

Which isn’t to say the story isn’t emotional. It is emotional – death always is. In fact, death is the single most powerful story you can tell. It’s just I don’t feel sad about telling this particular story.

In your emails after people opt-in, you don’t have long to build an emotional connection with them. The downs in your story is always more powerful than the ups, although you need both.

Many films open with this type of event to create an emotional character wound, which leads to a flaw. The flaw then leads to the lie, which must be overcome through character change for the goal of the story to be achieved.

I don’t believe there is an emotional wound in the story above, but I can tell you I DO have emotional wounds to tell you about later in this series! (Haha! Trust me, they’re coming…)

Notice also the level of detail I went into to describe the scene: the ornaments, the yellow wallpaper, the serving hatch. You probably had a relative whose living room looked like that.

This email follows what I call the ‘closed sandwich’ story format. I opened the email talking about my Story Map process, which is content. The story came in the middle. And I’ve ended on content, by explaining the mechanics of what is going on.

The first email in your core series should probably follow this structure, because it helps to give new readers a clue where you’re going.

We’ll carry on tomorrow.

Rob Drummond

Rob Drummond runs the Maze Marketing Podcast and Maze Mastery. Rob specialises in content production, ad creation, storytelling and CRM systems. He has two published books, Magnetic Expertise and Simple Story Selling, affordable on Amazon.