Tag Archives for " story telling "

Covid-19: The Story Perspective

I’ve become more interested in the story surrounding Covid-19 than the disease itself. At the highest level there seem to be two competing narratives.

1. The risks surrounding Covid-19 are basically a scam, and we can now open the economy.

2. Any relaxation of lockdown conditions will lead to death in the streets – a real life zombie apocalypse.

You can see the battle lines etched into social media. You may see more of one narrative than the other – social media tends to be an echo chamber of your own opinions. But these are high stakes narratives, with powerful interests behind them.

Those who control the story write the history books.

In reality there has to be a middle way. But as all ad copywriters know, middle way policies and moderate discussion do not generate great click through rates. When click through rate is your primary objective, you need the most sensationalist headlines imaginable.

Storytelling throughout society is fractal – with one story nested inside another. At the highest level we have broad narratives about society, lifestyle, culture, disease, governance and so on. Higher level stories you can observe but can’t directly influence. Covid sits at this level.

Nested within this is the story of you, your company, your customers. At the same level are other people’s stories – not every story you ever tell has to be about you. Which to most people is a relief.

Nested within this are day to day goings on. The gritty reality of daily life. Things you’ve been up to in lockdown. Challenges you’ve faced. Everything down to what you had for breakfast this morning. (Not all stories are meant to be shared with the world!)

Each level informs the other – and you can draw on stories at any level. Writing about the high level narratives gets people’s attention because it joins a conversation already going on in their head.

More granular stories about day-to-day goings on deepen somebody’s attention, because people see their challenges reflected in yours. We’re all more similar than we are different. It’s counter-intuitive that the most specific, most personal stories have the widest appeal.

The rule of thumb above may be helpful. Comment on high level narratives to people who know you the least. Find a conversation that is already going on in their head. Then share personal stories with the people who know you the most.

January 21, 2019

The Facebook ad story formula

The current formula for Facebook ads seems to be:

1. Find some photo of you on holiday somewhere. Preferably with your kids, spouse, or even some other random person. (It doesn’t matter too much, as long as the person is cool or attractive.)
2. Write out a sob story of how you were ‘down and out’, eating bread out of the gutter, sending your kids to school in rags.
3. Switch from sob story into the ‘revelation’; the moment you finally cracked the code to unlimited effort-free riches.
4. Explain how you now enjoy unlimited freedom working from anywhere in the world, earning unlimited amounts of cash.
5. Tell me that, merely in exchange for my email address, you’ll share the secrets you’ve uncovered to live your luxurious lifestyle.
6. Finally, talk down to me some more by telling me I would be ‘insane’ not to ‘change my life’ with this rare and one-time opportunity.

I understand the structure of why ads are constructed in this way. Stories do help to gain and keep attention. But the reality is that most people on Facebook don’t want to read your sob story. At least not to begin with, and not in a patronising, arrogant Facebook post.

The fundamental problem is that the story is used as a gimmick. The motivation of the advertiser isn’t to help me. The motivation of the advertiser is to manipulate me (or in my case, make me really angry), gather my email address, and make a fast buck.

You have to wonder… if they were so happy with their luxurious beach lifestyle, why would they bother?

When you tell stories in your marketing you have to examine your motivation. Are you looking to manipulate people? Or are are you genuinely trying to help, first and foremost?

I see a lot of the former, and not much of the latter.

January 11, 2019

Soap opera sequences

A ‘soap opera sequence’ is where you start a story in one email, create an ‘open loop, and leave it unresolved over one or more emails. This creates anticipation between emails.

A lot has been written about soap opera sequences as the ‘ultimate’ email strategy. My opinion is they need to be used judiciously.

However entertaining and interesting your emails are, only a small portion of subscribers will religiously read every email you send. If your emails nearly always form part of a serial, you run the risk of alienating readers who join part way through.

You can still create threads and open loops between your emails, but each email you send should stand on its own two feet. Meaning if somebody opens part 2 at random, it should completely make sense without going back to part 1.

The one exception I’ll make to this is immediately after a contact opts in. The safest place to use a ‘soap opera’ format is in the first emails a contact receives from you. Because soap opera sequences are naturally engaging, this has the added benefit of pouring cement around the relationship with a new subscriber.

In the first email you send to people, open a dramatic loop and leave the reader on a cliff-hanger. Then complete (or continue) the story in email two.

If you can get some to read the first two emails, it exponentially increases the chance of them reading more emails after that. It also begins to encourage a regular reading habit.

January 10, 2019

How many emails to put in a sequence

I’m making some updates to my copywriting book Simple Story Selling at the moment. A key idea in the book is the plot archetype structure, which you can read about here. The plot structure looks like this:

Plot archetype

A key idea to understand is that the plot archetype is fractal, meaning it operates at multiple levels as you zoom in and out.

You can use this five phase pattern across an individual email, Facebook post or blog post. You can even use it within a paragraph, or a sentence even. But in my experience, it works in a deeper and more profound way over a full series rather than an individual communication.

The point of the plot archetype structure is to illustrate character change (sometimes called the ‘character arc’). To illustrate true character change, a character has to feel a call towards a goal or objective. They have to make some initial progress towards that goal, only to realise the true scale of the task at hand. There has to be some monumental struggle, which only can be resolved through a core realisation or character change.

It is the struggle and character change that is endlessly fascinating to us. In watching that process, we are drawn out of our own world, and into another. We learn something about the world or about ourselves, even if the story itself is fictional.

You can fit all five phases into a single email (I’ve included various examples in the appendix of the book), but generally it’s best to stretch the five phases across an entire email series. A full email series simply gives you a greater canvas to work with. An epic story will contain a simple plot, but detailed episodes.

If you want to keep things simple, you could make each email in the series a single plot phase. So email 1 is the call, where you were down on your luck, bored at work, or whatever the call was.

Email 2 could be initial progress. I made initial progress in my business as a Google Ads consultant, before realising that wasn’t the business I wanted to build.

Email 3 could be the struggle. A time when the wheels fell off the bus. A time when your spouse gave you that long sideways glance, which screams “when are you going to get a real job?

Email 4 could be the realisation. The moment of clarity. The time you went hiking in the Andes (or wherever), and found inspiration from a completely unexpected source.

Email 5 could be the resolution. The happy ending, leading into your offer. The offer at this point is fairly obvious: you invite the reader to join you on the journey. If the reader is at the ‘call’ phase, then your offer will speak to them directly. Chances are they’ll say yes.

I find that unless you want to write very long emails, five emails still doesn’t give you all that much space. As each email should only contain one key thought or idea, I find it easier and more effective to split the five phases across 15 or 20 emails (my own core story series has 18 emails).

A series of that length allows you to include multiple ups and downs… multiple low points you overcame. In an archetypal story the struggle phase (phase 3) is often the longest phase. In Lord of the Rings it goes on forever.

Write about your struggles. Bleed a little. Show people your scars. That is what gets their attention the most, because they recognise their own struggles in yours.

I like the 15-part format because:

– It feels doable. If the groundwork has already been done I can write five emails in half a day. So writing 15 emails means three sessions of 5.

– You have implementation options. You can send an email a day for two weeks. You can send an email every weekday for three weeks. You can send an email every other day for a month. You can split test all of these options.

15 or 20 emails could easily be 10,000 words; long enough for a lead generation book by the time you’ve added in content.

Think also of the reader. I don’t think it is generally sensible to have an email series run for over a month, because at that point a book would be the preferred format. Readers will also become lost, or forget where you started. 30 days should be the maximum window for your email series.

In writing 15 emails, you’ll often find that some emails in your plan actually need to be two emails. Which is why my 15-part series ended up as 18 emails. By splitting a story over two emails you end up with a mini ‘soap opera sequence’.

More on which tomorrow…

November 15, 2018

Stories vs Information…

… and why I’m about to shoot five little ducks…

There are various unadvertised side effects to having a small child. The advertised side effects are well known: lack of sleep etc. One unadvertised side effect is you get nursery rhymes locked endlessly in your head.

The one in my head at the moment goes:

#Five little ducks go swimming one day,
Over the hills and far away,
Mummy duck says quack quack quack quack,
And only four little ducks came back…#

And so on.

Why do these things get stuck in out heads? Probably for the same reason we sing them to children. They’re simple, and the melody has a rounded completeness about it. You feel compelled to continue with the song, until all five little ducks come back… (damn them)

The same principle applies when you tell stories in your marketing.

The big takeaway you’ll find in Donald Miller’s Storybrand book is that information is like noise, and story is like music. We’re tuned in to listen for stories. A story has structure, balance and completeness. A story is effortless to listen to, unlike wading through information or statistics.

Are you telling enough stories? Or are you giving people the information they need to make a rational decision.

Buying decisions are rarely rational, and only the most determined buyer will wade through your information.

October 12, 2018

Your Story: The great river at your disposal


I took the photo above in 2009, in the Peruvian jungle town of Yurimaguas. My hotel had a great view of the river, and hammocks to sit in.

What river is that? The Amazon, you would think…

But actually, it’s not. The river is the Marañon, which is an Amazon tributary. A tributary – look at the size of it!

We tend to think of out story as being linear, running from birth to death. But really, your story is more like a great river, with tributaries and tangents. If you were to give someone a tour of the Amazon river, you wouldn’t show them round every twist, turn and tributary. You’d create a tour to leave them with a great memory.

Telling your story is no different.

I took the photo below a few days later from the Pacaya Samiria reserve up river.

Pacaya Samiria reserve

The guy in front was my tour guide, Robert. For three days we paddled around a tiny part of the reserve, watching monkeys, crocodiles and birds. In the evening, fish would leap into the boat.

Did we see the whole reserve? Err, no. It wouldn’t be possible.

Do you need to tell your whole story when people first enter your world? Err, no. That wouldn’t be practical either. It’s better instead to take them on a tour.

You have a great river at your disposal. Are you taking people on a tour? Or are you letting them fly right by?


If you still need to register for Tuesday’s webinar Convert Your Expertise Into Leads, you can do so here. I’m holding two sessions, and will be walking you through my latest work.

You can also still grab a copy of my first book The Marketing Nurture System for 33p (about $0.50) here – this will end on Sunday.

October 3, 2018

The showing up hangover

I spent some time in South America when I was younger. A feature of every South American town is a central square, usually with a church or cathedral along one side.

One night I arrived in the Bolivian town of Uyuni. It was dark, nobody was about, and dogs barked in the distance. I arrived at the deserted central square.

I was slightly… apprehensive…

Do you think I walked across the middle of the square… or around the outside?

We have an innate urge as humans to see, but not be seen. It’s an instinct that may have kept you alive once upon a time. And may still keep you alive, on rare occasions.

But it doesn’t help with your marketing.

Showing up regularly in your marketing – whether that’s by email, video, audio, or some combination, is like walking directly into the middle of the dark square. You feel exposed. You wonder who is watching you, and what they might be thinking. (Subconsciously you wonder how big their teeth might be…)

So you run back to the shadows, and get what you might call a ‘showing up hangover’. You disappear off the radar for a while. You bury yourself in projects. Until the projects end, and you’re forced to show up all over again.

It’s better to just show up consistently, all the time, and prioritise it as a modus operandi.

Decide on your audience. Decide what message you want to communicate. Store up a series of content and story ideas (I suggest Evernote). Set a schedule, and get to work.

When you don’t keep to the schedule, you haven’t fallen off the wagon. There is no wagon, and you don’t need to apologise. It’s more like wandering a few steps from the path.

You can also get help here :-).

September 27, 2018

Core Story 18: Neonatal Copywriting Breakthrough

I started this series with a story about my son Hugo. That’s where we’ll end the series too.

Hugo was born on 6th February 2018, six weeks ahead of schedule. Linzi had been ‘incarcerated’ (her words) in hospital for 21 days with pre-eclampsia. So when I got the phone call at 3PM the day before, it wasn’t a shock. But at the same time, you’re never ready.

I stopped at a shop on the way home to buy size zero nappies and maternity pads. I didn’t even know what a ‘maternity pad’ was. I later found out it’s something you never want to ask about…

Hugo spent the first two weeks of his life in an incubator. Even though he was small, Hugo wasn’t the smallest or most critical baby in the neonatal unit, by a long stretch. Alarms constantly beeped on other incubators, while nurses bustling around us holding clipboards.

Then twice a day, at 7AM and 7PM, something interesting happened. Handover.

New nurses arrived for the next shift. Each baby was discussed, and notes shared. Then a new set of heroics were performed for the next 12 hours, by a completely different set of people.

I sat there watching, thinking ‘DING DING DINGThis is how copywriting should work too…’

  • Nobody was ‘winging’ it, or making stuff up as they went along
  • Training and education was a prerequisite
  • Clear rules and procedures were followed
  • An escalation hierarchy was in place, should a problem occur

When you hire a copywriter, you don’t actually care who is doing the writing. But you want them to be trained, knowledgeable and following procedure. You want them to truly understand your needs. You want to feel reassured by them. You want an escalation procedure, in case of emergency, sickness or absence.

And most importantly of all, you want results quickly.

Because let’s face it – generating more leads is no longer the solution to every marketing problem. Click prices are going up, across all platforms. You can’t just throw more money at lead generation. You need the leads you’re generating to stick around for a while…

Sure, you can still get people to opt in from Facebook or wherever by pushing emotional hot buttons. But when you do this, most people opt in out of curiosity. They often won’t confirm their email. They leave as fast as they arrived, perhaps via clicking the ‘this is spam’ button.

I’ve seen this with my own cold Facebook ads, and had to scale them back. High opt-in rates do not necessarily equate to more business. A person who completes an opt-in form isn’t yet a lead.

If you sell knowledge or expertise, the real problem is getting people to actually engage with you – across all the platforms that are available.

Most people under-estimate how much content they need to do this. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but you have to be prolific. Most people are not prolific enough with email; let alone social media, direct mail and other formats.

You have to ask: where do your customers spend most of their time? They spend some of it on email, for sure. But they spend a lot more time on social media. And if you really want their attention, you still can’t go wrong with snail mail.

My vision is for True Story Selling to be a place where you can get the copywriting support you need to both grow your audience and build real connection. Usually that starts with knowing yourself, and knowing your core story.

We’re at the end of my own core story – or at least my current version of it. Let me tell you, I’ve had a blast writing it – but it’s been hard. It’s always hard to work on your own story.

I’m holding a webinar this afternoon for my paid group Story Selling Insider, where I’ll talk about the process I followed to create this series. I’ll talk about the challenges I’ve run into, and how I plan to use these emails in other parts of my marketing. Creating the emails is only the beginning.

If you need to communicate your expertise to more people, I’d love to have you in the group. You’ll get a recording of this afternoon’s session if you can’t join us live.

This is a limited-time invite. Story Selling Insider Membership closes on Sunday, and won’t be open again until 7th January. I’ll only be taking on a limited number of new members after that.

Read more here

There’s no long term commitment – and no risk. I only expect you to stay as long as you’re getting value from the group.

September 26, 2018

Core Story 17: Sobbing in the toilets at work

I’ve ended up back in full time employment twice in the time I’ve had my own business.

In May last year we had just returned from two months in Italy. To be honest, business wasn’t great. Despite the time away I was lacking clarity on how to move forwards, and needed to buy myself some time.

Whenever I spoke to Linzi about work, we ended up having that conversation. You know, the conversation that ends with ‘so when are you going to get a real job??

One day I opened a web browser. I don’t know what compelled me to check LinkedIn, but I did.

I hardly ever check LinkedIn. I think the whole platform is full of posturing, not real connection. I had a message in my inbox from a recruiter. I have no idea why I opened it, let alone respond. But I did.

A short phone call later I discovered the company was looking for help with Infusionsoft, and based nearby. The salary was good. They sold high-end property investment training courses, and were looking for someone to craft their customer journey.

The company was small but growing, with money available to invest in ads and systems. There would be scope to work from home. Their website was terrible, but there was an aspirational aspect to the message I liked.

In my head I was like… “ummmmm, where’s the snag?” I had been after a single big client for a while, so perhaps this was it?

Two weeks later I started work as ‘CRM manager’… a title that in hindsight barely reflected the scope of the work.

I remember my first day in the office. The mixed emotions. Sad at being committed to a daytime role. Pleased that I had found an opportunity this good so close to home. Worried I would delay progress on True Story Selling. Starting any new job is a culture shock for a few days. The company had ambitions to take over property education both here and in America. Big plans, big goals, aggressive timescales.

You could tell at the outset that the company was very… busy. You could see the busyness etched into people’s faces.

I have no problem with being busy. I like the ‘let’s make stuff happen’ attitude. But I also like time to reflect and think. As a creative person your output is only as good as your input.

I’ve since realised that the busyness stemmed from the company owners, who almost never took a day off (including on vacation), and wouldn’t be told something is impossible. If you talk yourself into a senior management role for people who never take time off, and won’t accept you can’t do something, guess what happens?

You breakdown – that’s what happens.

I was been promoted to ‘Head of Marketing’ in November. I knew at the time it was a risky move, for only a modest increase in pay. For a while I had managed to stay away from the office, and maintain a sort-of ‘CRM expert’ or ‘consultant’ status. Those perks quickly evaporated, along with a pound of flesh.

Things really unravelled in January this year…

I had just run my own Big Story Workshop, which was a success. At the same time, Linzi was in hospital for more than two weeks with pre-eclampsia. And at the same time, the day job had gone into crazy-insane-overdrive. At one point we were running three live webinars per week, which I was responsible for organising and promoting.

I remember sitting at my desk one Friday afternoon. I had about seven reports to prepare. I had a very novice member of staff to manage. Plus four webinars to plan, and write copy for. I remember just going blank, or vacant. Having the feeling of letting go of the steering wheel, regardless of the consequences.

I’m not really an emotional breakdown kind of person. You won’t find me sobbing in the toilets – although I heard other people. But the breakdown definitely happened.

I was up front with work about what happened. Told them they needed to find a new Head of Marketing. I’d lose another pound of flesh before managing to extract myself fully, but I got out in the end.

There were some good outcomes from this stint back in employment. My copywriting definitely improved – mostly because we ran so many damn webinars. At one point I was outlining and copy editing seven or eight emails per day, plus managing an in-house copywriter.

I did some things right. I worked from home very early on. I set a precedent of travelling to the office after the morning rush hour – if I even went in at all. I rejected the offer of a work mobile (haha – no thanks!)

When you do these things from the beginning, nobody questions them too much later on. Showing up regularly is not a good way to make yourself valuable. All that happens is you become a part of the furniture.

I’ve also questioned myself a lot. I’ve questioned whether I pushed back on management enough. I have to be pretty certain of my opinions before I’ll shout up, but sometimes I should have trusted my gut more.

I learned a lot about myself too. I learned I’m about as managerial as a brush. I’m also too prone to disappear on long walks for conventional office life. Too attached to my own eccentricity.

Oh, and I learned (again) that I can’t do everything and beat the world all by myself.

More on that in tomorrow’s final core story email, when I’ll bring you up to date.

September 25, 2018

Core Story 16: Off You Go… Write Me an Email

As I was telling you yesterday, I came away from Infusionsoft’s ICON conference with a burning desire to focus on one specific thing.

That thing was storytelling…

Ever since I was small I’ve written stories that keep people’s attention. I’ve always written emails that tell some kind of story. I’ve even told primitive stories in Google ads.

I’ve seen that stories work, in different ways and across different media…

But I always thought storytelling was a dark art; not something I could systematise or teach. Plus I don’t have a background in story. Beyond A-level literature I never studied it formally. Whenever you’re about to pivot into a new area, a small inner voice ALWAYS pops up to question your credentials.

What qualifies you to teach that?” the voice demands.

As usual, it turns out that didn’t matter…

I had been following Sean D’Souza for a few years. I would listen to his Three Month Vacation podcasts on my walks around Sheffield. One week Sean announced he was running a storytelling workshop in Amsterdam, so I booked to go.

Within five minutes of arriving at the venue, Sean gave me this sideways look. “So… you’re an introvert, right?” he asked.

‘Oh man. Is it that obvious?’ I thought, completely taken aback.

There were around twenty delegates at the workshop. We mostly arrived as writers in some capacity. What became obvious was that Sean had a process he was able to teach, and it wouldn’t have mattered if we had arrived as physicists or mathematicians. We’d all have made the same mistakes, and left with the same skill.

A few things really struck me about those three days. The workshop itself was carefully structured; but also fun. There was music. We had breakout time. We went out for lunch, and dinner in the evening. There was a good mix of learning, doing, and space to just work stuff out.

Most importantly, you came away with a skill. One of Sean’s goals, he told us, was for us to teach what we had learned.

When I got home I combined Sean’s storytelling process with some of my own ideas. I scoped out a seven-week email storytelling course. I put up a basic sales page. This wasn’t a big, flashy launch. I just needed to work through the process with a small group, and three students signed up.

Each week we met online to work through a particular aspect of storytelling technique. Halfway through the course I said to the group: “off you go… write me an email…”

… And virtual tumbleweed blew across my screen.

I could see furrowed brows and worried expressions through grainy webcam images. All three students were overwhelmed.

I thought about this for a few days. Eventually we created an extra step called the Speedy First Draft. Later on we added a second draft stage. We ended up with seven steps in the process rather than five, but now nobody was stuck or overwhelmed.

I had broken down the process of writing a story-based email to a series of doable steps, but still something was missing. Some connection or insight I had missed.

In my head I was like, “I know this matters. I know I’m onto something. But I can’t see the full picture…”

Shortly after that a friend recommended Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots. In the final part of the book, Booker explains that great stories are always about a broken or flawed character becoming whole, by undergoing some kind of personal transformation.

As I read those words, a penny dropped…

Most of my clients deliver some kind of transformation that is difficult to explain.

Perhaps story was the missing ingredient.

We’re all broken or flawed, in some way. You can use that to build connection. Or you can ignore it, and pretend you’re perfect.

More tomorrow.

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