Why Stories Sell Products Better Than Products do.

Many moons ago, I loved long copy ads. Not because they filled each sentence with product promises, but because they told a story. Storytelling was an art back then. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, described how people would read long stories in The New Yorker “for the sheer pleasure of seeing where he [the writer] will emerge.”

Advertising doesn’t share the same luxury, obviously, but historically, the best copywriters still knew and practised the art of storytelling. During Tom McElligott’s time working on Porsche, he wrote a full page ad that still ranks as one of my favorites. The headline (in bold Helvetica) simply said: “Hail Heretics.” Through the copy, he described how Porsche engineers didn’t follow the traditional rules of auto engineering, preferring instead to be heretical.

If you stuck with Tom, he explained how new paths were created more by heretics than conformists. I bought the logic because I loved the story. Who doesn’t love a story that puts the world in a completely different perspective?

In the same way Tom McGilligott made us respect heretics, another copywriter of the time, Tom Thomas, made us respect craftsmanship. In his ad “Enjoy the Economic Recovery in a Car That Didn’t Need One,” he explains how old BMWs retain their value, sometimes selling for more than new sports sedans.

Or how about David Abbott’s famous ad, decrying the ready-made suit: “Is your husband in another man’s arms?” Who wouldn’t read the copy after a headline like that? It isn’t just clever, it’s clever in a way that has an irresistible pull. We have to know where Abbott’s going with this.

These copywriters — and numerous others — were practising the art of persuasion. They followed David Ogilvy’s belief that “the more you tell, the more you sell.” Unfortunately, over the years, clients decided they wanted short copy and headlines. They didn’t trust attention spans.

What few realized — and still don’t — is that consumers don’t have short attention spans. Consider the hours they spend on the Internet. Length isn’t the problem, it’s what companies insist on saying that drives people nuts.

When the Internet started out, people were information hungry. But, like advertising, they got tired of companies thinking they had their undivided attention. Boring is as boring does, and most companies still fail to understand just how boring they really are.

Persuasion is understanding how to interest someone. Great salespeople don’t lean on their customers. They read them, sensing exactly what that customer needs. Sometimes even the customer doesn’t know what they need, but a great salesperson either senses it or creates it.

In essence, that’s what storytelling is all about. It’s sensing what an audience wants even before they know they want it. That’s why research fails so often. They keep asking the subjects: “Do you like this?” The subject doesn’t know. They’re waiting for you to tell them what they want.

I remember promoting a drug that reduces angiotensin II. Since I didn’t have a clue what angiotensin was, I went through hundreds of clinicals, discovering this demon seed causing atherosclerotic plaque. So I wrote a story, picking out what I found fascinating (if it fascinates you, it’ll fascinate others as well).

On the day of research, the first doctor pushed the ad away, saying, “I know what angiotensin is.” The moderator, this brilliant young woman, looked at him and asked, “Can you explain it to me?”

The doctor shrugged and said, “We see it all the time. I don’t know why you’re wasting a long description on something doctors already know.” So the moderator asked what made angiotensin II different from angiotensin I? The doctor ended up swinging the ad around, saying, “What it says here.”

Every product has a story — not a list of product details — but a story that can change the way people perceive what you’re selling. In the right hands, that can change an undecided buyer into an enthusiastic one.

What we see instead is clients turning to new technology: the banner ads, the pillar ads, the big box ads. How effective are they? I liked the quote that said: “A consumer is more likely to survive a shark attack than click on a banner ad.” That’s not far from the truth, and it represents advertising dollars wasted where that same money could be persuading potential customers.

Another writer gave an even more damning description, calling today’s advertising, “…nothing more than old platitudes, offering the same thrill as a postal truck delivering Walmart fliers.”

Perhaps, like B.B. King says, “The thrill is gone.” We’ve said all we can about “quality” and “unique design.” Do we keep dragging out the old descriptives? Or do we stop boring consumers and learn to engage them?

As I stated off the top, we love stories, and the best are still out there, waiting to be told. Think of it this way: If you’re the only one telling a story — a real story — that puts you miles ahead of your competition.

Never underestimate what words can do. “The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original,” William Zinsser once wrote. If you consider your product original, unique or just better than everyone else, then you’ve got a story. Make it a good one and you’ll sell product.

How do I know this? What’s the best-selling book in history? The Bible. What does it contain? Stories.

How about you? What’s your opinion of storytelling? Do you see the difference between persuasion and a long-winded sales pitch? Let me know at rcormack@rogers.com

Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, journalist and novelist. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details (you can also buy from them).

I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.