How to Write Stories that Sell
Your step-by-step guide to writing nonfiction and fiction stories
that sell your ideas
“Let me tell you a story.” That’s how the late Steve Jobs often started his presentations. He understood the power of story and used that promise to grab attention—even before he told the first story!
You know the power of stories too. Remember how you loved stories all those years ago when you gathered round a campfire or sat cross-legged during story hour at the library? You were spellbound. Stories have that power over us—then and now. That’s what makes them such a powerful tool for engaging your readers at work. Too often nonfiction writers miss out on this valuable way to grab attention and make information more memorable. Besides, as I often say, why should fiction writers have all the fun?
STORIES VERSUS INFORMATION
I think the reason writers don’t take advantage of the power of stories is they think storytelling is too difficult. Telling stories well is only something Uncle Bernie can do after dinner—or a few cocktails. But I’m going to show you how easy—and fun—storytelling is.
Another issue: People cling to the idea that only a formal style can make them sound “professional.” They prefer a straightforward prose, perhaps because they’re more familiar with that style. But ask yourself this question: Does that approach grab their readers? It may be their preferred style, but their task as writers is not only to express themselves—but to also engage their readers. And today’s readers, especially those weaned on “Sesame Street” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” aren’t excited about reading dry materials, no matter how “professional.”
When I get the opportunity to talk further with some of these writers, they admit that they aren’t comfortable with the idea of writing stories. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. That’s a valid reason, and that’s what this book is all about. It will help you relax and feel confident as you develop your storytelling skills so you can get the results you want from all your writing projects.
The bottom line: The days of dry corporate-speak, legalese, and overly academic prose are behind us, primarily because a “just the facts ma’am” approach presented in pages of dense text won’t grab the attention of today’s busy readers. Most of us suffer from a chronic condition called TMI—too much information—and stories offer a much-needed antidote. Not only do stories provide valuable facts, but they can also:
Illuminate and illustrate ideas and facts, systems and methods.
Apply information—taking it from the general to the specific.
Guide your readers to an exciting conclusion that compels them to take action.
When you finish How to Write Stories that Sell, you’ll know how to:
Hook your readers with stories
Tell stories that lead to the results you want
Activate memories and trigger emotions—where we buy and buy in
Choose stories that engage the head and the heart
Tell stories in stages for greater impact
Create a story inventory to capture your stories
Use other story-like approaches
Make your writing unique
Okay, let’s get started! The sooner you start writing and telling stories, the sooner you’ll start enjoying the results they can deliver.
Chapter 1: A Little Backstory
Ever since Zog and Grog sat around the first campfire eons ago, we’ve been telling stories. Later, troubadours and griots captured information and share it through stories. The oral storytelling tradition is much older than the written word—it’s only recently that we’ve written our stories, let alone tweeted them!
Once we began writing stories, the process got a little more challenging. The written word doesn’t enjoy the drama of a raconteur—no hand gestures, no eye contact, no facial expressions, and perhaps even more important, no tone of voice. That’s why the written word can be so problematic—sometimes a dry remark or joke doesn’t translate well into writing. The results can lead to wrong impressions and hurt feelings—none of which was intended! So keep this in mind when writing your stories. The written word needs some massaging to get your point across the way you intended.
Too often, business writing isn’t a quick read, and readers can begin to feel bogged down by too much dense, heavy narrative. It’s like when you go to a bookstore and start leafing through a book with dense content. Then you pick up the book next to it on the shelf, and it includes anecdotes and real-life examples, set off from the rest with a bold headline and some white space. Your brain sighs in relief, and you think, “Ah, I will enjoy this one. I’ll buy it.”
Well, the same applies to writing at work. Everyone is overworked, which means they skim more often than not—or skip. Argh! All that hard work and people just glance at it. But that’s just the way we read today. We expect to be engaged and to grasp the message quickly. Good news: Stories accomplish both. So if you can make your information more compelling and your message more lasting, it stands to reason more people will buy into your ideas when you use stories to engage them.
WHY STORIES ARE POWERFUL
Joshua Gowin reports in Psychology Today that “By simply telling a story, [we can] plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.” (June 6, 2011) That means we’re better able to illustrate ideas, make information more specific and meaningful, and guide our readers toward action.
Stories grab us, in part, because they trigger memories. As Gowin states, memories tap into our emotions, which help us decide whether to buy or buy in—or not. When our emotions are engaged by stories, we feel more connected to the promise of your message. And more inclined to believe in your premise, which can lead to sharing our enthusiasm through word-of-mouth and social media promotion of your message.
Of course, all of this triggering and grabbing happens in a nanosecond or two, mostly on a subconscious level. We’re not aware that our neurons and synapses are firing away, forming connections to your stories.
Take a moment and think about how you’ve been affected by stories—and how you’ve reacted to them. After a memory or six, I bet you’ll agree that stories are one of the most powerful tools in your writing toolkit.
As Daniel H. Pink writes in A Whole New Mind (quoting Steve Denning):
Storytelling doesn’t replace analytical thinking ... It supplements it by enabling us to imagine new perspectives and new worlds. ... Abstract analysis is easier to understand when seen through the lens of a well-chosen story.
Need more proof? Okay, read on. I share scientific research that stories are an essential element in your writing at work.
MAKE YOUR MESSAGE STICK
Today neuroscientists can demonstrate what most of us intuitively knew: We’re wired for stories. In fact, we think in stories. MRI tests show that stories make our brains light up in ways far more creatively than they do with just facts or plain old prose.
Stories not only help make your messages clearer, they help your readers grasp your ideas even faster (and in fewer words—so important in our quick-read culture). That’s because stories have the power to rapidly take the unfamiliar and make it familiar. For instance, a cattle farmer was explaining why grass is a better diet than grain. “To cattle,” he told his audience, “eating grain is like gorging on chocolate cake every day, all three meals.” Bingo! His listeners’ pained faces registered immediate understanding.
See how fast his story helps you become familiar with the situation? In just 15 words, he got his point across in a visceral way with a brief story. Now read what New York Times contributor Jim Sollisch has to say about the importance of stories to engage your readers.
When you demonstrate an idea for a reader or viewer, you let him participate in the process. I try to teach this to the copywriters who work for me. Find the story. Make it matter. No one wants to be lectured to. And that’s true if you’re creating a mobile app, a TV spot or even a PowerPoint. And the toughest lesson: learn to love doing the same assignment again and again. Writing, like building furniture or making jewelry, is ‘Groundhog Day.’ How many ways can you write a headline that says, ‘Here’s a dollar off coupon’? The answer turns out to be almost infinite. (May 13, 2013)
One more expert: Lisa Cron, author of Writing for Story and Wired for Story. She’s my favorite go-to person for the latest research and outlook on the power of stories. Her blog (http://wiredforstory.com/blog) offers amazing facts—like how the Pentagon has been researching stories because the folks at DARPA, The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, understand how powerful stories are. She writes:
There’s only one thing we can’t do: unplug our brain from story. Because story – narrative – is the language of the brain. And in that capacity, story’s main job is to impart useful inside intel on how to navigate our beautiful, unpredictable world. In fact, as studies have shown, reading novels increases our ability to empathize, but not by choice. Our newfound empathy isn’t something we “decide” to engage in having read a story about someone different than us; it’s something that happens organically — because when we were lost in the story, it rewired our brain.
That’s how powerful stories are. They often change how we see things, without our conscious knowledge. We’re being affected by stories every minute of every day, whether we know it or not. What the Pentagon is getting at is that it’s better to understand the story, and the power it exerts, than to pretend that that power doesn’t exist. … Story is the lens through which we see . . . everything.
Chapter 2: Yes, You Do Have Something Unique to Share
I just mentioned that stories grab attention and tap into emotions, but even more importantly, stories make your writing uniquely yours. No one else has your stories or tells them the way you can.
When you think of stories—think of all the types of stories, not just those long yarns your dad told while holding court after Thanksgiving dinner. Stories run the gamut from quick quips and elevator speeches to anecdotes and case studies.
For example, many medical and self-help books include case studies. That’s good. What’s bad is when the case study is so dry your readers skip it. The trick is to maintain the integrity of the information, but turn that boring case study into an interesting story. Let’s take a look at how to do that.
Find a relevant case study. Many of these, especially in the world of health care, start like this: “C. Starr presented with a history of migraine headaches and new symptoms of fatigue and joint pain…” We all feel for C. Starr, but do we really care? Are our emotions stirred? If you’re like me, the answer is a resounding “No!”
Now turn this information into a story. For example:
By the time Cassie Starr found her way to my clinic, she’d nearly given up finding help. Holding her head in her hands, she told me about enduring pain 24-7. Her condition started with occasional inflamed, painful joints. Six months later, she was practically living on over-the-counter pain relievers …
Cassie Starr is a real person now, in pain, desperate for help. And the author’s promise in her book is that she knows what to do. She could also use this story to open a presentation or an article. That’s the beauty of stories—they have so many uses and they enrich whatever you’re writing.
Or what about those stories from your adventurous youth that you love to regale at parties? Believe it or not, they may be the best stories you can share. Of course, they need to be relevant (and maybe cleaned up a bit!), but their freshness adds details about you at the same time they inform your readers and brighten your writing.
Here’s a favorite story from my early days as a traveling artist. This is a great example—just four sentences—that gets to the point quickly and packs a real punch.
Pouring coffee into my empty cup, Jo, a waitress at the Waffle House, told me, "I wanted to see the world, but on my salary? That’s why I joined up with Waffle House. They’ve got diners everywhere, so I just pick me a new location and go. I’ve got a job ready and waiting.
I love her brilliant perspective. What a great story for illustrating creativity, courage, and making the most of whatever situation you find yourself in.
Throughout Words at Work, I shared some stories from my back-to-the-land experience. For instance, I wrote about some of my farm-kitchen adventures and then brought it all back to the business of writing through this simile (a story-like technique):
The process of writing is a lot like making a good loaf of bread. At first, all the ingredients you pull together are lumpy (rough draft). With a little mixing and kneading, it becomes smooth and elastic (editing). Next, it’s time to let it rest (take a break). Come back later and punch it down (edit again), and let it rest again. Just before baking, brush it with a little egg wash for a shiny crust (final polish).
Over the years, I’ve told the following story dozens of times. Who doesn’t love the setting of Key West, snorkeling, and the deep blue sea? But the story is much more serious than it first appears. It grabs leaders by the lapels and says, “Do this!”
When I was in my 20s, I had a friend in Key West whose best friend was a captain of a snorkeling/scuba diving boat. He took us on a snorkeling adventure, and as we headed out, the sky was so blue and the water grew more turquoise. The warm salt air felt like velvet against our skin. Pretty soon, though, I didn’t see land any more. Then the captain dropped anchor, and everyone started jumping in the water. Except me. I was frozen with an irrational fear. I wasn’t that bad of a swimmer—just something about being so far away from land overtook me. When I told the captain, I was expecting a rah-rah, you-can-do-it, just-jump-in kind of response. Instead, he told me, “Sure thing, I understand. But while you’re here, why not sit on the edge of the boat, put on this face mask, and look at all the fish!” I did, and within a second, I was in the water. Who could resist the yellow fish, orange coral, and brilliant green vegetation?
See how much more effective and powerful this story is than a dry statement about leadership in the workplace? I’m showing leaders real leadership—something they can practice if they’d only share more empathy with their staff. I’ve never forgotten this kind and gentle approach to leadership. It’s rare, but think about how much better the world would be if we all practiced it.
I think one of the biggest reasons we’re seeing an upsurge in nonfiction storytelling, especially in the workplace, is we’re so overloaded with facts. TMI. Too much information. Not only do stories streamline dense materials, they add humanity. The more information we have thrown us, the more important it is for us to find connection, meaning, and wisdom. Sure, facts and analysis can bring us some of that, but stories can do it faster and in ways that engage the heart (and the more creative right brain).
Some nonfiction authors have started writing their business books like a novel and include characters, ongoing plot, conflict, and a resolution. In the 1980s, The Goal, by Goldblatt and Fox, dealt with the need for continuous improvement; in the ‘90s, Michael Lewis described the world of high finance in his book Liar’s Poker. Julie Wright took on healthcare in 2006 in We All Fall Down, written like a novel. These books often are well-received because they tell an involved, complex story and take a fresh, entertaining approach to what could be dry topics.
In order to establish the story and characters, as well as the tone and the timing, ask yourself:
What is my premise—and my promise—to my readers?
Will my writing have a helpful tone or a more serious, teaching tone?
Is the story told in present tense, or is this a recounting of something in the past?
Once you get the hang of storytelling, you’ll see how this approach makes the reading so much easier than a heavy tome—and that means readers will finish it. In fact, they’ll plow through it in one sitting and probably tell their friends about it on social media. And isn’t that why you’re writing in the first place—to spread your message?
AH-HA! NOW I SEE WHAT YOU MEAN
A story, with all its details and emotional connections, often leads to an ah-ha moment that provides the path to deeper meaning and wisdom. In a training book for construction workers, for example, a litany of safety rules is important information to help avoid injuries, but sharing the story of an injured worker grabs attention and engages the imagination as readers form a mental picture of an injured worker. Likewise, publishing a list of policies about delivering great customer service may reach some readers, but including contrasting success and failure stories gives this information emotional oomph. Here, too, each story, whether of dismal failure or exhilarating success, triggers images and pictures that breathe life into the words.
An outstanding example of the power of stories is Yes!—50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive by Robert Cialdini. I admire this book for several reasons. First, all writers want to be persuasive and Yes! shows you fascinating ways you can standout and connect with your readers.
Second, the book is a masterpiece, technically. Every chapter—all 50—start with stories. One of the techniques I teach is “Imitate to Innovate.” That just means you find a book you love, deconstruct it, and emulate its format. Well, Yes! is a great book to deconstruct. Fresh, lively stories convey highly sophisticated scientific findings. It’s a page-turner—all because of stories.
Readers are right there with all 50 ways, experiencing them rather than just reading about them. To be honest, Dr. Cialdini has another book entitled Influence. And while it’s packed with good information, it’s hard to plow through—the pages are dense and there are precious few stories. He definitely got it right in Yes!
It's interesting to note that this aversion to dense text is a relatively recent development. If you were buying nonfiction books written 25 or 100 or 300 years ago, you’d be more accepting of dense text. But in today’s market, books must grab the attention of busy readers, and stories do that effectively—and enjoyably.
Chapter 3: How to Tell a Good Story
Okay, you’re convinced. Stories are the way to go. So how do you tell a good story? And where do you find them? (More on that in a minute.)
First, let’s clarify something about stories. Cassie Starr, the headache sufferer mentioned earlier, is not a real person. In the tradition of good storytellers, she was made up to illustrate a point. That’s fair. You’re allowed to make up stories that are compilations of real situations. Most professionals of all kinds use stories that are composites of several individuals or companies. These are stories meant to illustrate, inform, and establish important points. It’s not necessary that they be true, word for word.
On the other hand, the personal stories I’ve included in this book are true stories, told as they happened and interpreted to make my point. Both types of stories are valid. In fact, if you were writing about how you turned a company around, taking it from near failure to success, you’d likely need to change the names and details to protect your client’s or company’s privacy. Doctors and others in healthcare must cloak the identity of actual patients. But please don’t make up a story as though it’s a personal experience, a real event. I’m sure you’ve read about speakers and authors who have been publicly embarrassed by claiming a personal story is true—only to have it later exposed as fiction. Why fabricate a story (as though it were true) when there are so many great stories to tell?
6 STEPS TO SUCCESSFUL STORIES
Stories, case studies, and anecdotes come in many lengths and styles, but they all share six essential components.