Storytelling and copywriting – Jonathan Wilcock

Storytelling and copywriting – sorry, you’ve got it all wrong

Saw this on Twitter recently:

‘Would someone please help me understand “storytelling”? Isn’t it just what most of us copywriters have been doing forever?’

Short answer. No!

What? Have I gone mad? What about the thousands of blog posts on storytelling and copywriting?

Call me contrary, but every post I’ve read is barking up the wrong tree.

Diving into writing techniques of famous authors is valuable of course, but they’re not storytellers, they’re storywriters.

If you want to know about storytelling and copywriting, let’s set the record straight.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Have you ever had to read a story to 25 six-year olds?

Sit down with a mob of sticky-fingered sprouts and it’s you versus the awesome power of the PS4 and the mighty Dairylea Dunker.

Get it right and you’re a hero; get it wrong and you’d better brace yourself for a thwack of the public humiliation stick.

Enter the storytelling arena

In 2003 I went through the ‘Education in Human Values’ training programme. Then for several years I volunteered at kids’ summer camps and a primary school in Battersea.

The EHV programme helps draw out good values through games, art, singing, silent sitting and storytelling.

I particularly fancied myself as a bit of a storyteller.

Forget JK Rowling or George Orwell, if there was ever a place to learn the art, this was it.

How difficult can storytelling be?

I’d watched Jackanory. I could read. Surely, that’s all I needed to be a master storyteller.

Wrong.

Having an audience staring at you as you deliver your pitch is terrifying.

If they don’t like it, you get a yawn in your face. Then they tell you how rubbish you are.

A ripple of giggles spreads through the herd, but they’re not laughing with you.

If you’re really bad… put it this way, have you read The Lord of the Flies?

Let the storytelling and copywriting analogies begin

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but the parallels between reading a story to a bunch of sprogs and writing a powerful piece of copy are remarkable.

My first time in the storytelling seat, I struggled to get their attention. I needed something to get them focusing on me. The headline if you will.

Cue monster fingers and scrunched-up face…

“Who wants to hear a story about the world’s biggest, baddest, scariest dinosaur?” Surprise, surprise, everybody does.

Now you’ve got ’em how you gonna keep ’em?

You’ve banged a drum, clapped your hands… whatever it took to get them listening.

Now what?

All stories have a beginning, middle and end. How we move from one to the other is totally up for grabs.

It’s all about creating drama and flow:

– Pitching our voices from a whisper to a roar
– Pregnant pauses, holding the audience in suspense
– Unexpected twists and turns to keep everyone guessing
– Adopting different voices, ticks and traits
– Getting the audience involved by asking questions
– Making it personal, so everyone dives into the world we’re creating.

Even the most basic subject matter can be transformed into a journey of delight by employing these storytelling tricks.

Let’s give it a go

If we were to read ‘A little boy walked along the road to the shops’ aloud to a gaggle of fidgety nippers, how could we spice it up to keep them hanging off every syllable?

Let’s turn on the storytelling magic:

An itty-bitty little boy, teeny tiny… not tiny like a mouse, but tiny like… how tiny might he be? (in a group huddle we settle on ‘as tiny as a squirrel’).

The little boy, who was no bigger than a squirrel, was walking down a (expands arms and raises volume) GREAT BIG SCARY ROAD, WITH GREAT BIG SCARY CARS AND GREAT BIG SCARY LORRIES.

Why do you think he was walking down the road? To buy lots of super, sticky, sickly sweets – so, who likes sweets…?

We’ve used exaggeration, repetition and alliteration, and turned something everyday boring into a story worth listening to.

In our writing, we can replicate all these tricks and more, using capitalisation, short and long sentences, unexpected words and even made up words.

We can jump in and out of different tones of voice. We can ask questions, break up chunks of information with staccato lists…

So, employing some of these storytelling techniques, how could we re-write the same story to hook our reader?

Here goes a f’rinstance:

Remember the first time you were sent to the shops all on your own?

The world was a bigger, scarier place. Bushes were jungles full of tigers, cars were shiny metal monsters and every stranger was a scratchy-fingered child catcher.

Well, this was Sam’s very first trip down the High Street without a grown up.

He had his favourite lucky shoes on and a ten-pound note squeezed tightly in his tiny hand (so no one could steal it).

What was it mum said?

“One white sliced loaf, two pints of skimmed milk and eight rashers of streaky bacon.” This was Sam’s chance to prove how grown up he was, so he kept repeating to himself:

“One, two, eight; loaf, milk, bacon; white, skimmed, streaky…

“One, two, eight; loaf, milk, bacon; white, skimmed, streaky…

“One, two, eight; loaf, milk, bacon; white, skimmed, streaky… ooh, bus, dog, funny man with big nose.”

Sam’s thoughts had a habit of wandering off all on their own.

Now, what was it again? “Streaky bus milk, two white dogs, sliced nose loaf…”

All of a sudden we’re not passive observers, we’re right there with Sam.

If we can do that with our copywriting… just imagine.

And the moral of this particular story?

If you want to be a better writer, pick up a book and learn how to be a storyteller.

Pretend you’re reading your copy to your audience, better still, read it out loud.

You’ll soon weed out the awkward, dreary bits that act as unwanted full stops.

And guess what?

You’ll live happily ever after.

Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a Senior Freelance Copywriter. You can drop me line here, or email jonathan@sowhatif.co.uk