Story Selling

Every ad tells a story. What's yours?
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the February 1997 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

That's the untold story behind your decision to get into the business you're in today? Was it a lifelong ambition? Were you busting your buns for someone else in the field and decided to go out on your own? Was it the inspiration of a family member or friend in the same industry? Or was it just an opportunity that fell into your lap?

Everyone has a story--a potentially interesting story--to tell about how they got into the business they're in . . . a story that can actually be used to promote your business. Even if you think your particular tale seems mundane, trust me, it can be turned into a provocative hook for an ad that gets people interested.

I once wrote a column about a former social worker who made a rather radical career leap to running a maid service. She had written to ask me if there might be a provocative way to promote herself, and I told her, in effect, she was sitting on it. I suggested she use the headline "Why I gave up social work to rid the world of dust balls" in her ads, followed by her story. I thought it would add lots of curiosity value and establish credibility through the real-life element of the message.

Another example of the potential for an anecdotal ad involves my plumber. Here's a guy who, as a kid, used to go out on service calls with his dad, also a plumber, and enjoyed it so much that after college (where he majored in chemistry), he decided to become a plumber himself. Besides that, he's a fourth-generation plumber. So he's got a potentially great yarn to tell that would sell anyone on using him to come out and fix their drippy faucet. I might even recommend he spice up his Yellow Pages ad with a little of that history.

Then there's the friend of mine who's a high school history teacher by training but prefers working outside and getting his hands dirty as a landscaper. His story could be massaged into a nifty piece of advertising with a headline like "Why I switched from teaching kids to sowing seeds." If it's done right, I guarantee it would get noticed and read.

You get the idea. Instead of racking your brain trying to think of a grabby ad concept, hook prospects with an interesting first-person story. It will certainly separate you from your competitors. And you'll have accomplished the hardest part of advertising: getting attention. That's my message to John Arseneault, a self-employed accountant from Auburn, Massachusetts, who wrote recently. Apart from managing the books of several companies, Arseneault has embarked on a side venture that resulted from a recent personal experience. When cancer took the lives of both his beloved grandparents, it spurred him to start another business that would help others avoid the same fate. He founded the nonprofit Cans for Cancer, a recycling and redemption business whose proceeds help support the New England Medical Center Cancer Research Department.

The company, now in its third year, is doing well. But Arseneault wonders if the brochure he and his associates hand out to businesses could be strengthened. The answer is yes . . . simply by relating his own poignant story right on the front.

Front-Page Story

The cover of Arseneault's brochure, like that of any such brochure, is the "host" of the piece. It is responsible for motivating--or, as we like to say in advertising, "teasing"--the reader to turn the page and look inside. So my suggestion to Arseneault is to tell the story on the cover of how Cans for Cancer came about and then discuss the details of the service inside, which he already does.

My proposed cover headline is "The Family Tragedy That Made Me Launch Cans for Cancer." This semi- tabloidization of the headline adds an immediate curiosity-piquing element. And even though the story involves far more copy than you normally see on the cover of a brochure, I think it will get read because of the evocative anecdote involved.

(By the way, Arseneault gets major brownie points for coming up with the name "Cans for Cancer," which further embellishes the new headline. The name is short, extremely memorable, clever and quite clear in meaning.)

The story is followed by a sub-headline that says "And why I hope you'll join me." This is the "you" part of the sell, addressing the reader's own vulnerability to the disease and cultivating his or her desire to improve the odds of staying healthy by joining the cause.

The content of Arseneault's current brochure is made up of questions and answers about the company, how the service works and where the redemption money goes. I'd also try to splice in a press clipping or two that Arseneault said he's received, as well as any certificate or letter of appreciation or recognition the research organization may have given him. Either or both of these additions could replace the current inside flap copy of this three-fold brochure because it would help establish the legitimacy of Cans for Cancer before the reader gets into the meat of the brochure.

With these suggestions, Arseneault should be able to garner some extra attention with his brochure.

Internet Caution

I devoted my December 1996 column to advertising opportunities on the Internet and how to use the World Wide Web as a promotional vehicle. But I really only scratched the surface, and, of course, the potential is vast and enticing considering the audience size and the rapidly evolving improvements in basic transmission.

But I wanted to add a reality check about the Internet. Although it is the new darling of the business world, it has its limitations as an advertising medium that really cut it down to size when compared to traditional print and even TV advertising. Internet advertising cannot reach those of us whose exposure to ads on any given day preferably comes with one leg slung over an armchair, on the patio in our favorite chaise, propped up in bed at night or, for that matter, sitting in the bathroom. At least right now, you need to be poised in front of a computer screen for anything on the Internet to have an impact on you. And, of course, you still have to go through the preliminaries of logging onto an Internet access service, manipulating your browser software, punching in your password and identifying the sites you want to visit through an unfriendly address coding system. So, notwithstanding all the multimedia bells and whistles you can use on your Web page, the fact that your prospect first has to get through all these layers puts the Internet in the same unglamorous category as a package insert in its ability to get the reader's attention.

Of course, a lot of print advertising today comes with a Web address attached for people who want to know more about the product or service being promoted. And that makes it a strong resource for two-step marketing (first the lead, then the sale). But to make the all-important first impression, let's not be too quick
to dismiss low-tech, but easier-to-access, print on paper.

Jerry Fisher is a freelance advertising copywriter. If you'd like him to consider your materials for a makeover, send them to the address below. For information on his new manual, Creating Successful Small Business Advertising, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to "Advertising Workshop," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614, or contact Jerry via Compuserve at 73150,132 or America Online at

Contact Sources

Cans for Cancer, P.O. Box 2444, Framingham, MA 01703, (508) 770-1250.

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