Storytelling is a popular theme throughout all of email and content marketing. We’re told to share stories in our videos, on our websites, in our written content, and on our landing pages.
With all of the attention on storytelling, it can be hard to tell if it’s a trend or legitimate tactic. Many are left wondering what distinguishes a story from normal copy. Without understanding what makes storytelling work, it’s hard to believe storytelling can be as effective as it’s made out to be.
Why tell stories?
The buzz about storytelling is for good reason. Stories are effective. They grab attention and hold it. They convey important business information in a fun and interesting way.
Would you rather be told that Company X launched 24-hour support or hear the story of how a late night support call saved a client from losing a major deal? My guess is the latter.
There’s also an inherent credibility to stories. We’re conditioned to look at information on features and benefits with a skeptical lens. The same information demonstrated through a story doesn’t meet the same skepticism.
Possibly most importantly, stories also increase retention. Most people can’t recall the details of a typical email, even fifteen or twenty minutes after reading it. Stories create a stronger connection with readers. The audience remembers the narrative and – if it’s presented correctly – they remember the purpose of the story too.
In an interview with Crazy Egg, marketing coach and entrepreneur, Terry Dean, shares a great story on the topic. After noting that most audiences forget the points of professional presentation, Dean goes on to talk about one particularly effective email:
“I wrote an email way back in 2000 about how the Internet allowed me to work from anywhere. I chose to live way out in the country where my nearest next door neighbor was a cow named Oscar. The cow was owned by the neighbor and regularly came up to fence to eat the grass on our side of the fence.
I sent one email about that. I’ve had dozens of people ask me about Oscar over the years. When speaking at conferences, people who were on my list way back then still ask about the cow. I don’t know what happened because we don’t live there anymore.
They remembered the message of freedom I shared, because they remembered the story.”
And there’s scientific grounding for the findings of Dean and many other marketers.
The science behind storytelling.
In a 2006 study, researchers in Spain found that stories had an ability to engage more areas of our brains. With a presentation of facts and information, scientists would typically only see activity in the language processing part of the brain. During stories, however, other areas of the brain were found to activate. For example, descriptive metaphors were found to trigger activity in the sensory cortex, the area of the brain associated with the five senses. Likewise, words describing motion were found to stimulate activity in the motor cortex, the region responsible for movement and coordination.
In a different study, noted neuroeconomist, Paul J. Zak, found stories were able to trigger production of a chemical called Oxytocin. Oxytocin is a key signal in letting our brains know it’s safe to approach others. It’s connected with being shown kindness or being trusted. This neurochemical enhances empathy and helps to facilitate cooperation with others.
Storytelling in email.
You may be wondering how all this connects to email. Emails are supposed to be short and to-the-point. Stories may be effective, but surely an email isn’t the place for a full-length story?
Yes and no.
While it’s true that an email probably isn’t the place for a 2,000-word epic, there are several ways email and storytelling can work together.
Some would suggest using string of connected emails to tell a story. Others would suggest using the email as a teaser for long-form story on the landing page or in a pdf. Neither of these approaches are wrong, but they’re more complicated than they need to be.
An email is perfectly capable of being short, to-the-point, and telling a story.
The diagram above, Freytag’s Pyramid, is something we’ve all probably seen at some point or another. Based predominantly on study of ancient Greek literature and Shakespeare, Freytag’s Pyramid was developed in the mid-1800s by German novelist Gustav Freytag. It is designed to explain the basic plot elements of a story.
For our purposes, Freytag’s Pyramid provides a simple and flexible framework for a compelling story. The beauty of the framework is that it scales from 500-page tale, like The Odyssey, to a hundred or so words of email copy.
Let’s look at the framework as it relates to B2B marketing.
- Exposition – We start with the current state of your prospects – the status quo.
- Inciting Incident – This is where the issue or the problem (the thing that we will eventually fix) is introduced.
- Rising Action – Here, we build on the problem and its implications. We present a situation the prospect can relate to. Ideally, one they’ve experienced themselves.
- Climax – This is it. The single biggest reason the prospect should change. It might be an illuminating stat or an implication of the problem that’s not immediately apparent.
- Falling Action – At this stage, we introduce the solution. Without getting into product-specific details, describe how the aforementioned problem could be solved by a product like yours.
- Resolution – Finally, the product is unveiled. Here, we explain why our product fits the bill and what makes it the best/most affordable/longest-lasting solution to the problem.
- Dénouement (pronounced: day-noo-mahn) – In a typical story, this is the place for the aftermath or the closing notes. For our purposes, it works best as a “next steps” and a place for the call-to-action.
Though not perfect, this email from Shopify gives you an idea of how an email can apply this framework in a briefly and effectively.
The message has a very clear rising and falling structure. Paragraph one introduces the need for (more) friends when you’re selling online. It finishes with the key benefit of site traffic and sales brought about by your advocates. Paragraph two presents blogger outreach as a way to acquire these important friends and advocates. Finally, the call to action, which in this case is to read more on their blog.
Whether you are promoting your product directly or using emails for various other company objectives, storytelling has a place in your messaging, regardless of the character limit. Great stories don’t need to be the length of a novel.
Let us know what you think:
- Do you think storytelling has value for email?
- Do you incorporate storytelling in your emails?
- How do you think storytelling and email can best work together?