How Does Narrative Function in Good Copywriting?

I’ve been peeking around a few copywriting and freelancing sites lately, and one of the terms that come up quite often is “storytelling.” How do you tell a story to your audience? Why should you tell a story to your audience? What stories do you tell?

Those are all good questions because I think we all deep-down agree that we should be telling stories. That just feels right. But just because something is intuitively true doesn’t mean we understand why it is true.

So, while we understand that we should tell stories to reach out to our audience, without understanding why.

So why?

Because Telling a Story Identifies Pain Points

This is a key aspect of copywriting that can easily be overlooked. “Pain Points” are simply areas where customers or clients have a problem, areas where services or offers can help them make life easier or more productive in ways that they otherwise can’t or won’t do. If you provide a solution for that pain point, then you are in pretty good shape.

But you have to sell that pain point. That’s because as much as we like to think of ourselves as rational and self-interested beings, we don’t always know ourselves (or what constitutes our “well-being”) as well as we should. I may have a paint point around, say, organizing a content schedule, but not realize it because I’m so close to the problem I can’t even see a world outside of it.

A narrative paints a picture of that new world outside of the pain point. It clearly articulates a pain point for a customer by telling them a story that they might be familiar with or showing them an event that resonates with how they understand problems and inconveniences. It’s one thing to say “Use product X to solve your hard-to-reach problems!”, but it is another thing entirely to demonstrate that problem in action.

Because Telling a Story Presents Information Experientially

When I was a teacher at the University of South Carolina, I typically started my intro-level classes with a breakdown of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” If you aren’t familiar with that particular piece of writing, the “Allegory” is a smaller discussion within one of Plato’s larger works, The Republic. In the “Allegory,” Plato (through the character of Socrates) uses the story of an individual escaping and returning to a dark cave of deception to create a narrative about enlightenment and the relationship of the enlightened to the rest of the society.

As you might already know, Plato doesn’t just say “you should be enlightened because the world is ultimately fake” because actually saying that it a meaningful way is hard.

Instead, he tells a story.

He uses the notions of imagery, growth, and experience to narrate a process of enlightenment. He literally leads (according to him, I suppose) his students to an enlightened understanding of the world by telling a very simple story about a physical journey out of a dark cave into the light of reality. This is because those unenlightened souls cannot see outside of their own limitations.

So in the courses that I taught, students would have a lot of different ways to interpret the text itself. But more importantly, the story within the text invited them to do that by moving them from point A to point B. By having them focus on a narrative, they could point to story beats that related to one another.  

That’s what writing is. That’s what copywriting is. Movement. And, following that, copywriting is about the experience of movement, of moving from point A to B to Z and, at the end, seeing their problems (pain points) identified, articulated, commisurated, and solved.

Telling stories creates two important relationships with an audience: one of empathy and movement. A story, told as a copywriting tool, signals to a reader that there exists, somewhere, someone who empathizes with the work they have to do, the challenges of that work. Then, it literally walks them away from those challenges by suggesting a solution.

That’s the power of storytelling.

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