Tell the Tallest Tales

28 April, 2010

Copywriting, writing

Elmer Gantry was drunk.

So begins Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Elmer Gantry. Already stamps a crisp image in my mind. You likely want to know what happens next. Launching your reader into the thick of a story is not some hot new technique. Writers and storytellers of all ilks have been relying on this tactic for centuries.

Today, given our foreshortened attention spans and a growing ubiquity of absurdly crowded webpages (gotta cram in those obnoxious postage-stamp sized Facebook, Twitter and Buzz icons as well as stuff in the latest social media toy along the sidebar, header or footer)…., given this there is no more critical time to hone your storytelling skills for maximum impact. Screw all that esoteric crap…you got tales to tell.

Tell a good story.

Copywriters who spin tall tales that help their audiences picture themselves as the heroes hold the keys to the castle. How do you do that? Know your audience. (“Amazing Secret Discovered By a One-Legged Golfer…” an ad tall tale from copywriter, John Carlton)

Once upon a time in a cave far far away my ancestor scratched images into the cave walls–images in which he played hunter, warrior and hero. That story continues to weave its way through our collective unconscious. We are wizards, villians, heroes, and healers, young and old.  And the narrative traditions continue throughout even the digital world—think those highly charged and engaging online role-playing games you can lose entire days to if handed a joystick.

If you are a follower of Jung and his apostles (I like Joseph Campbell) then you believe we all can relate to many of the same or similar stories, through our collective unconscious. Moviemakers, writers and television execs bet on this. And the business world is learning how stories can tip the scale in earning customers, clients and building their own appealing stories.

Movies, books, songs, comic books, news stories, barroom tales, sit-coms, gossip, advertising…everywhere you look there are stories being told. They knit us together, revealing our similarities more than our differences.

A story is most effective when you have a target audience that sees themselves in your story. Match your story to your audience and you have tapped into real power. And this is the key: miss this bullseye and the book is laid back down, the TV channel turned, back button clicked and other tiny tragedies.

A few more examples:

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.

Kafka’s The Trial:

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.

A famous John Caples advertisement:

They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I began to play…

This last is the headline from one of the most successful ads of all time, again proving the value of bringing your reader immediately into the action AND ensuring the message emotionally engages a specific audience. (That headline has become a formula so commonly ripped off, sometimes effectively, sometimes not so much…)

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