Great Copywriters Use Verbal Imagery to Tell a Story
One of the first lessons you’ll learn studying marketing is that it’s an exercise in storytelling. Watch any 30-second ad spot on TV and you’ll see a short story come to life right before your eyes.
And while the purpose of that story is always to sell the audience something, the story itself is a vital part of making the sale. Stories pull people in and give them a reason to pay attention, developing a connection or inspiring action.
Often, copywriters are behind that story. Every commercial voiceover you hear, the text in every magazine ad spread, the product description you’re reading—these are all examples of storytelling, put together by a copywriter. And while you might appreciate the story they tell, the creative mindset and strategic approach that goes into that storytelling takes tremendous skill on the part of the copywriter.
Visual vs. written storytelling
Visual storytelling is easy. If you want to evoke a certain visual, all you have to do is show it to your audience. It’s the theory of shared perception: you and I see the same color blue, and we both recognize and call it ‘blue.’
Telling a story through words is much harder. A phrase like “picture yourself staring at the setting sun” won’t be interpreted the same way by any two people. While the concept might be straightforward, how people visualize it will differ dramatically. It’s up to a copywriter to ensure that, no matter how someone interprets their words, the message comes across the same.
In this way, you could say that visual storytellers focus on execution, while copywriters focus on intent.
A graphic designer can show you a picture of a sunset to set the tone; a copywriter has to think ahead to how you’ll interpret their words, to make sure what they’re writing evokes the right response.
This is often why copywriters work alongside other creatives in an agency setting. It’s much easier to tell a story with words when there’s someone else supplying the visuals, be it photo or video. But not every copywriter has the luxury of working as part of a full creative team. Moreover, some projects don’t always have a visual element attached to them. In these cases, it’s up to the copywriter to spin a great story using only verbal imagery.
Develop a concept and weave a word web
To tell a great story using only words, you need to immerse readers. Broad, vague ideas won’t hit and might not be enough to paint an immersive picture. Before you start writing, take time to flesh out a concept and some affiliated verbiage, and start assembling them into the backdrop for your story. Take a look at how this might look for something like a lawn care company selling a new fertilizer product:
In this early stage, the concept takes shape. Consider it a brainstorming session before you start putting words on paper. What is the image you’re trying to convey and how do you want people to contextualize the message you’re sending? Remember, everyone will interpret the visual differently—you need to make sure the core concept stays the same.
Consider length and context before writing
As most copywriters know, marketing is all about sending a big message in a short amount of time. Before you craft a vivid story, know the parameters of your storytelling medium. It’s a lot easier to pull together vivid, imaginative copy in a 500-word blog post than it is in a 75-word product description! Context and medium will change your approach.
The best approach to crafting a story within the confines of your medium is to first approximate, then refine. For example, if you’re working with a 75-word product description, don’t count words. Write what you think is about 75 words, then gauge how much you’re off by. Cut and consolidate as needed after you get your idea down. Why? Putting a cap on your story stifles creativity. It’s better to say everything and chop down the message than to come up short and leave out important details.
Focus on the value proposition and benefits
Always remember that the point of storytelling in advertising is to sell. If you spend too much energy focusing on the story and not enough illustrating the benefits of whatever it is you’re selling, your ad will fall flat. A good story will weave benefits into the imagery, painting a clear picture for readers.
Often, this means translating features into benefits before telling the story. This is an exercise every copywriter needs to master. Here’s what it looks like in the context of our lawn care example from above:
A quick way to pull benefits out of features is to think about why each feature is important. If the feature is the cause, benefits are the effect. Do this for all important features before spinning the benefits into copy that tells a story.
Spin out a story and stay true to your concept
Take your concept and your writing parameters and get to work! Make sure to focus on benefits-driven copy, spinning it into a vivid description that does as much to inform as it does to intrigue readers.
It might take a few writes and re-writes to get your copy in the ballpark, and even more time editing and scrutinizing your story to get it perfect. When you’re done, you should have a draft that tells a story, informs the audience and keeps their attention. Here’s an example of a 75-word product description, using our running lawn care example:
They say the grass is always greener on the other side. But what if you lived on ‘the other side?’ Product X infuses your lawn with vitamins and nutrients to grow lush, healthy grass that’s greener than whatever’s on your neighbor’s side of the fence. It’s a simple, affordable approach to lawn care—one that’s safe for your kids, pets and the environment. You’ll spend less time tending your lawn and more time enjoying it.
There’s a lot of room for subjectivity in this example—but that’s okay! The core message is the same: Product X will make your lawn look better than your neighbors, so you can feel proud of your property. It doesn’t matter how big someone’s property is or what their idea of enjoying their landscape looks like. People can envision the benefits in the context of their life, which is the sign of a powerful storytelling appeal.
Be descriptive, not assertive
There’s a difference between a descriptive story and an assertive one. If you try to get too specific with your verbal imagery, you’ll force the reader to work harder than they need to, and you might lose their attentiveness. Moreover, you’ll make the entire storytelling process too cumbersome to be effective.
For example, if you have 200 words to sell a lawn care product through a story and you spend 150 of those words painting a visual picture, you’ll only have 50 words left to deliver a pitch or explain the benefits. Conversely, if you spend 150 words making a hard sell and only 50 trying to tell a story, it’ll fall flat. Find middle ground and be descriptive, not assertive. It’ll take time to learn how to marry imagery with benefits or tell a story that’s a natural CTA. Practice makes perfect and rewrites help polish an idea over and over again.
Know your audience
The best marketing story is one that’ll resonate with the audience—whether it’s homeowners concerned about lawn care or someone looking for an accountant. Think of it like writing a non-fiction book and choosing a genre. You can’t pitch a murder-mystery to someone who wants to read a love story! Connect the dots between your audience and the tone of the story you’re crafting. Should it be upbeat and zany? Sharp and witty? Serious and professional? Choose the tone and tell the story in the voice that’ll best appeal to its intended readers.
No copywriter ever truly ‘masters’ the art of storytelling, because every story is different. What you can master are the techniques and grammatical devices that make a story great. Identifying a theme, persuasive word choices and benefits while staying mindful of medium are all ingredients in the recipe for great storytelling.
Of course, practice makes perfect. The more stories you write, the better storyteller you become—whether it’s through product descriptions, blog posts, traditional ad copy or a different medium. Every copywriter is a storyteller.