It’s Monday — that means it’s time to open up the mailbox and answer YOUR questions!

Have you ever felt like you wanted to fight a client?

I have…

If you’ve ever heard the advice to “pick your battles,” you should know it applies as much to clients as it does to personal relationships.

The following question is about using stories in your marketing.  And, yeah, we’ll riff on that.  But also, we’ll step back — and address the broader battle between service provider and client, when you want to go one way and they want to go another.

It’s Monday, which means it’s time to open up the ol’ mailbox and answer YOUR questions…

Want your question answered in next week’s Mailbox Monday?  Shoot it to me at [email protected] and you might just get what you want!

Now on to today’s question…

Hi Roy,

I read your emails religiously and I have a question for you.

One of the reasons why I got into copywriting is because I am passionate about creative storytelling. And I was always taught that marketing is about that, telling a story. A brand’s story, a product’s story, a consumer’s story.

But I have this one huge client who keeps beating this down, telling me my copy is too conversational, too narrative, too much story. He says, nobody cares about story anymore. That’s old news. All they want to know is, how will this benefit me? Just talk about the money the reader will make, cut all that story crap out of your copy.

Does this reflect your experience? Do you think creative storytelling is old news in direct response?



I’ve got some good news and some bad news…

The good news is that story is NOT dead in direct response!  Sure, I’ve got a vested interest in saying that.  After all, I have a product to pitch you called the Story Selling Master Class, which just so happens to be one of the most popular trainings you get as part of BTMSinsiders.

The bad news is that if you got into marketing to tell stories, you might be thinking too much about yourself and not enough about the customer.

YES, stories can be devastatingly effective during many, many parts of the selling process.  Knowing how to spin a good story is one of the most powerful marketing and selling skills you develop.  But, the most critical part of Story Selling is NOT the Story part…

(And I’ll note here: I did not see the copy in question.  I can’t comment on it directly.  I can really only respond to the email I got, and the question it raised.  And so this is a more general response based on broad and probably biased generalizations!)

If you’re not writing marketing copy in order to move a prospect from unaware to problem aware to solution aware to product aware to most aware to taking action and giving you or your client money…

Then what you’re doing is NOT marketing or copywriting, it’s just writing for entertainment.

Maybe you can get away with that on Madison Avenue…  But in the trenches of direct response?  If your story is not advancing the sale, it should get cut.

I deserve this criticism, too!

I’ve certainly written my fair share of stories that were superfluous to the selling process.

Maybe I had the prospect in mind when I decided to include the story.

But in execution, I got too excited about the story…  Too excited about the narrative…  Too excited about the details…  Too excited, specifically, about how I was telling it…

Too excited, in essence, about the sound of my own voice…

When really, I should have been excited about the customer, their dreams, desires, and sense of destiny, their fears, frustrations, and failures…

And I should have been doubling-down on speaking to that.

I discovered copywriting through The Well-Fed Writer.  As the book’s title should tell you, I was a writer who wanted to learn how to put food on the table with writing.

This puts me — and you, too, if you found copywriting from this direction — at a disadvantage.

I like writing.

This can be a good thing.  Because you have to at least not go crazy when you’re locked in your basement office, alone, for hours per day.  Cranking out sales copy, for yourself or clients.

But, also, you succumb to the curse of being interested in the writing bit.

The ultimate measure of a copywriter’s success is NOT measured in anything having to do with the writing itself.  It’s not measured in quantity or quality of writing.  It’s not measured in critical acclaim.  It’s not even measured in readership.

The ultimate measure of a copywriter’s success is in getting your prospects to do whatever the heck it is you (or your client) want them to do as a result of reading.

If you don’t get your prospect to take action, you fail as a copywriter…

This is meant to be tough love.

Here’s the thing.

If you can tell a story that gets your reader to take the desired action, GREAT!  Some of the world’s best copywriters and persuaders do this all day long.

Story has so many benefits when it comes to persuasion, that I believe you are putting yourself at an extreme disadvantage if you choose not to use them.

It’d be like a carpenter today saying, “Carpenters shouldn’t use power tools.”  Considering how useful power tools can be when used correctly, any carpenter who knows their craft absolutely uses power tools.  But a power miter saw in the hands of an amateur can make a million cuts and never lead to a cabinet.

You must always, always, always keep the ideal outcome in mind.

(This is why I based the entire Story Selling Master Class not just on stories themselves, but the three pillars of Story, Character, and Selling — and how to use them together for maximum persuasiveness.)

If you do this, and your stories are in constant service of making the sale (and you can clearly justify and provide a powerful “reason why” you used a story in each moment, toward that end)…  I don’t think your client would mind all that much.

In fact, in a good story-driven sales pitch, the story itself is not the focus, and that same client might not even notice!

Which brings me to the whole “pick your battles” thing…

It’s quite possible, in this instance, that the client can’t tell a piece of great copy when they see it.  That’s often been my justification when a client rejects my copy out of hand.

I think in some cases, I’ve been right.

Clients get in patterns.  Just like copywriters.  They define “good copy” as looking one particular way, and following one particular pattern.

But most often that’s what will get you middle-of-the-road results in that market.

It’s what I like to call “workhorse” copy.

It gets results, consistently.  It’s not a risk.  But it won’t get you any big breakthroughs, either.

Most often, it’s copy that goes against the grain, that feels different, that breaks all the rules that truly stands out in the prospect’s day (where they’re bombarded with 10,000 different advertising messages).

It’s copy that breaks the “rules” of workhorse copy that creates big breakthroughs.

And often — oh, so often — that copy includes at least some level of storytelling or story elements.


If your client hired you and paid your fee for you to NOT break rules and for you to write workhorse copy?

You’re going to blow up the relationship by fighting them all the way to the end on this.

If it’s your first project with the client, they’re probably the LEAST likely to let you break the rules and slip things through.

The longer of a relationship you have with them, and the more you’ve proven you know how to get results with the kind of copy they expect?  The more likely they are to let you test and try things, and do something different…

The happy medium…

If you have an entrepreneurial client who truly runs their marketing under the proven principles of direct response, you do have one other option.

You can ask them for a panel in the test.

This is actually a trick I learned from Gary Bencivenga, that his smartest clients loved.

Specifically, Gary would tell the client that he was happy to create something that followed all the tried-and-true rules to make sure he was doing something that had a high likelihood of at least being profitable.

This would be the pitch where you’d really try to focus on selling, and take all the client’s advice.

But Gary would often ask the client to run another approach alongside the first.  For this one, he’d really swing for the fences, knowing it could either be a total miss, or a home run.

He’d break rules.  He’d buck convention.  He’d follow his gut-level inspiration about an unconventional approach that he was convinced could be a big winner.

About half the time, the “safe” version would win, and his client would do well with that.  It was usually a workhorse.  Never a runaway success, but also never a dud.

But when the swing-for-the-fences version of his copy won?  Well, usually it paid off big.  That’s where the breakthroughs and life-changing promotions came from.

Your client might be right…

If they are, and your story does not serve the sale, taking this approach to testing both versions can ensure they have something that at least works and does the job they set out to do.

But if you’re right, and your story-based approach is the big winner?  Well, they won’t be complaining about your story after that!

Either way, you have a new winner for the client.  Everyone is happy.  And you look like a hero by proposing a solution and coming through in the end.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr