Tell Me a Story: Do Your Ads Intrigue?

By: Robert Hendrickson

From: IGC Retailer, IGC Show Issue, 2013

Tell Me a Story: Do Your Ads Intrigue?
It was the last program I conducted before the age of PowerPoint, which meant overhead projectors and transparency slides, many in stunning black and white. The program was scheduled to take place in Ohio, even if I had to make the trip from Mexico.

Getting a few innocent-looking pieces of plastic across the border shouldn’t be much trouble. Security south of the border waved me through with little attention to the box of slides I was carrying for my workshop. Certainly, I was not trusting airline baggage handlers with my future.

It was the friendly U.S. customs official who questioned why I failed to declare a box of “business products” being brought into the country. “Were these made in Mexico? What is the value of these items? Why are you traveling back and forth between countries in just a few days?” were three questions the uptight guardian of national security seemed to enjoy asking at a rapid-fire pace.

“Uh … no … not much … because I thought it was OK,” were the answers to what I considered surprising questions.

He thumbed through the 50 or so slides, perhaps looking for subversive messages, was my only thought. He stopped at one with just four simple words, the pinnacle of the program I was hoping I would still be able to present in Ohio if I wouldn’t have to do time in federal prison for smuggling. Those four words, “Tell Me A Story,” in bold 72-point Garamond, grabbed his attention as I hoped it would the crowd the next day.

“What kind of stories do you tell?” he asked, quite genuinely.

“Stories about why people should love to garden,” I said.

His next words sent me on the path to freedom: “That’s nice. Next.”

The Power of a Good Story
The following morning, overhead transparencies in hand with a renewed appreciation for life, my workshop program began with a simple, yet timely, statement: “The four most important words in any advertising endeavor are, ‘Tell me a story.’ It’s the request every parent hears before lights out at bedtime. It’s also what separates average writers of books or movies from amazing ones. Without an engaging, tantalizing story, Harry Potter would just be some skinny kid with big glasses.”

At the time, I had noted countless airline passengers mesmerized by Harry Potter books, and I knew the first Harry Potter movie had been released, grossing close to a billion dollars. But I had no clue book sales would top 450 million copies, or the eight-part movie series would total $7.7 billion in ticket sales worldwide. I just recognized the captivating power of a good story.

Over the next two hours, I walked the workshop attendees through a story-writing process I learned while participating in a boot camp for wanna-be screenwriters. I had no personal interest in ever writing a screenplay, but always believed good advertising was just a mini-version of a good story. Hanging out with people who love to write good stories would surely reveal what is required to write better ads. (The same scenario applies to hanging out with good books. If you want to be a better ad writer, read better books.)

Steps to a Storied Success
Retail Rules of the Road: “Until you convince me why I should buy what you’re peddling, it really doesn’t matter how much  it costs or even if it’s on sale.”

Whether it’s a fairy tale you share with a grandchild or the two top-grossing films of all time, Titanic and Avatar, both written and produced by James Cameron, there are five critical steps to successful storytelling. Let’s look at each as it relates to writing great garden center ads:

Characters - You have a choice. You can make the main character of your ad message your company, your product or your customer. Guess which one holds the most interest to the person you’re trying to convince should give you money?

Setting - If you want a potential customer to picture how the product could play an important role in her life, have her picture herself at home with the product, not at your store. We’ll tell her where the product can be found later.

Conflict - Why would a person want to consider purchasing what you want her to buy? Is there a problem you’re trying to solve, something she might be missing in life, or even things she may not be considering? The public didn’t request that someone invent iPods, iPhones or iPads, but Steve Jobs was magical at convincing people they had to have products they had never even considered.

Resolution - This is your time to remind people that you’re the place where conflicts end, solutions are provided, worry stops and enjoyment begins. That’s why you’re in business - not to sell products, but to enhance people’s lives. Product sales are guaranteed to follow.

Closure - This doesn’t always mean “The End.” Harry Potter went on for seven books and eight movies, and each one provided a stopping point for the current theme before proclaiming, “To be continued.” For our “ad story,” closure can be a promise, assurance or establishment of confidence. And like a good series, we’ll be back with more stories to tell as we share the adventure, the romance and maybe even the mystery of what gardening can provide.

These are five simple components behind blockbuster movies, childhood memories and effective marketing. And as you’re sitting in the next industry-sponsored workshop, listening to a presenter offering ideas and perspectives on ways to enhance your business success, remember, most would risk jail time to bring you the best story they can. Grab some popcorn and enjoy the show.

For a look at how one radio ad was edited from too many words to a concise story, and a copy of the best herb ad ever written, contact this author. 

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