5 Copywriting Lessons Inspired by Fiction

In a rush? Go straight to the meaty bit. Otherwise, read on…

I’m so naughty. I didn’t publish a blog in May. Eeeeeek!

I took last week off (it’s not my fault I take lots of holidays, my partner’s a headteacher so I have to!) and went to a few events at Derby Book Festival.

After the talk with Lionel Shriver (‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is her most famous book, just in case you don’t know the name), we toddled off downstairs to meet her and get our brand new copies of her latest book signed. And we really let ourselves down.

As we waited in line I was turning over funny quips and anecdotes in my head, ready to ask for an insightful inscription in my book, which I plan to give to my sister-in-law.

But it didn’t go to plan.

After a few minutes, we were at the front of the queue so we walked up to the table she was sitting at with a mahoosive glass of wine, smiling at us.

I mumbled something about enjoying her talk and didn’t she give a good response to the “chap” (why do I sound like Hugh Grant when I’m nervous?!) who wanted to label her as a “women’s writer” (which she wasn’t having as it’s only ever used pejoratively). Then I asked her to sign my book to Jessica, my sister-in-law, saying she’s American (as is Lionel).

I meant it as an opener to talk about America (or something) but my partner thought I meant it as in ‘She’s American, you must know her’, so she gave me a ‘Did you really just say that you effing moron?’ look and I didn’t open my mouth again throughout the entire embarrassing experience.

Then my partner presented her book and Lionel asked her whose name she should write in it. Sara spelt out her name, “S-A-R-A”. It went quiet. Then she added, “Like a fake Sarah”.

Like a what…? A ‘fake Sarah’? What the…?!

Lionel glanced up at us. We looked at her. She looked at us. We couldn’t speak. She was waiting for some other instruction for the books. We just stood there.

It was the longest five seconds of my life.

We shuffled away in silence. Then giggled like 9-year-old girls.

I was mortified. I work for myself, I meet new people all the time, I do things that scare me at least weekly if not daily. Sara is a senior leader, she deals with children and teenagers on a daily basis and manages 250 staff, but neither of us could speak in front of someone we admire so much.

So now we’ve got two copies of ‘Property’ with Jessica’s and Sara’s names in but no dedications, just big blank empty spaces where the words should be – though I’m sure that won’t detract from the reading experience… which leads me on – sort of – to my new blog:

5 Copywriting Lessons Inspired by Fiction

1. It’s all about stories

Along with authentic and disruptive, storytelling is one of the most overused words in marketing. It’s mentioned in every copywriting job spec and brief you see, you can barely say the word ‘copy’ without someone mentioning stories.

You’d be forgiven for being sick of hearing about them but stories are important.

They’re the way we connect and relate to each other, share our experiences and pass on our knowledge.

We wake up and read stories on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, in the news and emails. Then we start chatting or calling people and telling them our story about the day or yesterday’s meeting or the intricate details of what we ate for lunch. Parents read bedtime stories to their children, we call our mums in the evening to share our news, or bore our partners about such and such to do with work. It’s all storytelling.

Why do we share them? Because stories are powerful.

To survive, you must tell stories.
– Umberto Eco

At a deep level, they’re how we share this crazy human experience, sitting on a massive rock spinning through space at 1000 mph. On a lighter note, they’re how we connect, they evoke emotion and those emotions give us and our lives meaning.

And they’re memorable.

Can you name one thing that has happened every single year, maybe even every single day, for the last two and a half millennia?

Humans have shared Aesop’s Fables. Isn’t that amazing.

2. The narrative arc

Facts tell. Stories sell.

– Marie Forleo

Copywriters use stories to connect and sell, and just like fiction, copy has a structure that includes:

– A beginning, a middle and an end

– A protagonist – often your client

– A dilemma – the problem your client came to you with

– A journey – the transformation your client goes through thanks to what you did to help them

– An outcome – the difference you made to them/their finances/company/appearance/self-esteem/interior decor…

QUICK TIP: Show don’t tell

In fiction, good writers use action and dialogue to tell the story, rather than relying on exposition.

All the information you need can be given in dialogue.
– Elmore Leonard

In good copy, instead of saying “I’m awesome at what I do”, use testimonials, case studies and client stories to show your readers how good you are. 

3. The power is in the detail

Fiction and copy are stronger if they’re about specific people and include specific details. As readers, we want to hear about one person. Novels aren’t about the entire population of a country or hundreds of characters, they’re about a few people we get to know intimately.

Change one life and you change the world

It’s well documented that we struggle to picture big numbers. That’s why an advert that tells the story of one child dying from diarrhoea is more powerful than quoting the statistic that approximately 2195 children die every single day from diarrhoea [Ref: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention].

[If you’re interested in this topic, this article takes a fascinating look at ‘psychic numbing’ in relation to humanitarian crises:

A Psychologist Explains the Limits of Human Compassion]

Big numbers in your copy can act as social proof (you’re more likely to download an app that 2000 people are using than 2 people are) but when it comes to stories about transformation, we need to get to know one person.

Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without any annoying delays: don’t write about Man, write about a man.
– E.B. White

Your app may have helped 1100 people lose weight – that’s brilliant – but reading about how Maggie can now fit into the jeans she last wore when she was 25 or how Tim lost two stone for his wedding day is what connects.

4. Share something unique

My favourite books and movies are the ones that leave me feeling changed. Have you had that experience? During the reading or watching of them, you learn something and you never go back to the person you were before you learnt it.

Most books and films are purely entertaining but the ones that have affected me are the likes of To Kill A Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, Anna Karenina and Cloud Atlas, written by amazing people who have something unique to say.

I’m not suggesting we can all write copy like Harper Lee, John Steinbeck or Tolstoy but you can give your unique take on the world or talk about your unique offering.

Telling a powerful story with unique learning or life lessons will make you stand out and be remembered. You see it on LinkedIn all the time, they’re the posts people engage with and get hundreds of likes and comments.

People love learning and they love connecting too.

But I lease printers?

Yeah, I hear you, printers aren’t sexy but you still help people and there’s still something unique about your knowledge or experience or what your company does – you might think of it as your USP or your competitive advantage.

There is absolutely no one else who can do exactly what you do, and that’s what you share:

– What do you do differently to help your customers?

– What will you do when my printer breaks and I’ve tried switching it off and back on again?

– What unique information or service can you give me that makes my life easier or puts my mind at rest?

– What stories can you tell that show future customers how you can help them?

5. Know your audience and genre

And write for them.

There are loads of genres in fiction (crime, adventure, sci-fi, young adult, romance, horror, thriller…), which are written for fans of that particular type of story. Their authors know who they’re targeting and how to appeal to them. That’s not to say every book is the same but if you pick up a crime novel you know what you’re going to get.

Knowing who your reader is helps as a copywriter too.

Are your readers:

  • men in their 20s who love new technology?
  • busy parents?
  • devotees of fashion?
  • senior leaders?
  • homeowners?
  • sports car fanatics?
  • rich/on a budget?

Try to appeal to everyone and your writing will appeal to no one. But write with one person in mind – your ideal customer – and readers will feel like you’re speaking directly to them and are much more likely to engage with what you’re saying (and buy from you!).

Copy and fiction are clearly quite different and are designed to achieve different things but it’s surprising how much they overlap. I’m an avid reader of all sorts of books and I think (hope!) that it helps my writing. How about you? Do you love reading? Do you find it helps your copywriting? Let me know below!


P.S. If you enjoyed this post, you might want to check out some more of my blogs about copywriting.

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