How to tell great stories with copy that connects

Grabbing and holding the attention of your audience rests on nailing your tone of voice and telling a story that they can connect with emotionally.

How-to guides

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC is a pretty cool museum. They have everything under the sun, from flight simulators to complete T-Rex skeletons.

They also have an incredible planetarium.

But that wasn’t always the case. Back in 1981, the planetarium show was a little dull. So the museum asked the legendary science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, to help them liven it up.

Ray sat through the show, impassive. Afterwards, he was asked for his thoughts.

This is what he said:

“You’re teaching and you should be preaching. A planetarium is a CATHEDRAL. A cathedral of space, where you go to worship the universe. You’re trying to teach science in there. No, no, get out of the way and let me celebrate the universe. Let me shout and scream for you. And if I do a good job, people on the way out will buy your damn books. They’ll go to the library, they’ll borrow the books. But you can’t put the books on the ceiling. Put the exhilaration up there.”

Ray had hit the nail right on its tiny metal head. If your factual and empirical display about the unimaginable, mind-blowing scale of the cosmos is making people snooze, how on Earth (pun intended) are you supposed to get them to pay attention to the things you care about?

You need to excite people. Exhilarate them. Connect with them. Make them care. Then, if they’re interested, they can go read the fine print. Until then, you may as well be showing them statistics about orbital vectors and Lagrange Points (look it up.)

The first question to consider is:

Who are you talking to?

This is Storytelling 101. You need to understand your audience completely before you start writing. Empathise with them. Place yourself in their shoes. What are their hopes, dreams and fears? What keeps them up at night? When you’re addressing them, you need to get at the heart of what makes them tick for your message to resonate. Otherwise, their attention will go in the blink of an eye.

A good way to do this is to start with a question, one they may have already asked themselves time and again. ‘Yes, that relates to me!’ they’ll cry. Then, articulate the problem before hitting them with the solution. It’s a classic storytelling structure that gets to the heart of what makes us human.

Koko Kanu || Exotic Elegance & Adventure
Koko Kanu || Exotic Elegance & Adventure

Don’t sell. Tell.

Writing effective copy isn’t about selling something. This might sound counterintuitive but hear us out.

Today’s audience is bombarded from all sides by exhortations to ‘buy, buy, buy!’ Advertising is almost everywhere we look and listen: on billboards, on the airwaves, and in our digital spaces. We’re so desensitised to it that the average online attention span is negligible: 5 to 8 seconds. So grabbing and holding the attention of your audience rests on nailing your tone of voice and telling a story that they can connect with emotionally.

Your call to action can wait until you’ve created interest and engagement. The CTA facilitates the user journey by linking your content with a tangible product or service, but without an emotional response, all you have is a glorified infomercial. You must first humanise your audience, and fully immerse yourself in the user journey.

The user journey

You’re browsing a social media feed on your smartphone. As you scroll, you view a mixture of your friends’ content, influencer photos, trending videos and branded stuff. From time to time, some of this content jumps out at you, causing you to pause and watch. This initial ‘wait, let me just check this out for a second’ moment only happens if you see or hear something you like. Your brain isn’t quite engaged yet, so the response in the first split-second will be an instinctive one. Either you’re drawn to the content, or you’re not. Engineering this moment depends on catchy headlines accompanied by colourful and intriguing visuals, or the right music.

So now your attention has been grabbed. Congratulations! But that doesn’t mean you’ll stay long. In a matter of seconds, your attention might waver, and you’ll move on. That’s where storytelling enters the picture: if the viewer feels understood and empathised with, and if there’s an emotional through-line, then you may have a conversion on your hands.

Framing the story

Copy is important because it adds structure to the brand narrative. The creative process must begin with a strong copy line, from which designs and visuals can be extrapolated. There can be no visual story (and no content) without the words on the page.

Your first consideration is, of course, who you’re talking to. A retail assistant will not respond to the same touch points or engage with the same language as a financial services executive. In the former scenario, it’s best to limit the use of jargon and focus on making your voice clear and relatable. In the latter, hard data, growth statistics and business buzzwords go a long way, but remember that you’re still trying to make your message as simple and resonant as possible.
It’s about striking a balance between accessibility and authority.

Next, consider what the story will be. You’ll often have to condense a great deal of information about a product or service into a short video, usually 60 to 90 seconds long. Please refer to our piece about how to create the perfect explainer video for more guidance on how to condense a complex value proposition into a short, snappy and entertaining piece of video content.

In the meantime, here’s a structure that often works for us, helping us to narrow our focus and shave off all that extra (irrelevant) information. Of course, there are as many different ways to tell a story as there are human beings on Earth (more, in fact), but it’s a good starting point.

Nucco Brain Copy Writing Structure
Nucco Brain Copy Writing Structure

Copywriters, at their core, are storytellers, and this approach to storytelling is as ancient as it gets. There is no narrative without conflict, and branded stories need their conflicts to be resolved. After all, your service offering is the solution to the conflict within your story. It’s a structure that accesses the lizard brain depths of your users’ minds- it just makes sense to us humans on a fundamental level.

To begin with, hook your audience with the central conflict: a question or problem, preferably one that’s relevant to their lives. For example, you could ask an audience composed of marine biologists, ‘how can we prevent overfishing of the world’s oceans?’ Alternatively, you could state the problem: ‘Overfishing is draining the world’s oceans of their biodiversity.’ Which approach you choose is entirely dependent on which tone you’re trying to achieve, and for which purpose. Just remember that your hook will only be effective if you ask yourself which emotions you want your audience to feel as they engage with your content, and connect with them on that level.

Once you’ve set up the problem, you need to talk about why your audience should care. Not in as many words perhaps, but you do need to find a unified emotional through-line that makes the difference between, ‘OK, I’m interested’ and ‘Where is the skip button?’ The trick is, of course, to understand your audience. What do they want? What are they afraid of? And how can your service offering help them? These touch-points will vary across audiences, so avoid one-size-fits-all messaging. Our work for the De Beers Group, for example, involved designing and writing three separate brochures: one for corporate sightholders, one for luxury buyers, and one for retail staff. These audiences are all involved in the diamond industry, yet each has preferences and concerns that necessitate a highly distinct tone of voice.

DeBeers IIDGR || Training Platform Creation
DeBeers IIDGR || Training Platform Creation

Crafting a tone of voice

Brands speak to their customers in very specific ways. Your choice of language, the way your sentences are constructed, even the way you spell certain words- it all needs to be in service to the brand, and to the audience you’re speaking to. If your audience are mainly high-flying CEOs, you need to know what you’re talking about, using the right jargon in the right ways. Business leaders can see right through complication for complication’s sake, and appreciate a tone of voice that cuts through the fluff to make a pertinent point about their industry. If your audience is mainly composed of teenage girls with an interest in fashion, your tone of voice could be light, current and aspirational, speaking directly to their interests and day-to-day lives. Really, it all depends on your brand’s values and aesthetics. A colourful, exuberant brand will often use very flamboyant language, while a more corporate entity will keep their messaging subdued and informative. Your job as a copywriter is essentially to make sure you can hit those emotional notes and get people excited within the framework of your brand values.

Our work for HSBC’s Belt and Road Initiative is a great example of this: as one of the world’s leading banks, HSBC is investing in the future, partnering with businesses of all sizes to take part in China’s global development programs. Any piece of content that describes these infrastructure initiatives has the potential to be extremely dry. However, we avoided corporate-speak, using an open, inviting and optimistic voice to talk with know-how about the endless possibilities for investment in the vast regions that make up the Belt and Road. We even focused on the legacy of the Silk Road to frame our message within a much larger and more ancient story, spanning thousands of years.

Lay out how it all works

Another important point to consider is making the steps for using or actioning your service offering as simple to follow as possible. The common denominator is the only fraction that matters, and using language that your audience can understand, without talking down to them, will allow them to connect with your message on their terms. The animated video we produced for Deloitte broke down complex changes in taxation laws in the Middle-East region in a way everyone could understand: this is what’s happening, this is why you should care, and here’s everything you need to know. We didn’t assume our audience knew the terminology or complexities of financial policy- we tied our message directly to the ways in which their lives might be affected, and offered simple solutions to their concerns without making them feel ignorant or uninformed.

Deloitte || Supporting Business Training
Deloitte || Supporting Business Training

Your service offering should always seem easy-to-use (even when it isn’t.) There’s nothing today’s digital audience hates more than going out of their way to activate a product or service that requires time and effort. A great way to avoid this is to lay out how it works, step by step, and taking a structural approach. One of the first things we learn as children is the ‘one, two, three’ rhythmic formula, which never really leaves our developing brains. A numerical progression taps into this subconscious ‘comfort zone’ in an actionable way. Short and punchy lines of copy that take your audience through the process can also be a great opportunity to tell a story through your visuals. For example, Nokia commissioned our studio to create a video explaining their phone insurance proposition. Instead of blandly laying out the terms and conditions, we made sure to condense these into essential bites. We then conceptualised separate scenarios for each type of damage covered by the insurance program, starring an accident-prone animated character with a penchant for damaging his phone in various ways. The step-by-step copy line and appealing visual story made a potentially rather unpalatable topic feel fresh and memorable.

Nokia || Phone Insurance
Nokia || Phone Insurance

Go out in style with a bold conclusion

Once you’ve outlined the problem, introduced the solution and shown your audience how it all works, you can bring everything full circle by condensing everything we’ve learned into a couple of catchy lines. This is a good time to bring in some form of pithy slogan, as that’s what your customer will be left with when all is said and done. It also helps your content to feel more whole and rounded out: few things are more jarring than content that abruptly takes the user out of the experience without a suitable conclusion. Make sure you mention the name of your service offering once more, as this really makes a difference when it comes to brand retention.

The trick to catchy copy is to read it aloud as you write: doing so allows you to anticipate the voiceover, and make sure it all sounds nicely lyrical. Avoid overly long sentences and complicated sentence structures and try to make each segment digestible yet informative. If you’re not sure whether a particular line is necessary, or whether it really adds anything to the point you’re trying to make, cut it out. Be ruthless, because your audience will be twice as ruthless in skipping your video if they start to lose interest.

Here are a couple of examples to get you started, from our recent work:

‘Because if you love diamonds, your customers will too.
Go beyond the 4Cs. Discover a story billions of years in the making.’
De Beers, 2018

‘The fuel retail business of the 2030s is fraught with risks.
But for retailers willing to innovate and adapt to a rapidly changing mobility industry,
It’s a world of opportunity.’
• BCG, 2018

‘Adarga understands and presents insights to the user in a digestible way,
Helping you to find the needle in the data haystack.
This is the future of data, and it’s powered by Adarga.’
• Adarga, 2018

It’s a real and strategic initiative helping to shape the world of tomorrow.
It’s time to start thinking ahead.
Fast-track your way to BRI opportunities with HSBC.
• HSBC, 2018

And finally. hit them with your cta

he mistake a lot of copywriters tend to make is to over-emphasize their CTA, and to call their audience to action far too early. Remember that your viewer will usually seek further information if you have stated your case well enough. Begging them to buy your product and visit your website isn’t going to help unless they’re interested in what you have to say. The purpose of a CTA is primarily to direct traffic towards a point of contact within your organisation, so it needs to be as clear and direct (yet unobtrusive) as possible. We like to call our viewers to action right at the end of a piece of video content, usually as a form of branded ‘calling card’. It’s confident, doesn’t beg for traffic, and respects the audience enough to allow them to make their own decisions about whether or not to seek further information.

Incidentally, if you’d like to learn more about the cool stuff we could create together, be sure to get in touch!

Alright, that was cheeky. But point made.

Happy copywriting!

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