All that story theory from the last couple posts (parts 1 and 2) is a lot to process and takes time to internalize. (Full disclosure: I’ve read McKee’s “Story” twice and I’ll probably read it a few more times before it sinks in.)
So, I lean on checklists and templates to help me create stories across the different kinds of B2B assets I need to write.
1. A list of questions
I start with a standard set of questions, then I use them to help me fill out a story template.
Here’s my core set of 10 questions:
1. Who is our audience?
2. What problem are we trying to solve for them?
3. How are they trying to solve it now?
4. What’s the risk if they don’t solve it?
5. Why should they care about our solution?
6. What objections do they have to our client or solution?
7. What’s the single most compelling message that must be communicated?
8. What makes the solution remarkable?
9. What do we want prospects to think, feel, and do?
10. What words do our prospects use to communicate the problem they have?
If I can get answers to those questions, I’ve got a great start on creating solid copy.
2. An outline
The second step is to fill out my story outline.
Here’s how it might look in an imaginary case study for a company that creates project management software. In this case, their client is a solar energy company called Bright Futures.
1. Ordinary world—Bright Futures installs solar arrays for commercial and government customers around the United States.
2. Inciting incident—The IT team discovers that it can’t trust its data, which could lead to project delays and lost opportunities.
3. Goal—The team wants cleaner data, better insights, and more control.
4. First action—Bright Futures tries a competing project management solution.
5. World hits back—The team gets frustrated because the solution doesn’t integrate with the company’s CRM software.
6. Second action, from a place of insight—The Bright Futures IT team implements our client’s project management software.
7. The world responds positively—Once IT knows it can trust its data, Bright Futures reduces project lead time across the company by more than 50%, saving half a million dollars per year.
8. Goal achieved—No delays. No missed opportunities.
Voilà, I’ve got a solid story framework in place.
3. An even simpler outline
McKee’s 8-step template works especially well for long-form pieces like case studies, e-books, blog posts, and white papers. But it’s less applicable to short-form assets like display ads or sales emails.
When writing shorter copy, I’ve found it helpful to lean on the P-A-S structure. It’s a classic copywriting formula and it stands for “problem, agitate, solve.”
Problem: You identify a problem your prospect has.
Agitate: You detail the higher-order problems the first problem causes, or spotlight what’s at stake if the problem isn’t solved.
Solve: You present your client’s product or service as the solution.
Whenever I’m in doubt about where to start on a piece of copy, I first think “P-A-S.” It works because it’s really McKee’s structure in miniature.
Here’s how you might use the P-A-S structure in a sample social media ad with on-image text:
In this kind of ad, the last two categories (asset title and link description) are straightforward, so all of the story burden falls on the intro and on-image copy.
But—you can pack a lot of story energy into that small space!
The intro copy has the problem (fragmented data), agitation (constant threat from ransomware), tease to the solution (“doesn’t have to be”), and CTA (“see why”) in just 18 words.
And the on-image copy, which a person would read first, gives you a hook into the material and repeats the CTA, in case the reader doesn’t read the intro copy. (Which is often the case. Sigh.)
While the asset title and link descriptions follow the format’s conventions, they also help fulfill the “solution” and “CTA” functions of the story structure.
Will the P-A-S formula always work?
Yes, but here’s the caveat: It depends on where your prospect is in their buyer journey.
The closer you are to the “awareness” end of the funnel, the more copy you’ll devote to the problem and the agitation. This is where you want to show your prospect that you understand them and speak their language.
The closer you are to the “decision” end of the funnel—a one-sheet for the sales team, say—the more copy you’ll devote to the solution.
How do you put storytelling into practice?
At the end of the seminar, McKee encouraged attendees to go forth and put storytelling into practice in our organizations.
Here are some of the steps we’ve taken to do that at Yesler.
1. We created Coffeewriters, an internal website/blog. Coffeewriters contains: our approach to copywriting (this series of posts, essentially); marketing and advertising news, ideas, and best practices; templates for various assets; samples; resources, like discovery questions, recommended reading; an idea bank; etc.
2. We meet twice a month to talk shop. One meeting is to discuss a team member’s work. In the other, we bring in an internal guest speaker to help us broaden our marketing expertise.
3. We speak and teach on the subject.
Just getting in the habit of sharing our copy and talking about a storytelling approach has begun to give us a consistent style—a Yesler approach to copy that creates some distinction for us in the marketplace.
We’ve also seen the approach trickle up to leadership. The last time we revised our website copy, we took a much more storified approach, and we’ve seen that when a story structure is applied to pitch presentations, it helps win us new business.
Best of all, the approach is inherently satisfying. Good stories are good business. They humanize us, and they’re awfully fun to create. They are indeed equipment for living.
And for making meaning.
We’d love to talk with you about how B2B marketers use storytelling in their work. Share yours.