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The Power of Story

  |  September 17, 2008   |  Comments

With e-mail, you have even less time than Sarah Palin did to seize your readers' attention. Some tips for success.

Two weeks ago, more than 37 million people heard sound bites and stories from Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, which we can all practically quote word for word.

We now all know that lipstick is the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull; that a thrifty governor can put a state's corporate jet up for sale on eBay; and that you can say "thanks, but no thanks" to a Bridge to Nowhere.

But this column isn't about my own politics -- and I'm not going to go there, except to say that this avid environmentalist and the Alaskan governor don't see eye to eye on most subjects. And I'll leave the issue of whether her stories are true or not up to those investigating the facts.

But it's a testament to the power of storytelling that this previously unknown governor sliced through the "blah, blah, blah" and turned the world of politics on its head in about 30 minutes.

The lesson to the rest of us who communicate for a living? It's time to get your own stories polished up. The time for marketing jargon about "leveraging" and "enabling business process deployment" is officially over.

From now on, you need to tell people stories that quickly capture people's attention, telegraph what you can do for them, and gain their trust.

If you're talking a business solution, your story better be something like this: "We went into a company to help out a guy who was up to his ears in work orders, streamlined his entire system in no time flat, and now he's looking like a rock star to his whole department."

Every good salesperson knows this. The best ones can regale you with stories that communicate that they know your challenges because they've helped other customers in exactly the same way.

You immediately know the stories are authentic because, frankly, you can't make a lot of this up. If you're going through a similar challenge, you can easily identify when someone has "walked the walk" you're experiencing on a daily basis.

Those are the same stories that have to be communicated in the subject lines, preview panes, and introductory copy of your e-mails. With e-mail, you have even less time than Palin did -- only a few seconds at most -- to seize your readers' attention.

Can you do it? Absolutely.

But before you can tell a story, you're going to have to listen to your salespeople, customer service reps, and everyone who deals with your clients on the front lines. They're the ones with the stories.

And, of course, your customers also have their own stories about working with your company, their experience with your brand, and dealing with your people.

But if you're sitting in the marketing department trying to bang out e-mails touting your company's latest features and enhancements, these stories are going to vanish into the ether -- never to be recorded, passed on, or highlighted.

The good news: the capacity for capturing your company's stories has never been greater. Your customers are writing reviews. Your employees, colleagues, and CEO are blogging. Your salespeople are hosting Webinars.

The bad news: it's difficult to write these stories yourself because it takes a skillful copywriter to write, polish, and distill the essence of your story into a few sentences. We're not talking lengthy case studies and white papers here -- more like elevator pitches, sound bites, and Twitter messages.

Palin didn't write her speech alone. She had some of the best speechwriters and coaching in the business, because the stakes were astronomically high and she only had one chance to make a nationwide impression.

Your stakes are also high. And there are millions on the line for many of your marketing campaigns. In fact, you may have more customers and prospects in your database than the number of citizens in all of the great state of Alaska!

So dedicate yourself to gathering the stories that make your company stand out. Then, turn them over to a professional writer to make them shine.

You'll break through the "blah, blah, blah" in your product category. And one success story will beget another as people finally "get" what you can do for them.

Do you have a B2B email campaign that conveys a powerful story about your company, products or brand experience? Send them to Karen for a future column.

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Karen Gedney

Karen Gedney, an award-winning creative director and copywriter, shared her insights as a ClickZ Experts contributor from 2000 through 2009. She was known for her successful track record of achieving high e-mail response rates for Fortune 1000 companies and leading organizations. She died Nov. 16, 2010.

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