How to Tell a Story in 10 Words or Less

tell a story

If you don’t have a lot of space to tell a story, that doesn’t mean you can’t sell with story. It means you don’t have a word to waste. The solution is to talk about your audience, not about yourself.

Whether on a banner ad or a bus bench, there are places we need to tell a story in just a few words.

Unfortunately, most people don’t follow the “talk about the audience, not yourself” rule, so their words are wasted.

Let’s look at an example. Can you see the problem with this ad?

An ad for painting that says "Experts in residential and interior/exterior painting"

What They Should Have Said Instead

This ad talks about the business not the audience. What’s worse, it doesn’t say much. I mean, one assumes if you paint for a living you’re an expert on painting.

They could make the same point into a tiny story by saying something like “A whole-home makeover that won’t stress you out.” That would remind the audience that a simple coat of paint can feel like a total home makeover, and would also tell the homeowner they won’t have to fret about the outcome. It sends the “we are experts” message, but in a way that is about the audience, so it’s more likely to sink in.

Tell a Story

Starting with the audience would make the ad a story. The homeowner is the hero of the story. They want an updated home and they’ve experienced home renos and repairs in the past that were stressful. The company can help the hero overcome their problem and secure their happily ever after.

I was trying to tell a story in just a few words earlier this week when I decided I wanted to give out purple pens as promotional items. I’d been thinking about purple pens to match my Whole Team Habits logo. (big thanks to Ryan at Level 2 Sportswear for finding me the perfect purple pens!)

I didn’t want to put only my logo on the pens, because a logo doesn’t tell anyone to do anything. I wanted something that would prompt people in my target audience to act when they saw it, whether I gave them the pen, or whether they found it on the bus. I needed a story that could fit in 2 inches by 1 inch of space.

Neuromarketing for the Win

I turned to one of my favourite marketing books, Neuromarketing by Patrick Renvoise and Christopher Morin. In the book, Renvoise and Morin go into detail about how our brains absorb messages, and how businesses can use this knowledge to influence buyers. 

In 2005, scientists made a huge breakthrough in neuroscience when they learned more about the limbic system. Sometimes called our reptile brain, the limbic system is the least-evolved part of our brain. Researchers learned it has a surprising large influence on our decisions, including our buying decisions. This part of the brain doesn’t stop and consider carefully, it jolts to a conclusion based on instinct.

The Harvard Business Review describes it this way:

“We have dog brains, basically, with a human cortex stuck on top, a veneer of civilization.” (Morse, 2006)

Don’t Reason with Your Toddler

I tend to think of this part of the brain like a toddler, specifically my son Malcolm. Totally self-centred, can’t regulate emotions and doesn’t respond to rational arguments. 

Picture of author's 3 year old son Malcolm
Cute? Yes. Reasonable? Absolutely not.

Malcolm is many wonderful things, but “reasonable” isn’t one of them. If I want him to do something he doesn’t want to do, I can’t argue with him and I can’t force him. I can either bribe him, or make him think it was his idea. Depending on how many jellybeans I’ve doled out recently, I try to pick the latter.

Similarly, we can bribe our audience’s primitive brain by grabbing its attention with something very desirable, a metaphorical jellybean. (“50% off! One weekend only!”) Or, we can try to make them think our offer was their idea. This involves showing your audience you understand their perspective.

Here’s another banner ad:

An ad for the banff world media festival.

Now, this is a story. It’s the story of someone working in media who meets important people and realizes career goals after attending the Banff World Media Festival. 

The hero of the story is your buyer. If you describe the problem they have and indicate you are the solution, you have a tidy little persuasive story.

Starting with your audience and their problems instead of your business and what you can do is a reliable way to appeal to the self-centred limbic system.

As for my pens, I decided they’re going to say:

A never-ending stream of buyers?

We Create That.

It’s a true story. 

picture of author bridget brown