Skip the Features. Tell the Story.

By Nathan Young - Storytelling Consultant

Warning - overt references to my political leanings are ahead!

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I especially like that I can be learning new things and/or keeping up with current events as I make breakfast, go for a run in the park, or do my dishes at home. It’s perfect! Some of my favorite podcasts are in the Crooked Media series of podcasts, Pod Save America and others. I appreciate the engaging progressive political commentary. They somehow make it fun to talk about our current American political tragedy. It’s quite a feat!   

As an added bonus, their commentary doesn’t end on politics. It actually extends to their advertisers as well. The hosts are all former Obama speaker writers, so they know a thing or two about writing to inspire, capture people’s attention, and tell a story. For each episode they read the ad copy themselves and drop in their own commentary, especially when the copy gets jargony or mundane.

Within all that, there was a moment in one of their recent podcasts as they were reading the ads that struck me, as a storyteller and marketer. You can hear it for yourself if you click on the link below and listen from 15:30 to 17:00.

In the clip, they are reading the ad copy for a toothbrush service called Quip. The ad copy asks them to list the features of the toothbrush, such as a “subscription plan,” the “guiding pulses,” “a mounted mirror thing,” and that the toothbrush is featured on Oprah’s “O List.” In the background you can hear the other podcast hosts chiding the one who’s reading, huffing in mock boredom and saying “get through it.” Finally the presenter stops and says, “I’m sick of this mandatory copy!” and goes into a quick story where he shares his own fears and trepidations of going to the dentist from so many cavities over the years. Yet the last time he went he had an exceptionally smooth appointment! He told the dentist about his new Quip toothbrush, and the dentist said it was a great product!

Obviously ads and their presentation all affect people differently but take a listen to the clip yourself and let me know if you experience a shift as the ad transitions from the host reading the features of the product vs jumping into his own personal story of the product. If you’re like me, you listened to the features like the “guiding pulses” and “Oprah’s O List” and subconsciously or otherwise just thought “blah blah blah.” You can’t relate to it. It’s a bunch of features that are abstract to you, especially if you’ve never used an electric toothbrush before. You drone it all out. Yet, when the presenter starts talking about how much he hates going to the dentist, it captures your attention. It’s something you can relate to. Lots of us hate going to the dentist! Now you can relate to the ad and see how this is something that affects you.

It seems counterintuitive, but a simple story can have a much stronger impact than listing a thousand product features. It seems crazy because if you’re the product developer you did all this research and put all this work into creating a product that is hopefully effective for your customers, the features being a key aspect of the effectiveness. But the customers don’t really care. The customer wants to know how the product benefits them and little else. All that boils down to story.  

Each customer has their own story but there is usually a common set of needs and desires that a product can fill. Dentist visits and bad teeth are painful. We want to avoid both of these scenarios. If a toothbrush can do that for us, we’ll take it! We don’t necessarily care about the features of said toothbrush. We just want our dentist visits to be painless and our teeth to feel strong and healthy. If somebody we trust can attest to this happening via their own personal story, we’re more likely to wrap that into our own stories and personal experiences too.

So as your working on your next set of ad copy, fundraising or marketing pitch, skip spending time on the features, mechanics and statistics of what you’ve got, and focus on a story that will get to the emotional investment of your audience. More than anything else, this will capture their attention and get them to care.  

Want some help with planning your own stories? I've got the perfect tool for you. Sign up below and I’ll send you my Story Planner Worksheet. It will walk you through the basic steps of crafting the stories you can have handy for when you need them.