Beware of these three ways storytelling could be undermining your web copy

Storytelling is all the rage these days. We’re encouraged to tell a great story in our pitch decks, proposals, business plans, social media posts, grant applications, blogs, and web pages.

But here’s the thing: storytelling is not a silver bullet. To succeed, it has to be done skilfully. A story told in the wrong way can actually damage your message and your brand's reputation.

Here are three specific ways I often see storytelling backfire in web copy:

1. Lack of drama

If you think back to your junior high English class, then you can probably recall something called a Freytag diagram, which looks like this:

Notice the pyramid shape; the story starts with a problem (inciting action) and sees the hero grapple with that issue through a series of escalating events that form the “rising action.”

Rising action creates drama and suspense. It raises the audience’s interests, and maybe their blood pressure or the hairs on the back of their neck.

Your business story will flop if it lacks a series of interconnected, increasing challenging events to propel the plot forward. Your story won’t look like an exciting pyramid rising to a climax. Instead, it will look more like a flat pancake:

2. The wrong hero

I’m a huge fan of Nancy Duarte’s approach to persuasive presentations, which she describes so simply and clearly in Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences. Duarte’s method leverages the ancient literary structure of the hero’s journey, with a twist. The hero isn’t the teller of the tale but the audience.

When you’ve put blood, sweat, and your entire life savings into creating an innovative product or service, it can be tempting to tell your company story with you or your team as the protagonist. Typically, such a narrative goes something like this:

Here at Company X we’re an amazing team of incredibly gifted, dedicated people. We spotted a significant problem that sparked our curiosity and our passion, and we set out to solve it. After months and months of research, testing, and iterating, we’ve created the perfect solution that resolves the problem. And by the way, it will serve some of your needs too.

Technically, such a story follows the conventional pattern of the hero’s journey. We can easily picture Company X as a bold knight setting out to slay a dragon of a problem. We can also imagine, particularly if the story includes details, the difficulties of the hero’s journey—through all the perils and trials involved in development. And, finally, we have the satisfaction of a happy-ever-after ending (the perfect solution).

However, a story told in this way is unlikely to resonate with your audience because it leaves the audience out of the action. A more effective approach is to recast the hero so they represent the audience:

You’ve noticed this significant problem that’s negatively impacting your life in these specific ways. You’ve probably tried a number of different solutions that didn’t work and just increased your pain and frustration until you’ve reached a crisis point. Well, we’ve noticed that problem too. We feel your pain, and that’s why we’re offering you the perfect way to alleviate it.

Through this approach, the audience relives their journey up the story pyramid: their recognition of the problem, and their journey of increasing frustration as they’ve tried to solve it. Such a story produces drama and emotional resonance while also oozing empathy. The audience feels understood and wants to learn more about the solution that promises to release them from their tortured quest for relief from their agony.

3. Too little detail

An artful story creates a movie in the audience’s mind. Descriptive details bring the action to life so that, neurologically speaking, readers respond to imagined events as if they were real experiences.

Without such details, however, your story will lack oomph. (Yes, in case you’re wondering, that’s a technical term from my days as a literary scholar.) Stories that fail to appeal to the senses fail to appeal to the emotions as well. Like stories without drama, they fall flat.

You don’t need to write like a 19th-century novelist to create oomph. All it takes is a touch of specificity here and there. Consider ways give your audience a sense of being in the midst of the story’s action.

Painting a word-picture of the setting (where and when the story takes place) can be a good place to start. For instance, rather than saying “CannabisCue started in 2017, in Middleborough, Ontario,” you might say something like this:

CannabisCue was born on a small family farm—in the corner of a potato field, to be exact—in Middleborough, Ontario.

Do you see the difference? The second version puts the reader in the middle of the first cannabis crop, wondering how it got planted in the corner of the potatoes. With just a small bit of description, it creates a visual experience and generates intrigue.

Stories are indeed powerful, and storytelling does change the world. In fact, I’d argue that stories form the primary lever for any kind of business, personal, or social change. But that’s another post…

In the meantime, if you’d like a free consult to help you shape a compelling story with your audience as the hero, feel free to get in touch!


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