[Story Sells] A $2 billion Story in 11 sentences
Last column I proposed you write a book to sell your message.
I admit: that’s a lot of work.
So today let’s be lazy.
How does a couple of paragraphs strike ya?
Very short stories – specifically, parables.
Martin Conroy did it with his “Two Young Men” letter for the Wall Street Journal, which sold over $2 billion subscriptions for about 25 years.
I’ll reproduce the 11 sentences here:
On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college.
They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both—as young college graduates are—were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.
Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.
They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.
But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.”
That’s it. The whole story.
Grand total? 122 words.
It’s not the end of the sales letter. The letter goes on for another few hundred words to unpack the moral of the story (“Knowledge is Power”) and where to get said knowledge (The Wall Street Journal).
A money-back guarantee and a P.S. with an added benefit rounds out the message.
Of course, the Wall Street Journal is and was well known. And the basic product, a newspaper, needed no explanation. So the letter didn’t have to do a lot of explaining.
Depending on the awareness and sophistication of your audience, you may have to tell ‘em more.
But the story itself can be just as short and sweet.
(One video sales letter I wrote opens with a very brief story I found in the news. Though the sales letter goes on for about 30 minutes, the story opener is done in about 30 seconds.)
What I love about the “Two Young Men” story is its simplicity. It ends with a big punchline “the other was its president.” It sounds a theme that resonates with readers of WSJ – some people get ahead, and others don’t. Implied is that the secret sauce is the knowledge in WSJ.
In fact, this is a good example of a particular kind of story – the parable.
Parables are short tales without a lot of detail that focus on a very simple message.
Historically, parables have been one of the most powerful way of getting a message across. (Those messages can be dangerous for the messengers. The two most famous parable-spinners in history, Jesus and Aesop, were both executed by state governments.)
Today, the most common form of parables in advertising is the 30-second commercial spot.
Like the 1984 Apple Macintosh Superbowl ad, that has a very simple plot: Once upon a time, a rebel destroyed the oppressive corporate machine with one act of courage.
The message is clear. You too can be such a rebel just by buying an over-priced computer.
Both these parables share an important trait: neither even mention the product. That comes later. The story itself is focused on one simple message.
So parables can create interest without inviting buyer resistance. They sneak in the soul of your message without mentioning a product off the bat.
For Apple, the core theme was originality. For the WSJ, it’s the power of knowledge. These are the elemental, emotional lures that slice through resistance.
Because they’re so short, parables don’t need extensive character building, elaborate scene description, or complex plot arcs. They center around one action that evokes a strong theme. I suggest starting with the theme first, and then telling a simple story around it.
Universal themes work best. You’re not teaching anyone anything here – you’re simply reminding them a value they already hold.
Capture the power of raw, basic emotions with the original short story – the parable.