Don’t Skimp On The Foreplay

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You ever wish movies would just get to the good stuff?

Like cut out the first 63-odd minutes of Rocky and race right to the fight with Apollo Creed.

Show us the scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Andry Dufresne escapes in the thundering rain.

Zoom in on Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan when they finally lock eyes atop the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle.

You’d watch that, right?

Heck no. It’s like gobbling up a cake that’s all frosting.

The climax in a movie is sweetest when the characters work for it.

We need to see Rocky batter his body into shape under the squinty-eyed glare of Mickey … witness the cons with hearts of gold suffer the corrupt rule in Shawshank  … watch as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan limp through cheap imitations of True Love.

Otherwise …

The climax in Rocky is just two men slowly beating each other to death.

Tim Robbins is simply a guy who reeks worse than a silo of stale farts.

And Hanks and Ryan are just two strangers gaping at each other 86 floors above a Manhattan street corner.

Cue the violins, play all the soul-stirring music you want — without the struggle, without the conflict, without the context – the audience just won’t care.

In fact, actors and writers speak of “earning the moment” – justifying the emotional outburst at the end of a story by enduring all the trials that come before. If you don’t earn that moment, it has no value.

The same is true in sales. (And why the “Struggle” is a key component in the 60 Second Sales Hook. Try taking it out of the formula and notice how limp the result is.)

When we don’t establish context, we don’t establish value.

Here the hard-nosed engineer may cross his arms to his chest, shake his head ponderously and remark, “That’s all well and good for some flashy luxury purchase … or an information product (he sneers) whose value must be manufactured by advertising.

“But if you’re selling an honest, physical products — all that talk is fruffery, wasted hot air.

“When a customer comes looking for that kind of product, he just wants the facts.”

(Can’t you see that customer right now? Witness the plain honest face, emerging from a pair of faded overalls … a face filled with the horse sense of an Iowa farmer and no time for frills.)

Baloney, I say.

Facts are useless, mere data floating in space, unless they’re anchored to the grand drama of human experience. We need context to help them make sense. To know what they’re worth.

And what better way to establish context than with a story?


Suppose you’re in the market for a stapler. Your last four staplers broke, stupid pieces of junk. You want something durable this time.

Maybe like that shiny red Swingline stapler treasured by Milton in the movie Office Space. (By the way, who else remembers the original “Milton” animation shorts on SNL that spawned the movie? Loved those.)

Miltion from Office Space guarding his red Swingline stapler

Bad things happen when you steal this guy’s stapler.

Anyway, you stomp into my office supply store with your demand: “I need a stapler that’s built to last.”

So I smile and pull off one from the shelf:  “This is our top of the line stapler. Highest rated for durability. Comes with a guaranty for the life of the stapler.”

Ho hum. You’ve heard it all before.

So I throw down a few facts:

“It’s made from a special steel alloy that’s used in the space shuttle. They only use 3 pieces of steel for the entire stapler, so there are fewer parts that can break.”

Now that’s better — you’ve got some proof. Space shuttle steel: it’s from the future.

But you’re still not sure. How do you really know this thing is gonna last until the days you’re drooling over your Cheerios?

It’s time to pull out the big guns: I tell you a story.

This stapler (I begin as I place the heavy object in your hands) was inspired by Ikiro Hashidachi, an accountant for Toyota, after he noticed the corporate office was bleeding a small fortune on shoddy office supplies – especially staplers.

They would crack after a few months of steady use (and forget about stapling any more than 20 pages at a time!)

So Mr. Hashidachi cornered the best structural engineers on the Toyota shop floor and tasked them with this challenge: make me a stapler that lasts until the human race doesn’t even use paper anymore.

Oh, and he gave them one piece of advice, too: try and use as few parts as possible. The tiny ones always jam up.

The team of young Toyota engineers concealed their scorn until the old accountant climbed into the elevator (off to his cushy office in the corporate tower, no doubt). Then the laughter erupted.

They mocked his advice. These men dreamed up complex machines with thousands of parts. They knew how to make parts that worked together.

Besides, this was a stapler. A challenge for Toyota engineers? How hard could it be?

… Sixteen prototypes and 417 hours of testing later, the crack team of engineers had lost their smirks. They had exhausted 14 different steel alloys – which had all bent, split, or cracked under stress tests.

Finally, the engineers submitted to Mr. Hashidachi’s wisdom: keep the absolute minimum number of parts. The fewer the parts, the fewer weak points.

Armed with this insight, the engineers swiftly drew up plans for a stapler unlike any that had ever been constructed, fashioned from just 6 pieces of micro-alloy steel.

That next stapler lasted much longer – it made the previous staplers look like a stack of popsicle sticks.

But the prototype wasn’t perfect (the swing joint still broke after 70 “years” of simulated stress). And perfection was demanded – Toyota ingenuity was on the chopping block.

Working nights and weekends, the battle-hardened engineers finally signaled victory 137 days later.

On the 138th day, the lead engineer humbly hand delivered the finished stapler to Mr. Hashidachi. The old accountant hefted the weight in his hands, walked over to an open window, and dropped it onto the street 30 floors below. The stapler survived (with a dent or two) and it sits on Mr. Hashidachi’s desk to this day — unless it’s in his hands, stapling away.

And that’s the model you’re holding in your hands.

Built to last for generations, it’s made of only 3 steel pieces – including the spring.

You can drop it on concrete or even hurl it against a brick wall — and the only thing damaged will be the wall. Pick up the stapler, dust off the bits of powdered brick, and it will gladly fasten the next fat stack of papers you place in its steel jaws.

Once you hear that, you clutch the stapler to your chest,  in case somebody is lurking behind you, ready to steal it from your hands. You’re not letting this beauty out of your sight until you get it home.


Establish value by telling a story that shows what went into the offer: a struggle against a long standing problem … the many failed attempts on the path to greatness … the history of an industry struggling for a solution. Then when you reach the climax of the story, your hearers will see the product’s true worth.

Stay Tuned For Next Week

In which we watch a mad man crack open … to reveal Truth


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Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry is a direct response copywriter who specializes in telling stories. You can contact Scott and learn more about using the power of stories in marketing at
Showing 16 comments
  • marcinh

    I want that stapler!!!

  • marcinh

    Only three pieces of steel including the spring? That can’t be right. I’m going to check this! 🙂

    • Reply

      You got me, Marcin;) — right now, that stapler exists only in my mind. (Though I was inspired by the image of the Red Swingline from Office Space pictured above.)

      • marcinh

        Yeah, I couldn’t find it. 🙂 I looked at my sturdy little metal stapler and thought: three pieces? Impossible. 🙂

  • Aaron Miller

    Very well written Scott. I’ve been following copywriter stuff for a while now though and the one thing that bugs me is example stories like this. The product described sounds amazing and it sounds like it would be “easy” to write a story around that. However, what about a product that doesn’t have an amazing story? What about a product that isn’t all that? Products that are selling but there just isn’t anything super special about them? Do a story on a stapler that has 15 pieces, made out of Chinese steel, and can only staple 10 pages at a time! How do you make someone want that?

    • Reply

      Excellent point, Aaron. In my made up Stapler story, I certainly stacked the deck in my favor with a product that’s Built To Last — that is its USP.

      But not everyone wants that. What about an office where everyone is constantly borrowing everyone else’s stapler and the office manager KNOWS he’ll have to buy 3 new staplers a week? Then you want something functional but cheap. So you could tell a story about that.

      As long as your product solves a problem for someone (And if it’s selling, it must be) then chances are good you can find a story to tell for it.

    • marcinh

      “How do you make someone want that?” another answer to this question, might be: You don’t.

      Just a thought, but like Scott said, I think it can be done.

  • lacasaingo

    Fucking amazing article. Entertaining, insightful and FUNNY.

    “Facts are useless, mere data floating in space, unless they’re anchored to the grand drama of human experience. We need context to help them make sense. To know what they’re worth.”

    Thank you

  • Elle Douglas

    So is the stapler story true? Does it have to be?

    • Reply

      Hi Elle,

      The stapler story was spun from my imagination, to illustrate the concept.

      If I were selling the stapler for real, I’d hunt for a story that was both true and illustrated its value.

  • Reply

    Very compelling.

  • Nick Brighton

    Fantastic post. Bookmarked, which is rare for me to do 🙂 Reminds me of the scene in Pulp Fiction where Butch is told a story about his grandfather’s watch. Sets up the relevance for him retrieving that watch against all odds, and nearly getting himself killed in the process.

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