You don’t win simply by touching your readers’ emotions. You win by arousing those emotions. With story.

by Nick Usborne on March 30, 2011

If you write or speak for a living, you have probably been told to write or speak to people’s emotions a thousand times. Or more.

“Don’t speak to their heads, speak to their hearts.”

If you are a sales copywriter, you hear the same advice.

“People buy because of what they feel, not what they think.”

It’s all true. The fastest way into someone’s wallet is through their heart. Emotions trump rational thought every time.

It doesn’t matter whether you are writing sales copy, writing editorial, or speaking to a crowd of five people or five hundred people – if you want to grab their attention, keep them spellbound, and make them take an action when you’re finished…you need to engage them emotionally.

We all know that. We may not practice it all the time, but we know it.

However, if you really want to win over your readers, you have to do more than simply touch their emotions. You have to arouse those emotions.

It is the arousal of emotions that really compels attention and drives action.

And if you want to arouse emotions, you have to tell a story. Even a very short one.

Here’s how a story works.

Stage One – The Challenge (James Bond has to stop the forces of evil from taking over the world.)

Stage Two – The Struggle (The forces of evil try to kill James Bond at every turn.)

Stage Three – The Resolution (James Bond saves the world and, of course, gets the girl.)

Before I go any further, let me give credit where credit is due.

Much of what I know about the structure of story I have learned from two books, one of which I read several years ago, and the other I am reading now.

The book I read years ago is called, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee.

The book I am reading now is called, Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story, by Peter Guber.

I can recommend them both, without hesitation.

Now let’s look at the difference between touching someone’s emotions and arousing those emotions.

Imagine you are writing an article or post about family finances, and how it makes sense to save for something before you buy it, rather than buying it immediately with a credit card, and then having to pay interest.

You do some research and find the story of a teenager who purchased his first car with cash. He saved up the full price by doing yard work for people in his neighborhood. More impressive still, he started working and saving when he was just ten years old. And on the day he started, he already knew he would save all the money to buy a car when he was older.

Simply sharing that as an example will touch people’s emotions. It’s an inspirational story. Hey, if a kid can work that hard, and save that much before buying what he wants, why can’t we?

But as a story, it’s incomplete. We have stage one, The Challenge, and stage three, The Resolution. But we are missing stage two, The Struggle.

So you get in touch with that young man and ask some more questions.

Turns out it was a heck of a struggle. There was a time when he was attacked by a neighbor’s dog. And the time when he was shovelling snow one winter, slipped and broke his arm. Not to mention all the times he was working, while his friends were off at the beach, or going to watch a movie.

If you tell a story with all three elements – the challenge, the struggle, and the resolution – you’ll do more than simply touch someone’s emotions. You’ll arouse their emotions.

In other words, as you tell the story, your reader’s emotions will build and build, until he or she is thinking, “Oh my, after all that work and struggle, I sure hope the kid gets his car.”

Concern, hope, anxiety…and finally, relief and admiration.

A good story engages your emotions in many ways, at several levels.

Now you have a great article.

But what about using stories to sell?


Imagine you are selling a weekend seminar on managing family finances.

If you tell an incomplete story, you’ll touch people emotionally and fill some seats.

Tell the full story, with all three stages, and you’ll arouse their emotions and almost certainly fill even more seats.

The lesson here is to understand the difference between simply touching a reader emotionally and arousing them emotionally.

Emotional arousal is far more powerful. And to achieve that, you have to tell a good story – and cover all three stages of effective storytelling.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Betty Ziegler April 1, 2011 at 9:26 am

Super advice, Nick. As your weekly roundup suggested, combining this technique with the “how to” can be a double bonus.

By telling the full story, with all three stages, you will not only arouse their emotions but get longer copy, too. Your readers may skim the article, but Google will take this as value-added content (providing you have wowed your readers).

Betty Z

Michael Anch April 2, 2011 at 10:05 am

Excellent article, Nick. As usual, your insightful comments add sustenance to what’s been offered about a convincing and marketable message. Thanks and looking forward to many more comments from you. I am proud to be one of your students.

Chris McCargar April 5, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Great story… about writing a great story! I could feel the difference in your examples, which in itself made it so much more clearly understood.

Nick, you certainly have a way to get your point across succinctly, with a minimum of words used. In the short time that I have been a Web Content Cafe subscriber, I have learned quite a bit and have found it to be an excellent resource. Thanks!

I also wanted to mention how much I have enjoyed and benefited from your Social Media Expert program at A.W.A.I.. Again, have only read about 10-15% so far, but it has already removed some of the fog I felt around social media… and Facebook in particular.

Nick Usborne April 5, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Chris, hi. Thanks for the kind words, and I’m delighted to hear you’re getting value from both Web Content Cafe and the social media program. : ) Nick

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