Learned, between bounces, on your mother’s knee; nurtured through childhood bedtime rituals; fed by well-thumbed stacks of holiday chicklit or ‘manfic’ and sustained by the blaring headlines of the disposable daily tabloid, we all LOVE a good story.
Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that when we age into our 50s, as the baby-boomer generation is now doing, the analytical, logical, category-forming (left) side of our brain begins to wane, and the holistic, intuitive, sense-making (right) side becomes dominant. If so, these natural changes will only make us even more susceptible to a damned good story.
Given the fact that this 50-something generation still forms the heartland of many charities’ regular givers, it’s essential to be able to connect with them, in ways they can actually ‘get’. That means telling great, rich, emotional stories that can leap from screen to mind – in a fraction of a second.
As Ernest Hemingway famously said:
It is a constant challenge, working in the Third Sector, to avoid writing ABOUT causes, when you should be writing FOR the people who will eventually benefit from that cause, and more importantly TO the people who can help you to deliver that cause.
Charities, as well as their agencies, need to avoid being sucked into patronising our donors, and demeaning our beneficiaries. We need constantly to rediscover and replay what is universally human.
With Hemingway in mind, we should try and hold on to the essence of a good story, and to deliver that essence in as few words as possible. In honour of an art-form that is often now known as flash fiction, we must aspire to flash copywriting – in the best sense!
1. A good story must have context – a sense of where and when is it happening, and an evocation of what it’s like ‘there’.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984, George Orwell)
2. The story must have a clear hero – someone with whose traumas and ambitions the reader or viewer can identify.
My every impulse bends to what is right. (The Odyssey, Homer)
3. The hero must experience a challenge or conflict – this may be inherited, self-inflicted, externally imposed or even just imagined. And it must be emotional.
Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash. (Top Gun, Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.)
4. The hero must confront and overcome their personal challenge, for themselves, but with help – ideally not without set-backs, temptations, traumas and consequences.
No, I am your father. (Star Wars, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan)
5. Finally there must be consequences to the hero’s journey – the villain in retreat; the hero assimilating their learning and feeling a sense of optimistic tension towards the future. They must not have their problem solved for them (Charities take note).
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald)
The point, of course, of all this “blood” that writers like Hemingway are striving to shed on their readers’ behalf is to capture the universal within the everyday. Their aspiration is to discover that arc of humanity and is ultimately no different for any copywriter.
As Alan Bennett put it:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours. (The History Boys).
In a spirit of concise prose, I will end with a brilliant example of the ultra-short story, or flash fiction.
For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
Tim Kitchin is client service director and director of consulting at Copper, the digital marketing agency.