Great Stories Make Great Newsletters

I was in the basement yesterday morning, looking for a metal file that I could use to shave down the edge of a piece of wood. I’ll spare you the details regarding what I was trying to accomplish, but I felt confident that if I could get my hands on such a device, my problem would be solved.

Sure enough, after rummaging around in the big toolbox under the ping pong table, I found what I was looking for. I brought it upstairs and happily announced to my wife Linda (as I always do), “Ed Kelly has done it again.”

Ed Kelly (and his wife Marge) sold us our first house in 1990. They’d been living there for 40 years at the time and couldn’t have been happier for us. In fact, a few days before we closed, they invited us over for breakfast, during which they explained everything from how to operate the furnace to how to keep the house cool in the summer.

Then, just before we left, Ed took me into the garage and happily gave me all his tools – rakes, shovels, hammers, everything. “I won’t be needing these anymore,” he said with a smile. And that’s why today, nearly 20 years later, we’re still thanking Ed when one of those tools solves a problem.

Ed and Marge were more than just nice people though… they were really funny too. Here’s a true story that I assure you I am not making up:

We closed on the house in April that year, at the Cambridge, Massachusetts courthouse. Linda and I, Ed and Marge, and our two respective attorneys sat around a big table as we completed the paperwork. It was a big financial step for us, and I remember that Linda and I were pretty nervous about the whole thing.

Suddenly, Ed looked down at the check in my hand (made out to him for a couple of hundred thousand dollars), and with a twinkle in his eye, said, “You know Michael, if you got up and started walking away with that check, I’d let you take three steps before shooting you in the back.”

Needless to say, he caught me off guard. But before I could respond, Marge asked, “Why would you let him take three steps?”

To which Ed replied, “I’d like him to go out thinking he made it.”

I never found out if they rehearsed that or not, but it sure got everybody laughing. And for us, it removed the tension that was hanging over the room and the situation.

What’s this got to do with writing an effective E-Newsletter? Nothing at all. But I think you’ll agree that it’s a great story… and great stories have everything to do with great newsletters.

So stick with me as we take a look at two things that made this story so effective:

  1. Great E-Newsletter stories are specific.

    I could have started today’s newsletter by simply saying, “I was looking for a tool recently.” Fewer words certainly, but not nearly as engaging as, “I was in the basement yesterday morning, looking for a metal file that I could use to shave down the edge of a piece of wood.”

    The second phrase tells you when I was looking (yesterday), where I was looking (basement), why I was looking (shave wood) and what exactly I was looking for (metal file).

    The detail helps you imagine the situation and in doing so, you can’t help but put yourself there with me. Same thing with “1990,” “how to operate the furnace” and the Kellys themselves.

    Lots of people advise business writers to just cut to the chase because “e-mail readers are really busy.”

    Busy has nothing to do with it – it’s all about engaging the reader. My busy 12-year-old daughter, Emily, won’t pay attention to me long enough for me to finish a sentence. But give her the latest Harry Potter book and she’ll read 900 pages in a weekend.

    If you remove the story detail in the name of brevity you’ll never hook your readers.

  1. Great E-Newsletter stories are personal.

    Many newsletter writers tell stories about things that happened to other people. Sometimes real events (e.g. “Gandhi was once riding on a train and… “) and sometimes just fable-ish (e.g. “You’ve probably heard about the boy who…”).

    These can be both instructive and interesting, but they’re missing a key element… you.

    Remember that the point of sending a marketing E-Newsletter in the first place is to attract new (and perfect) clients. If you don’t share who you are – if you don’t reveal enough so that people can start to trust you – they won’t feel a connection (i.e. they won’t hire you).

    As Annette Simmons observes in her (fantastic) book, The Story Factor, “People don’t want more information… they want faith in you, your goals, your success in the story you tell.” Making it personal accomplishes all this.

    Look at the story up above. When you read it you learn that my wife Linda and I have been together since 1990 (at least); that we have a running joke between us about how Ed Kelly continues to come to our rescue; and even that we have a ping pong table in the basement.

    These facts aren’t trust-inducing in themselves (you may hate long relationships, jokes and ping pong), however if you share a similar life and perspective, it’s a way to strengthen my connection to you.

    As it turns out, the “best clients” are the ones who share a similar world view (for whatever reason). When your newsletter reveals who you are, these people can find you and step forward.

Bottom Line: Great stories make all the difference. Provide enough detail so that readers can stay engaged; tell enough about yourself so that they can learn to trust and like you.

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