Win the Hearts of Your Audience With This Simple Copywriting Formula

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During coffee one morning with two friends, each of them shared their struggles to secure funding and support for their projects. One woman has produced a cultural documentary that’s gathering dust while she looks for grants that would allow her to complete editing and market the film internationally. My other friend has grand plans to convert a defunct oil refinery into a solar farm but no local approval to move forward with the project.

Both of them are accomplished, articulate women with vision and powerful ideas for impact. So why are they challenged by a lack of interest in backing their projects? As they each described the conversations they’ve had, the presentations they’ve given, and even shared some of the materials they’ve used, it became clear to me what the issue was.

They both had lots of great data and solid, logical arguments in favor of their ideas. Yet neither of them had structured this information in a way that would win hearts and minds. There was no human connection aspect!

You see, you can have all the best data for the best ideas in the world, but if you don’t put that in context of story and emotion, the ideas will struggle to gain traction. Throwing a bunch of facts, figures, and superlatives at people and hoping they’ll be impressed and convinced doesn’t work. Data is important but it can easily be confusing and overwhelming when it doesn’t connect with an everyday understanding of life.

Instead of trying to get people on board with your passion and your vision, you can lead them through a story that illustrates the problem you’re trying to solve where they are the hero in the resolution of that problem. The core of this approach is a classic copywriting formula referred to as PAS, or Problem/Pain – Agitation – Solution. In a nutshell, you state the problem helping the audience to identify with the pain points, you go deeper into the problem illustrating its impacts, and then you offer a solution that paints a positive vision of the future.

When you combine PAS with storytelling you’ll have an incredibly compelling pitch for whatever it is you’re trying to persuade others to do. This is the exact combo used for some of the most successful launches, sales, and blockbuster books and movies in history, and I’m going to show you how simple it is to use in your own marketing.

1. Start with a story of struggle

Think about how intriguing it is to hear about other people’s problems (Hello, reality TV. Hello, nightly news). Though you certainly don’t need to go all “if it bleeds it leads” dramatic, you do want to kick off your pitch with a story about a challenge that relates to the problem you’re working to solve. The story should be interesting, entertaining or emotional so the audience a heart to connect to. It’s your hook, drawing in your audience by helping them identify with the pain they are feeling or witnessing and providing an anchor to the problem you’re soon to explain.

Let’s look at what struggle stories my friend with the solar farm plans can use to kick off her pitch. Rural communities near the defunct refinery have been experiencing frequent power outages. For 15-year-old John who’s been taking online classes for college credit, it means he struggles to get his schoolwork done when the internet goes out or his laptop runs out of juice. For Priya, who runs the local grocery, running the generator that keeps her freezers and coolers going during an outage costs her more than what she brings in. As the sole provider for her family of four, any loss of income has a harsh ripple effect. You can see how these struggle stories don’t need to be long or complicated to be effective.

2. Explain the problem at scale

From the struggle story, zoom out and explain what the real issue is, the reason for the challenges that the character(s) in the struggle story face. (This is the ‘P’ in PAS.) How did this problem start? Where else is it happening? How is it affecting people beyond the examples you’ve already shared?

Now is the time to pull out that data and rattle off a few facts. Instead of charts crammed with numbers or ticking off stat after stat, pace the information. If you’re giving a presentation, explain the problem with its accompanying data points across a series of slides pausing to assess how well your audience is absorbing the information. On a website or in print material, use design and whitespace to deconstruct complex aspects of the problem and emphasize important points. It’s easy for people to get lost in the data and start disconnecting from the real issues, so after you’ve stated the problem quickly move to Step 3.

3. Make the problem worse

Okay, I’m being serious. The problem might sound bad from the start, but now is when you need to pour salt on the wound, as it were. This is the ‘agitation’ part of PAS. You want to stir people up and help them see what will happen if this problem persists unchecked. Paint the bleak picture. Contrast it with what could be. This is a great time to bring in more struggle stories to further illustrate the repercussions of the problem.

For my documentarian friend whose film retells an Amerindian legend using an all Amerindian cast, the problem is not just the world losing ancient oral history. The bigger issue is that the culture and language of this particular people are going extinct which has caused a loss of pride and identity and a devaluation of their art and trade. With missed economic opportunities, the younger generations are leaving the villages permanently. Do you see how you can expand upon the problem to show how impactful it really is?

4. Alleviate the pain

Once you’ve stirred the pot, so to speak, and your audience is really feeling the pain, this is when you swoop in with relief. All that bad stuff? It can go away. Here’s how we do it. Now you’ve reached the ‘solution’ part of PAS.

Just as you paced your description of the problem at scale, you’ll share the broad strokes of your solution. This section should be focused on the benefits (short-term advantages) and outcomes (long-term gains) of fixing the problem. Describe in vivid detail what these solutions mean for the characters in your struggle stories. A good technique is to take those struggle stories and flip them around so they become stories of transformation and success.

My documentarian friend sees her film as a way to generate proceeds to invest back into the Amerindian communities (benefit) and preserve a piece of indigenous culture (outcome). My solar farm friend describes her project as the way to boost the local economy with new jobs (benefit) while also promoting the health of people and the planet through the use of clean, sustainable energy (outcome).

5. Make them the hero when you make the ask

As you outline the many benefits of your solution, help your audience see their place in the story. Describe where they fit into the picture so they can understand how they are key to your work and this new world vision you’ve described. It’s not always enough to simply ask for their money. Telling stories of struggle and success throughout the pitch is critical to creating context and emotional draw. Then your audience becomes part of the bigger story as you highlight their power to affect meaningful change. Calls to action can be incredibly compelling when wrapped in emotion.

Back to my solar farm friend. She already has an engineering team lined up ready to assist her with the refinery conversion and equipment installs. She only needs the appropriate approval to proceed with the project. The crux of the story is not about the authorities having the power to grant her approval but their opportunity to dramatically change lives in the surrounding communities. They can be personally responsible for the creation of new jobs, cost savings for businesses they can pass on to their customers, and consistent access to things that rely on the power grid such as laptops, refrigerators, and street lighting in unsafe neighborhoods.

To recap the PAS with storytelling approach, here’s your outline:

  1. Hook — acknowledge the pain (struggle story)

  2. Problem — provide scale and context (struggle story)

  3. Agitate — poke the bear (struggle story)

  4. Solution — make the pain go away (success story)

  5. Ask — let your audience be the hero (success story)

Now that you know the PAS formula and how it works in combination with storytelling, you’ll start to recognize it everywhere. It’s at the heart of the most interesting and universally resonant books, movies, plays, speeches, case studies, launches, appeals, and campaigns—anywhere the intention is to persuade others to buy into a particular offer or idea.   

Notice that I’ve used this model for this entire article. I started with a story about my two friends. I stated the problem (dry pitches that flop), and I went deeper into the problem while sharing more stories as examples of what my friends could do. Then I offered a solution—PAS model with storytelling. Now it’s time for me to move you to Step 5. Get ready to be a hero…  

When you structure your marketing pitches using PAS, you’ll experience a whole new level of wins. First, you’ll have an easier time putting together your pitches, a fail-safe template if you will. As you do the work to consider which stories of struggle and success you want to tell, you’ll gain greater insight into who your work serves and learn what aspects are most valuable to your audience. You’ll also feel more confident in your marketing when you know you’re presenting your offer in the most compelling way you can. You’ll connect with your audience on an emotional level which will deepen their connection to you and elicit the understanding and trust they need to respond to your call to action.

So I ask you—are you ready to use PAS with storytelling in your next marketing pitch?

Lisa Mullis