Storytelling and the greatest sales letter of all time

November 11, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

stories in copywritingPeople love stories.

We like to tell them. We like to hear them. This is the way our brains are designed to take in information.

It’s why back in grade school, you could solve math problems more easily when it was explained to you as a story instead of just an equation.

Smart copywriters have long known that storytelling in sales letters can dramatically boost interest, comprehension, and response.

Telling a story in a letter can be tricky, though. It must be crafted well and used appropriately. But when it works, it can work big.

Perhaps the best example of storytelling in a sales letter is the famous Wall Street Journal letter written by Martin Conroy. It worked like magic and remained the Journal’s control for decades. It’s charming, though not original.

Like many great works of advertising, the idea was borrowed, or as we say in the business “swiped.” The original story letter idea came from the pen of advertising legend Bruce Barton back in 1919.

Here’s the text from Martin Conroy’s Wall Street Journal letter:

Dear Reader:

On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men.

Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.

Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.

They were still very much alike.

Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.

But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.

What Made The Difference

Have you ever wondered, as I have, what makes this kind of difference in people’s lives? It isn’t always a native intelligence or talent or dedication. It isn’t that one person wants success and the other doesn’t.

The difference lies in what each person knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.

And that is why I am writing to you and to people like you about The Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: To give its readers knowledge – knowledge that they can use in business.

A Publication Unlike Any Other

You see, The Wall Street Journal is a unique publication. It’s the country’s only national business daily. Each business day, it is put together by the world’s largest staff for business-news experts.

Each business day, The Journal’s pages include a broad range of information of interest and significance to business-minded people, no matter where it comes from. Not just stocks and finance, but anything and everything in the whole, fast-moving world of business… The Wall Street Journal gives you all the business news you need – when you need it.

Knowledge Is Power

Right now, I am reading page one of  The Journal. It combines all the important news of the day with in-depth feature reporting. Every phase of business news is covered, from articles on inflation, wholesale prices, car prices, tax incentives for industries to major developments in Washington, and elsewhere.

And there is page after page inside The Journal filled with fascinating and significant information that’s useful to you. A daily column on personal money management helps you become a smarter saver, better investor, wiser spender. There are weekly columns on small business, marketing, real estate, technology, regional developments. If you have never read The Wall Street Journal, you cannot imagine how useful it can be to you.

Much of the information that appears in The Journal appears nowhere else. The Journal is printed in numerous plants across the United States, so that you get it early each business day.

A $28 Subscription

Put our statements to the proof by subscribing for the next 13 weeks for just $28. This is the shortest subscription term we offer – and a perfect way to get acquainted with The Journal.

Or you may prefer to take advantage of a longer-term subscription for greater savings: an annual subscription at $107 saves you $20 off The Journal’s cover price. Our best buy – two years for $185 – saves you a full $69!

Simply fill out the endorsed order card and mail it in the postage-paid envelope provided. And here’s The Journal guarantee: Should The Journal not measure up to your expectations, you may cancel this trial arrangement at any point and receive a refund for the undelivered portion of your subscription.

If you feel as we do that this is a fair and reasonable proposition, then you will want to find out without delay if The Wall Street Journal can do for you what it is doing for millions of readers. So please mail the enclosed order card now, and we will start serving you immediately.

About those two college classmates, I mentioned at the beginning of this letter. They graduated from college together and together got started in the business world. So what made their lives in business different?

Knowledge. Useful knowledge. And its application.

An Investment In Success

I cannot promise you that success will be instantly yours if you start reading The Wall Street Journal. But I can guarantee that you will find The Journal always interesting, always reliable, and always useful.

Sincerely Yours,
Peter R. Kann
Executive Vice President/
Associate Publisher

PS: It’s important to note that The Journal’s subscription price may be tax-deductible.

Caveat: Be careful in applying this sort of long storytelling to your own sales letters. This letter worked, but it’s considered an exceptional and unique example. It has been copied endlessly, with nowhere near the original results.

Today, people will certainly read long copy, but attention spans are shorter and readers want to know the point quickly.

I’ve used stories in my letters, but I always consider the context, the product, the audience, and previous testing results. My own style of copywriting is generally much more direct. I have found that simplicity creates a high success rate across a broad spectrum of products and services.

So take a lesson from this letter. It’s brilliant copywriting. But apply it carefully to your own work.

Related posts:

  1. 30 sales letter openers to kick start your sales pitch
  2. P.S. Don’t forget to include a sales letter postscript
  3. How to write the perfect sales letter

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Smart Comments

7 Comments on Storytelling and the greatest sales letter of all time

  1. Joseph on Nov 12th, 2010 12:23 am
  2. This is great. It was written in 1919, yet I’ve never wanted to buy a subscription to The Journal like I do right now. Incredible.

  3. Constantin on Nov 12th, 2010 5:36 am
  4. Oh, the early days of America – I enjoy so much reading the works of pioneer copywriters.
    Thanks for this!

  5. Dean Rieck on Nov 12th, 2010 9:41 am
  6. My pleasure, Constantin.

  7. lawton chiles on Nov 16th, 2010 2:09 pm
  8. I’ve been watching The Dead Zone on USA or Netflix rather, and it amazes me how stories told well draw us in.

    They are harder to make up for our own businesses I think but well worth the effort.

    [...] Entrepreneurs Aren’t Born, They’re Made, How to do 500 Times Better Than AdSense, and Storytelling and the Greatest Sales Letter of All Time. Of these six, don’t miss the sales letter. It’s absolutely [...]

  9. Codrut Turcanu on Apr 5th, 2011 3:00 am
  10. Yes, stories work. I’ve used that wall street example story as a model a few years ago and still do (works quite well). Reason why? Because people always compare with other people and need to know what makes the difference between X and Y, between owning that product vs the other, going from zero to hero, you get the point.

    P.S. Dean, as you’ve said, stories should not be taken “as is” but adjusted by the context, message and target audience. Sadly, most people just commit the mistake of copy-cat, without innovating.

  11. Andy on Jul 1st, 2011 1:35 pm
  12. Great reminder about the power of storytelling. Sophisticated readers may know they’re being led by their noses, but they are drawn in and appreciative of a story that illustrates a valid point.