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Thursday, Jul. 30, 2009

A Copywriter’s Intro to Frame-switching and Nested Storytelling

By Jeff Sexton
July 30th, 2009

Here’s the first thing to remember about frame switching as it applies to copywriting:

All copywriting stories are “nested.”

Matryoshka+doll-1In writing copy you inevitably create – at a minimum – one frame of reference: the one between your authorial voice and the reader.

In fact, copywriting teachers often advise aspiring writers to “talk” onto the page as if they’re talking to a best friend, simply because that mental exercise animates that almost invisible frame of reference in the mind of the writer.* Writers who forget that frame of reference tend to produce artificial, corporate-speak copy.

So introducing a story into your conversation with the audience instantly “nests” that story within the larger “narrative” of your copy, one frame of reference within the larger frame in which you’re “speaking” to the prospect.

But most readers are consciously oblivious to this frame-shifting because the nesting often takes place rather quickly.  And also because great copywriters smooth-over or hide the frame switching in much the same way that a film editor cuts between camera angles without drawing attention to the cut.  You don’t consciously realize that your TV show changes camera shots an average of every 4 seconds do you?  Don’t believe it?  Count it out for yourself:

YouTube Preview Image

And just as with the TV film cuts so it is with frame switching in copy: once you know what to look for, this technique will start to jump out at you.  Let’s take a look at one of the more famous examples of this written by Martin Conroy:

“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 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, 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…”

Did you notice how quickly the nesting took place?

If not, the beginning of this, perhaps the most famous direct mail piece of all time, initiates the story telling frame by starting in storybook fashion, except that instead of “once upon a time,” Martin Conroy starts telling his story with “on a beautiful late spring afternoon.” And with that one phrase Conroy establishes both his authorial voice, speaking to you, and establishes the inner frame of reference – that of the business parable.  Pretty cool huh?

Now recall the important lesson from my previous post on frame-switching:

Emotions created in one frame echo across to the other

So if a story told within your copy is necessarily a nested story, then the emotions created within that inner story will echo across to the sales conversation of the “frame” story, i.e. the rest of the copywriting.

Do you see where this is going?

If not, what’s important to realize here is that a copywriter can say things in story format that he cannot credibly state within regular copy.  Conroy can’t really start his ad with “Hey, if you don’t buy The Wall Street Journal, you’ll never rise above middle management.”  Undoubtedly, that line of copy would have created a firestorm of complaints.

Atlas AdAnd yet the emotions behind that statement – nay, even more powerful emotions, since they’ve now been given life within the mental image of facing either success or frustration at a college reunion – slide under the radar screen and into the minds of Conroy’s readers under cover of this story.  The nested story emotionally primes the reader within the safe confines of “just a story”, while simultaneously positioning that emotional charge t0 jump across to the rest of the copy.

So when Conroy changes frames by slipping in a direct address to the reader with his first subheading of “What made the difference?” his readers are already emotionally primed to eagerly anticipate and take advantage of this all-important “difference” between the two young men.

This causes many readers to interpret Conroy’s offer that The Wall Street Journal will provide  “knowledge that they can use in business” as ‘the WSJ will help me get the promotions I deserve’  – a conclusion made more powerful because it comes from within the reader and not explicitly from the copy itself.

Yet while just thinking about this technique as presented, in terms of explicit story telling, will cause you to spot scads of examples from famous copywriting ads, you won’t really see how widely the technique is used until you realize that:

Referring to the past = Story Telling

For instance, does anyone really think that John Caples’ brilliant headline, “They laughed when I sat down at the piano,” is any less of an introduction to a nested story than Conroy’s “One fine spring day”?

Or how about this one from Sean D’souza’s Psychotactics Newsletter:

When I first started in business, I’d spend hours in meetings.
 I’d be driving to meetings. I’d be sitting in meetings. And
 then I’d get back to my home-office (I no longer work from
 home). And then have to do the job that the client and I agreed
 upon. And I’d do this six-sometimes seven days a week.
Fifty-two weeks a year.
=====================================
I was too afraid to go on vacation
=====================================
I was afraid that a really big job would come along, just as I was getting on the plane. I’d have nightmares about how the client would call; find me away; give the job to my competition, and then continue to work with the competition.
=====================================
I was living in a bit of a trap
=====================================
And I couldn’t get out. And then I discovered the power of copywriting. That copywriting was more than just copy.  It was control…

Sean establishes his nested story with the simple phrase “When I first started in business” and then goes on to shine a bright light on the sensitive emotionally needs of his audience – without offending them!

Nested storytelling and frame switching are everywhere

  • Joe Karbo Frank Schultz used a nested story in his famous “Fluke of Nature” grapefruit ad, which starts with, “I’m a farmer, and the story I tell you is the absolute truth, as incredible as it may seem”
  • Joseph Sugarman used it for his first BluBlockers ad, wherein the first subhead reads, “When I put on the pair of glasses what I saw I could not believe.  Nor will you.”  And his first line of copy?  “I am about to tell you a true story.”
  • Ogilvy frequently made use of stories within his Schwepes and Hathaway campaigns.
  • The old Charles Atlas ads certainly used storytelling, as the ad writer, Charles P. Roman, headlined them with the immortal, “The insult that made a man out of Mac”
  • Frank Irving Fletcher created his famous “A $10,000 Mistake” ad as a short form story.  Here’s the entire ad: “A $10,000 Mistake: A client for whom we had copied a necklace of Oriental Pearls, seeing both necklaces before her, said: Well, the resemblance is remarkable, but this is mine! Then she picked ours! Tecla; 398 Fifth Avenue, New York”
  • And if you really want to see short form story taken to the realm of art, wherein the whole of Conroy’s WSJ opening is recast in 9 short words, then take a look at this:

the_economist_trainee

Finally, for those of you who stuck with me on this, I offer you a dessert ; )

If you really want to see a master of nested storytelling, just watch any of the Bill Cosby videos available on YouTube and pay attention to how Cosby effortlessly switches from being within the story to talking to the audience directly.  I think this one on “Jeffery” is a great one to start with:

YouTube Preview Image
Add Your Comments

Comments (81)

  1. That kind of sums it all up. Great analysis. What I take from it is mainly the smooth setting of the stage of your texts, in effect (re)contextualising it, and, of course, introducing an accessible and rather fast narrative that gives you the room to guide the reader into different directions. Context and narrative are just about the most important things in any text. Yet one should always bear in mind that before someone starts reading the texts is already contextualised and that context already provides a narrative. In the examples here a great effort is made to show how one may recontextualise a story almost immediately. That is an art!

  2. These are great, but I feel like we are missing some key examples. Do you have any examples of this being successfully used online.

  3. [...] A Copywriter’s Intro to Frame-switching and Nested Storytelling…   Conversion Rate Marketing [...]

  4. Excellent article, as was the frame switching one I read previously. It’s fantastic how with a few words these writers were able to set up an entire story in the readers mind and then exploit that to deliver a message.

  5. Tim,

    Check out the home page of LifeLock. Even though the stories are framed as testimonials, on an emotional level, they still act as stories.

    - Jeff

  6. Jeff,

    Thanks for the example. They do a very good job of drawing you in with their stories. They even did a very good job of developing this on their homepage.

    I am sure that their landing pages are even better able to convey this, since they don’t have to deal with all the other distracting items on a homepage.

    Do you think this method would work better with a Banner campaign or a PPC campaign?

  7. I use this technique sometimes when writing product reviews: http://www.40somethingreviews.com/2009/07/13/teva-womens-olawahu-flip-flop-review/

    Because you have to have room to introduce and build the story it is typically a method used with longer types of copy.

  8. Tim,

    Frame-shifting might be difficult for a banner ad, but you could certainly use Story-appeal:

    http://www.grokdotcom.com/2009/07/09/pringles-use-of-story-appeal/

    - Jeff

  9. OnStar does this with their TV commercials, too. I just went to their site, but didn’t see any use of it there. Not even in testimonials. Shame. They should integrate that technique on their site.

  10. Jeff,

    I am referring to landing pages for Banner ads and PPC ads. Would a story appeal work better for the landing pages of banner ads or PPC.

    Banner ad people are in more of a browsing state so I figure they would be more willing to get into a story, while PPC people tend to be more researched focus and might not react as well to the story.

    Those are assumptions I have, I just wonder what your thoughts would be.

  11. [...] A Copywriter’s Intro to Frame-switching and Nested Storytelling [...]

  12. Jeff,

    the psychological subtext seems to be they can’t disagree with what you’re not saying, ie you’re just telling a story in the third person. The flip side of that is a good story, you can take and reflect right back onto yourself!

    Tim,
    How yow write your ppc ad copy to frame the upcoming story will have a definite impact on how willing the reader will be to engage emotionally in a story, rather than taking a cerebral, matter-of-fact attitude.

  13. Joe Karbo wrote “The lazy man’s Way to Riches and not Fluke of Nature. Frank Schultz wrote the Fluke of Nature ad.

  14. Joseph,

    You are right, sir! Just rechecked your Advertising Secrets of the Written Word and was chagrined to find that I’d misattributed that ad. Thanks for setting me straight; I’ll correct that ASAP.

    - Jeff

  15. Very good post. I am going to put this in practice this week

  16. But most readers are consciously oblivious to this frame-shifting because the nesting often takes place rather quickly.

  17. Charles Atlas is amazing, but the person behind the ad campaign was Mr. Charles P. Roman, advertising and marketing genius for Charles Atlas, Ltd.! Few know his story. You can check out a bit more about Charles Atlas at http://www.charlesatlas.com

  18. William,

    That Website is way too cool. Thanks so much! Unfortunately the site itself also has rather little info on Charles P. Roman, but I did a quick search on his name and found this:

    http://directmag.com/history/marketing_charles_roman_gloriously/

    - Jeff

  19. Great point about transferring the emotional impact of the story or “frame” to the sales message. Very cool.

    I recently found a super powerful example of switching the frame – though this was from a more impersonal third party to the more personal “I”.

    http://herbadmother.com/2008/08/lost-boy/

  20. Excellent points indeed. Story appeal and frameshifting offer a promising angles for your commercial purposes. It’s all about luring people into a new kind of context. Yet, perhaps less consciously, this has been used in many cases already over the years. A more extensive guide to good practice might be helpful for those in need.

  21. Great article, Jeff. You definitely bring the “Roy Williams” treatment to traditional, “technical” copywriting techniques.

  22. A great article but… too long! I ‘fell off’ about half way through. Copywriting must grab,and quick. I will try and come back and read in detail, but … I do agree with the idea of storytelling in copy though, it is the best way to inform/educate/train, when done properly.

  23. Carolyn,

    Sometimes you have to pick your poison. I could certainly convey the theory behind this in a much shorter post, but I couldn’t hammer home the reality of it without a lot of cited examples, and that leads to a long article. In the end, I leave it up to the readers to scroll past the examples they don’t need or have time for.

    - Jeff

  24. [...] Storytelling for copywriters (excellent article this one) [...]

  25. [...] Check-out my follow-up article to see for yourself. [...]

  26. Very nice post. It’s because of these I love this site.

  27. Nice articles, maybe I’ll these technique later

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  29. excellent article
    The examples are vivid.
    Many reader are aware of the frame-shifting.
    And the nesting replaces so quickly.

  30. Well said. “Storytelling” is a classic and effective way to influence. That being said, I’m not so sure Sean D’souza example is a good one. Talking about yourself and not about your reader (’cause it is after all all about them) can be asking for trouble. I don’t think there are any rules per se. I am only suggesting that the “I” approach be a last resort.

  31. Mark,

    The talking about yourself approach is a tactical decision meant to approach a subject or problem that might be sensitive if you assumed your audience was dealing with it. It’s much safer to talk about one’s own struggles with parenting than to suggest that the reader is a bad parent. And so it was with Sean – he talks about his own mistakes as a business owner first and then talks about the solution in terms of what it would mean for YOU.

    - Jeff

  32. We usually read all the articles on here, but we missed this one until now. A fantastic read and I wished more copy were written as you say it should be written.

    Thanks,

    Dylan & Sean

  33. This is a well-detailed article and very informative for the non-professional copy writers like me. Gave out some good tips on where they get their article content … I might as well follow this and be more vigilant to movies, magazines and such.

  34. This is golden, loved the cosby reference, will try and put this into practice on my next project.

  35. This is an excellent article and a great website. I will visit grokdotcom more often now.

  36. Being a copywriter is pretty neat job.

  37. nice man

  38. A very good article!
    I will definitively try to use this technique on some future projects.

  39. Just started a Copywriting course ! I want some help for my website , if only you could help me !

  40. This is indeed a very interesting technique and I can imagine why…

    Setting the right mind set with the reader by creating a situation the reader can relate to, and therefor encouraging the reader to complete a call to action.

    - Linda

  41. Excellent article, as was the frame switching one I read previously. It’s fantastic how with a few words these writers were able to set up an entire story in the readers mind and then exploit that to deliver a message.

  42. Really great article on copy writing. I hope i would become a copy writer too :) Web Hosting Chandigarh

  43. I am integrating this great technique on my landing page for my product on acai. As you know acai is a hot product right now.

  44. i always wondered how copywriters like ewan chia could do it, even if english is not their native language.

  45. if you’re pushing a writer to get as much done as possible in an hour, be prepared for what you are left with. In many instances, you’ll have to spend time editing if the pieces are usable at all. By the way, never, ever, ever, ever, ever publish anything without checking for originality.

  46. The concept of nested stories is a great one. The way copywriters like John Caples and Martin Conroy are able to weave a story within an overall sales message is simply amazing. I’ll have to work on my own copy.

  47. There are many popualar copywrites such as John Caples and Martin Conroy who make me amazed at their technique.

  48. [...] A Copywriter’s Intro to Frame-switching and Nested Storytelling Jeff Sexton, Future Now | 7/30/09 [...]

  49. I noticed that about Cosby.. that’s funny.. my gf didn’t believe me

  50. [...] A Copywriter’s Intro to Frame-switching and Nested Storytelling Jeff Sexton, Future Now | 7/30/09 [...]

  51. Nested storytelling? well, I say!

  52. [...] A Copywriter’s Intro to Frame-switching and Nested Storytelling Jeff Sexton, Future Now | 7/30/09 [...]

  53. a very interesting article …..
    I am now thinking of becoming a copywriter ….
    very nice …..
    great article …..:)

  54. On a snowy afternoon of February, I was inspired to post a comment after reading a thought-provoking article. I looked around my house for an English Dictionary to expand my vocabulary, but there wasn’t one anywhere. I decided to buy one at the bookstore. On the way back, my car tires slipped on the snowy road and I crashed into a lamppost. I stayed in the hospital for six days, but at least I have my dictionary so I can post this comment to you now. ;)

  55. I think to always visit your blog this
    Your writing inspires produce anyone who read it …..
    I like getting a new spirit after reading your article this …
    I will be proud if we can exchange ideas …

  56. It’s great to read such a well written post.

  57. This is golden, loved the cosby reference, will try and put this into practice on my next project.

  58. After watching the video, the whole post makes more sense!

  59. Yeah this is looks like a great approach. It’s always hard to get your point across when people are getting mad at you for being too blunt, etc. Nested storytelling in particular really caught my attention as a good method. Good stuff!

  60. After watching the video, the whole post makes more sense!

  61. thank for your information.I will back to your web again.There is a lot of knowledge

  62. Just started a Copywriting course ! I want some help for my website , if only you could help me

  63. I understand how the technique works now. The main way I can see using it on my website is to include testimonials. My goal will be trying to incorporate more nesting into my site as seamlessly as these examples have been.

  64. t’s great to read such a well written post.

  65. Yeah this is looks like a great approach. It’s always hard to get your point across when people are getting mad at you for being too blunt

  66. There are many popualar copywrites such as John Caples and Martin Conroy who make me amazed at their technique.

  67. this has been used in many cases already over the years. A more extensive guide to good practice might be helpful for those in need.

  68. #

    Nested storytelling in particular really caught my attention as a good method. Good stuff!

  69. a very interesting article …..
    I am now thinking of becoming a copywriter ….
    very nice …..

  70. I am sure that their landing pages are even better able to convey this, since they don’t have to deal with all the other distracting items on a homepage.

  71. They should integrate that technique on their site.

  72. Interesting article … I will try for a copywriter post…. Keep on updating….

    Regards,
    Charles Wesley

  73. Really well written article. I like the way you write the article.. Simply superb.
    Interesting too.

  74. Your article is amazing, i enjoyed the you had written. Great site, i’m looking forward for more interesting post. Thanks

  75. This post is specially for copywriters, but copywriters who reads this post makes them more special in their field. Nice Post. Its more useful as I started my initial writing.

  76. nested is aterm I dont think Ive ever heard of before.. interesting

  77. I dont think Ive ever heard of before.. interesting

  78. post makes them more special in their able to how with a few words these writers were copywriters who reads this set up an entire story in the readers

  79. excellent article
    The examples are vivid.

  80. Excellent article….

    I am planning to use up these techniques in my daily life as well….

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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