The joys of the anecdote

To continue the bit on advertorial writing, there’s a challenge in writing it because you want the reader hooked, and yet you’re writing non-fiction.

You interview the One With The Dream, and you find out how much the organization rocks. (And again, I’m always surprised. One guy who did kitchens looked at me once, got a dreamy expression, and murmured, “Do you know what I could do with your cabinets?” For a moment I was actually scared, like when you receive an obscene call and the voice tells you what he wants to do with your delicate laundry while you’re still wearing it.)

The key is to then turn around and make readers catch the same fire, because to be blunt, no one cares about kitchen cabinets. Well, some people do: and they’re already looking for contractors. If you’re writing about a kitchen cabinet restoring guru, the object is to attract people like me who have a so-so kitchen and impart to them The Dream Of The Amazing Kitchen Cabinet.

As a writer, your first thought is, “Yeah, and do it without using the letter E or the comma, too, why not?”

I’ll give you a secret: the answer, my friend, is the story.

The anecdote. The living, breathing human being who also caught the dream.

In the case of Kitchen Cabinet Guy, this is a non-story opening:

Kitchen Cabinets, Etc. opened in 2005, providing kitchen-restoring services to everyone in the Greater Angeltown metropolitan area.”

Yawn. Turn the page. Instead the advertorial writer opens with a story and keeps the reader for longer than a paragraph:

Marcia Stern loved hostessing, but she flinched whenever guests entered her kitchen. The reason? Grimy cabinets that never came entirely clean, as well as counter-tops and a layout that might as well have had “Established: 1976″ engraved in granite. Before her daughter’s wedding, Marcia contacted Kitchen Cabinets, Etc., and Kitchen Cabinet Guy transformed her kitchen into a showpiece that garnered even more attention than the bride.”

Is it cheesy? You betcha. Does it work? Absolutely. And the reason is that a reader can step into the shoes of a person but can’t as easily get into the shoes of a concept. “Outdated kitchen” isn’t as accessible to your average reader as “Woman loves to cook but feels embarrassed about her kitchen.”

To that end, I’ve opened pieces with a mom with kids whose car broke down on the highway in the rain (a roadside assistance piece); a family that didn’t have to choose between dinner or a show when they could have both (a teppanyaki restaurant); a parent phoned by the school when her child gets hurt (an orthopedics practice); and an assortment of the types of students who chose a community college (figure it out).

This technique, opening with an anecdote, works well for nonfiction pieces too. Give the reader a listing of facts and she turns the page. Grab her with someone she can identify, and she’ll stay. Try it next time!


  1. CricketB

    I don’t suppose you could move north a bit and do it over here? The current guy uses a formula. Not as bad as the guy before, who sucked me into a great stories, then abruptly switched to the advertisement voice.

  2. philangelus

    You want to shift into “newspaper voice” after a little while. “Advertisement voice” is simply annoying. Most readers hate being sold — I know I do.

  3. Bopper

    Thanks for the example! My DD11 is doing an assignment where they have to advertise a story they wrote, and she started the first way, and I showed her your example an encouraged her to “hook” the reader like you did.

  4. philangelus

    Awesome! Good luck to her on the assignment. 🙂

    There must be something about the curriculum because last week, my 10 year old had to write an ad for honey, of all things.

    Advertising your own story is essential in a good query letter, actually, so your daughter’s assignment is eminently practical if she wants to write for publication in the future.

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