5 ways tapping into storytelling can help you write better website taglines

Photo illustration by Tug Wells

Photo illustration by Tug Wells

Storyline Longform is a series of in-depth articles that explore narrative approaches to web writing and design. This week, we'll be looking at how thinking like a fiction writer can help you write better taglines.

Be a sadist.
— Kurt Vonnegut

Ok, we have a question for you this week. If you had to take one tagline to a desert island with you, which one would it be?

Are you a “Think different” person (Apple, 1997) or a “Think small” person (Volkswagen, 1959)? Do you “share the fantasy” with Chanel or “drive the car in front” with Toyota? Or do you not even give a damn?

No matter how much of a damn you give about taglines, or which side of the production line you’re on—writer or reader—there is probably one bias you have. If asked to choose, you’d likely file “tagline” away in the commercial writing drawer. For good reason. There’s nothing that shouts commercial writing more than a website tagline or campaign slogan.

But are taglines fundamentally different from their sisters and brothers in the literary drawer, the titles we give to stories?

Not really. No more than commercial web writing is fundamentally different from literary short story writing.

That’s because, while the media we use to deliver the two are, in fact, completely different, the creative writing principles behind them are pretty much the same. And because we do give a great big damn about storytelling around here, we’re going to show you why.

So here are five aspects of our fiction writing process we use regularly to write better taglines.

Bill Bernbach and his team at DBB were the minds behind the 1959 “Think small” campaign

Bill Bernbach and his team at DBB were the minds behind the 1959 “Think small” campaign

 

1

Know what your brand is about

Story ideas that come to you in your dreams sometimes come fully formed. Other times, you’re just sitting around and you ask yourself: What if? As in, what if that German tourist bullying that Cypriot waiter a table over ended up in a situation where the roles were reversed and he was the powerless one? A classic Paul Bowles-type story.

This idea, complete with main character and problem, is the core of the story. It’s not only what the story is about; it’s also what drives the story (character + problem = tension).

Having these core elements in place from the get-go helps writers in a number of ways. For one, when you understand what your story is about, and can communicate that persuasively in a sentence or two, pitching your story to an editor is easy. Knowing what your story is about also makes it harder to write unfocused plots without tension, which makes it easier to keep readers hooked.

Applying this thought process to writing taglines makes sense.

Like every story, a brand is born when someone asks “what if?” As in, what if creative people everywhere had a tool they could actually use to change the world? A classic Apple story, as we’ll see below.

That idea is what Apple is all about. How Apple helps creatives change the world—the problem it sets out to solve—is what drives Apple’s brand story.

As a web writer, understanding a brand’s core elements, and being able to articulate them, will make it much easier for you to share its story with the world in five words.

And, just like fiction writers and their stories, coming to grips with what a brand is fundamentally about will also keep your story focused and your message consistent.

Like every story, a brand is born when someone asks ‘what if?’
Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel  Fahrenheit 451  imagined a future US where all books were rounded up and burnt

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 imagined a future US where all books were rounded up and burnt

 

2

Hook your users

It’s no industry secret that the first sentence or paragraph is what often sells a story. Just think of the opening to Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” Or the first line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story Someone Has Been Disarranging the Roses: “Since it’s Sunday and it’s stopped raining, I think I’ll take a bouquet of roses to my grave.”

The hook, that ineffable combination of word choice, provocation and nuance, lodges itself in our brain and stays there, forcing our eyes to read on.

Usually, like a good story idea, a successful hook presents a problem from which the main character, and vicariously the reader, have to extricate themselves.

While the character is stuck by force of circumstance—or, as Kurt Vonnegut recommends, by the whims of its sadistic author—the reader is not. If readers don’t get sucked in, if they don’t judge the story promised by the hook worthy of their time and energy, or they don’t get the essential idea at a glance, the tension will flatline and they’ll flip, or click, to a story they like better.

The hook, that ineffable combination of word choice, provocation and nuance, lodges itself in our brain and stays there, forcing our eyes to read on.

The stakes are much higher for websites. There are just so many of them out there that unless a brand is instantly memorable, it doesn’t stand a chance.

This means that companies launching or rebooting websites these days are investing as much in the quality of their writing as in their web design and development. If we can use book buying behaviors as a barometer, that investment hinges on, but is not limited to, taglines that compel interest.

So learn from writers who have to make their stories stand out for fickle audiences in highly competitive markets. Writing taglines that explain what a brand is about isn’t enough.

You need to lodge your taglines snugly in readers’ heads, right alongside the brand identity and promise, like a line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And you need to do it in a way that gets the brand across instantly, while leaving just enough unsaid to tempt a finger to scroll.

Typeform   is a Barcelona-based online form creator that just removed key features from its free plan

Typeform is a Barcelona-based online form creator that just removed key features from its free plan

 

3

Don't try to change the world

In 1997, Steve Jobs unveiled a 60-second spot called Here’s to the Crazy Ones. If that doesn’t ring a bell, this was the birth of the “Think different” campaign, which would become as thoroughly “Apple” as “Just do it” was Nike.

As Jobs himself says in his own introduction to the commercial, Apple wasn’t aiming at singing its own praises with this campaign. Everyone already knew how great Apple products were. Their goal was to convey everything Apple stood for, which, in Job’s vision, was giving creative people the tools to make world-changing things happen.

Jobs was selling a feeling not a product.

Suggesting that one of the greatest, most memorable slogans of all time can’t teach us anything about writing great website taglines today may strike readers as dumb, ignorant, short-sighted, etc. But I’m going to say it anyway.

While there are brands out there that are changing the world—and while we do understand the value of aspirational advertising—when they announce their noble visions via websites or content campaigns (like Apple did in 1997), these days it often comes across as grandiose, if not disingenuous.

Think only of the Trade Desk’s recent launch of its new “media for humankind” tagline. When the product is digital ads for streaming content, you’re just left scratching your head.

So, like a story that sets out to test a character in circumstances we can relate to, focus on giving users tangible answers to tangible problems with your taglines, even if life on the other side of the browser deserves a happier ending. Rather than aiming for “media for humankind”, for example, consider interactive online form creator Typeform’s more straightshooting “Turn data collection into an experience”.

It may not be as visionary or uplifting as its previous, more “human-y” iteration—“Create forms for humans.”—but it does what it has to: it lets you know where are you with just enough mystery (what kind of experience?) to warrant a scroll.

Focus on giving users tangible answers to tangible problems with your taglines, even if life on the other side of the browser deserves a happier ending.

If you do scroll, as the asymmetrical design elements and call to action invite you to do, you’ll find just below the fold some real human interest stories, which, more and more companies are realizing today, is actually the point of designing tools for humans: to help us make our lives easier, not to remind us how lofty their own visions for humanity are.

Stephen King, who coined the phrase ‘Kill your darlings’, has published 61 novels in his lifetime. One of them is  It , about a scary clown with a trademark balloon.

Stephen King, who coined the phrase ‘Kill your darlings’, has published 61 novels in his lifetime. One of them is It, about a scary clown with a trademark balloon.

 

4

Kill your darlings

Writers just starting out get stuck on sentences a lot. In fact, it took me over a decade to really understand what Stephen King meant when he said, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

But it’s a fact: your sentences don’t mean anything apart from your story. You, the writer, mean even less.

Practically speaking, this means that you may have written a description of a sunset that literally makes readers break out in goosebumps, but if that sentence doesn’t need to be there, or is breaking the flow of your story, it needs to go.

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
— Stephen King

Obviously, we all know that getting right to the point is paramount when you’re writing a tagline. It’s a tagline we’re writing, after all, not a novel.

But practicing storytelling economy and discipline in your everyday content writing—i.e. learning to kill your darlings without hesitation or remorse—will make it much easier to pass the ultimate test of economy: expressing everything a company stands for and aspires to in just five words.

Because if there’s any story that has no room for darlings, it’s that one.

Maggie Estep, slam poet, short story writer and novelist, wrote  Alice Fantastic , which has one of the best endings ever, and one of the best descriptions of the inside of a refrigerator ever. Spoiler: there’s an egg in there.

Maggie Estep, slam poet, short story writer and novelist, wrote Alice Fantastic, which has one of the best endings ever, and one of the best descriptions of the inside of a refrigerator ever. Spoiler: there’s an egg in there.

 

5

Feel your brand

If you haven’t read Maggie Estep’s short story Alice Fantastic, you’ll probably like it. It’s about a bottom-feeding horse gambler named Alice who ends up shacking up with a dim-witted, clingy boyfriend she’d do anything to get rid of.

Alice isn’t pretty. She’s sloppy and pimply with bad hair and lives in an ugly house in Queens she inherited from her father. She’s not trustworthy or nice either. Alice is just barely holding her life together.

But something about the way Estep writes, you get Alice. You sink into her character like a ratty Salvation Army armchair. By the end of the first page, you’re hooked, hanging on Alice’s every word, even when she describes the inside of her refrigerator. (If you’re curious: “Some lifeless lettuce, a few ounces of orange juice, and one egg.”)

In other words, Estep wrote a very sympathetic character, and by sympathetic I mean a character you care enough about to invest in despite her many faults. And when I say invest, I mean you stick around until the end of the story.

Writing taglines isn’t like writing Alice Fantastic, but if you want to make visitors believe in a brand experience, you need to write a brand they can relate to.

One way to tap into that relatability and authenticity is to reframe your writing process. When you sit down to write a tagline, for example, don’t think of it as writing about a brand, but about channeling a living breathing character that’s talking to readers through you.

If you want to make visitors believe in the brand experience you’re describing, you need to write a brand they can relate to.

To really get close to your brand, you need to know more than just what your brand talks like. You need to know its favorite podcast and ice cream flavor and what it likes to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Check out our deep dive into web voice for some ideas on how to “get into character” when you write.

How do you know if you’ve gotten there? That’s not easy to say, but if you can tell us what the inside of your brand’s refrigerator looks like, you’re definitely getting close.

You made it this far. You deserve a coffee, and a super special extra technique.

You made it this far. You deserve a coffee, and a super special extra technique.

Coda: What to do when you’re stuck

Sometimes, if you’re stuck writing a tagline, it’s because the client hasn’t given you enough brand to write about—possibly because they haven’t come to grips with the actual essence of what they do yet either. To get around this roadblock, we sometimes stage a creative intervention. We call it the Tagline Game.

The Tagline Game is simple. We just ask a client to write down three words that their brand experience couldn’t exist without.

Usually, when they only have three words to choose from, they’re very careful about what they say. Even if it’s not as intensely personal an experience as asking a person to pick the three words they feel most accurately describe themselves, the Tagline Game usually stimulates enough “brand soul searching” for us to start writing.

Next time you’re stuck, try it, and let us know how it goes.

This article has been updated.

When Max Sheridan isn't lining his pockets with gold writing taglines, he creates comeback campaigns for Nicolas Cage. (What, you don't think he needs a comeback campaign?) His second novel Hubble is coming fall 2020 from Run Amok Books. Talk to Max at your own risk here.



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