Book authors and screenwriters use principles of storytelling to write compelling works of art. Would it be too much to use the same principles to write enchanting cold emails?


Storytelling is an insanely powerful marketing tool, and it’s nothing new. Everyday we are bombarded with tiny stories told through a Facebook sponsored post, or a 15-second video ad on YouTube. Even more so if we seek entertainment on TV or radio.

There’s a reason why almost every ad - for better or worse - tries to tell us a story. It’s because good stories resonate with us so powerfully that they literally influence our brain chemistry.

In a insightful talk at TEDxStockholm, presentations expert David JP Phillips tells us that the core of a captivating story is emotional investment.

He compares the experience of a good story to falling in love, concluding that storytelling induces the same neurotransmitters and hormones that our brains release when we are head over heels - like oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.

That is the gist of why, as legendary screenwriter Robert McKee put it:

“If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.”

So let’s do that - let’s harness the principles of a well-told story and apply them to emails.

5 Storytelling Principles For Writing Emails

Let’s explore 5 storytelling insights from accomplished writers, and turn them into actionable tips that you can use as a creativity boost, as well as starting point to experiment with your cold email templates.

Principle #1: “The trick is that the evidence of the senses has to be present. If the story is just abstract, all telling and no showing, it doesn’t work.”

In an aptly titled (“I Am Allergic To Abstraction”) interview, when asked about the strength of storytelling, Carlo Rotella drops our first principle.

Essentially, what the award-winning writer is telling us is that if we want to activate somebody’s imagination, we need to stimulate their sensory memory first.

Which seems easier to do when you’re talking about writing an essay or a screenplay, but how can you apply this to a cold email?

Consider this example:

“Hello Mark,
What would it mean to your top-line revenue if you saw a 70% increase in contact rates, 50% improvement in closes, and 40% increase in quota-hitting sales reps?

Let’s find a few minutes to talk about how we’re providing these results to our clients.

Can we sync up?”

Just three sentences and it already tells the story of a company that delivers measurable results to businesses like yours, and knows what it’s doing.

It’s relevant to the target because it uses specific terms: “top-line revenue”, “contact rates”, “closes”, “quota-hitting sales reps”.

It also stimulates the imagination by helping the reader visualise benefits:

“...if you saw a increase…”.

With this technique, the author makes you remember what you felt the last time you saw positive upticks on performance charts.

The next two principles come from an HBR interview given by Robert McKee, world’s best known screenwriting lecturer whose students have created many cinematographic classics that a lot of us adore to this day, like “Monthy Python and the Holy Grail” or “Forrest Gump”.

Principle #2: “Stories are how we remember; we tend to forget lists and bullet points.”

This principle needs a bit of clarification: lists and bullet points are a great way to present important data that could otherwise get lost between the sentences of your email.

But the thing is to first focus on telling a story, and then use a short list of relevant data to back it up if necessary.

Or just let go of lists entirely, and use something else to build your story.

In this example, the author of the email made an extra effort, and used an image to capture attention:


Instead of providing a dry list of features, this email tells a story about the product using several tools:

  • Humanisation - introduce you to {{tool}}
  • Relatability - new tool that helps companies understand customer experiences like never before
  • Relevant invitation - check out the 30 second demo of me interacting with your website
  • Interactivity - image and link to an actual video demo of using the tool on the prospect’s website

Within seconds we know what the product is, and that the author of the email cares about us.

Principle #3: “You emphatically do not want to tell a beginning-to-end tale describing how results meet expectations. This is boring and banal. Instead, you want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness.”

Failure can be more interesting than success.

Situations that went haywire, people that stood in way of our success, or just plain old life dealing us bad cards are much more relatable themes than stories in which everything went right.

Focusing only on the positives leaves no space for contrast, no room for surprise.

Whereas mixing the salty and the sweet can result in a much more engaging story.

Take this example of a job application email:


This email is great because it reads like a regular short story:

There are ups, there are downs, there’s humor, there’s proof of skill, there’s a plot twist - it has everything.

It’s nothing like your typical job application, but it worked great nonetheless, since the author of this email is also the author of the article that it’s from.

Principle #4: “Everybody is a good storyteller from birth - the only problem is that you don’t believe it.”

At the risk of venturing too far into motivational speaking, I wanted to add this principle simply because it matters.

This principle comes from a TEDx presentation by David JP Phillips, who reminds us that writing is a form of self-expression, a form of art.

You could say that calling cold emails “art” is going too far - but is it, really? Okay, it is a little bit.

But what’s not poetic about painstakingly picking and combining the right words and pieces of information to compose a short message to somebody, sending it using an almost 30-year old information exchange protocol, and then landing a life-changing job or a great client because of it?

If you don’t believe that your story could be interesting to someone, you’ll end up writing the same generic “beginning-to-end tale describing how results meet expectations” every time.

You might not have an easy way to show that your product is worth buying, or publications in VentureBeat and Wall Street Journal that prove your writing skills for that new job.

But you definitely have an equally fascinating, albeit completely different stories to tell. You just need to find them - how do you do that? By following our final principle.

Principle #5: “The process of writing a story is messy. It's something you have to play with and explore. The first draft is a kickoff and, more often than not, always bad. You have to feel safe and be willing to make mistakes -- then take the time to fix them. Good writing is rewriting.”

This principle comes from Pixar’s writer / director Andrew Stanton.

The most important part of writing is reading your first draft, changing it, re-reading, switching up words, moving parts of your story around until it feels right.

Same goes for writing emails.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes a great email. There are several guidelines to keep in mind, like keeping it short and focusing on the prospect. But sometimes the best email in your case will be the one that forgoes every guideline.

In the global scope of cold emailing, this also applies to outreach. You have to be willing to send different emails and accept that some of them will flop, while other versions will generate replies. That’s why we measure results from campaigns, test different approaches and optimize for the highest conversion rates.

Are you ready to email your story?

Turns out that the best marketers are already applying the same principles of storytelling that authors and screenwriters use:

  • Appeal to your readers’ sensoric memory
  • Tell your story first because that’s what people will remember - data should only enrich the story
  • Show both sides of the story, not just the rose-colored side
  • Believe that you’re a good storyteller
  • To get the story right, you need to rewrite a lot, be willing to make mistakes and take time to fix them

All in all, approaching your emails more as a story, and less as a pitch, should help you write campaigns that are rich, captivating and engaging. A side-note on all of this is that inspiration for marketing doesn’t need to come only from successful marketers - you can look up to artists for ideas and new techniques just as well.

Good luck

This piece was written by Will Cannon, the CEO & Founder of UpLead - a B2B sales intelligence platform.

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