Why the Next Story You Tell Should Be Indirect

by | Mar 23, 2020 | Content Marketing, Copywriting, Digital Marketing

Sharing stories indirectly is important–here’s how to do it.

You may not be trying to catch “wascally wabbits” while being very quiet with a double-barrel, but you are trying to catch leads with your copywriting. For example, when you trap certain types of animals, using bait can be a great tactic.

When the animal takes the bait, you replace it. That’s because the animal has told its friends about where it found food effortlessly through scent pheromones. When it’s friends follow the scent trail, you have company.

Excuse the relationship I’m making here, but that’s the exact same process prospects undergo in the funnel for the B2B buyer’s journey. You want leads to consume your content, become customers, and eventually advocate for you by telling their business associates.

But to get those customer advocates, you need to use the right content to attract them.

Stories can provide that value and there are many types you can choose from. Anywhere from emotionally-charged stories to tales that illustrate and teach concepts, telling a story without it seeming like one has never been more important.

For instance, IKEA used the common love story, but with a twist. In its “Improve Your Private Life” campaign, the commercial depicts classic problems couples face living together from issues of space to more intimate moments.

The key here is that IKEA doesn’t come right out and say that its furniture can solve your relationship struggles. Instead, the brand uses humor to pitch its value proposition to potential customers.

It told a story, but it was a direct story. To see the contrast between direct and indirect stories, read on…

Direct and Indirect Stories

There may be many different types of stories out there, but they all fall into one of two categories: direct and indirect stories.

Direct stories draw up and create the selling environment for you. Consider a specific commercial by the energy drink, NOS. The commercial features two fighters in an underground ring about to fight. One fighter has a very plain appearance with no tattoos or hair. The other fighter is the opposite: tattoos and a wild hairdo.

When the fight begins, the tattooed fighter tries these advanced techniques while the plain fighter knocks him out with a single, well-placed punch. The point NOS was trying to make is that their brand and what they sell is very straight-forward, while others rely on hype.

This is a direct story–the characters are developed, the backdrop is set.

Another example of a direct story is illustrated in the book All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories, by Seth Godin:

It’s 5:30. I’ve got three pots boiling on the stove and dinner is in twenty minutes. The phone rings.

A quick glance at the caller ID screen shows me a number and area code I’m not familiar with. The text ID says, “AAATeleServices.” I’m already telling myself a story.

The lie I’m telling myself isn’t pretty. It’s a detailed monologue about someone trying to steal my time, to rip me off, to deal with me dishonestly.

As you can see, Godin creates the selling environment by richly drawing the character in it. The character of the story, Godin himself, is pressed for time; he’s got “three pots boiling on the stove and dinner is in twenty minutes.” The phone rings. It’s a telemarketer trying to waste his valuable time.

Your buyers may not have the time or patience as you set up that selling environment in direct stories. It’s a risk you take when you use them. The commercials run by the lifestyle and contraceptive brand, Trojan, are fantastic examples of the fact that direct stories rely on distinct set-ups.

In this particular commercial, Trojan uses an explosion at the end of a tunnel as a metaphor for their product. While there’s nothing wrong with that, the audience doesn’t get the point of the commercial until the end.

This is where using indirect stories comes in handy. Indirect stories don’t create a selling environment for the buyer; they don’t waste time developing characters.

By not creating the selling atmosphere, indirect stories rely on the reader to recall a similar experience as the one portrayed in the story to create it themselves.

Think of a proverb–any proverb–for an example of an indirect story. Let’s use the proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Basically, what that means is it’s better to stick with what you have than to risk it for something better.

GEICO does an excellent job with this. Distributing messaging using the same proverb in an Antiques Roadshow-style commercial, the brand implied that it’s better to stick with a car insurance you know–GEICO–than one of its competitors.

And this approach–using indirect stories (in advertising)– isn’t by accident. It’s actually based in psychology.

Understanding Indirect Stories

In order to use an indirect story, you need to know the psychological wiring that makes them effective. Robert B. Cialdini, a leading expert in the science of persuasion, authored a book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. In it, he outlined several psychological principles that can be leveraged to persuade people to do what you want.

One of the principles he outlined is called the Principle of Reciprocation. By telling an indirect story, the reader fills in the blanks with a similar experience, or a reciprocal experience. You do this all the time in your everyday life.

Consider when you identify a client’s problem. You tell them what’s wrong, why it’s happening, where you’ve seen it before, and how you’re going to fix it. That part right there–“where you’ve seen it before”–that’s crucial.

By bringing up a similar experience in order to educate a client, you’re in effect, saying, “this is like that.” In doing so, you create value and activate the psychological Principle of Authority.

The Principle of Authority is another one of Dr. Cialdini’s principles from Influence. Under that principle, people tend to obey those in authority over those who aren’t. Just think of your car or truck. Chances are, when there’s something wrong with it, you go to a mechanic, or someone who’s in-the-know about cars. In either case, you’re deferring to an authority.

So by recalling a previous experience to have a teachable moment with a client, you unintentionally create unwanted debt with your client. That is, your client may feel indebted to you for that moment.

But this isn’t the case with an indirect story. With those, you let a client create the story by themselves. More specifically, you let the client draw a reciprocal experience of theirs to help flesh the story out.

For example, Reese’s aired a commercial during the 2020 Super Bowl for one of their products called Take 5. The point of the commercial was to inform viewers that the primary ingredient of Take 5 is in fact, Reese’s peanut butter.

The commercial itself, though, relied heavily on indirect stories. The commercial was filled with idioms. Idioms often don’t need explanation because people are typically conditioned to understand them as everyday language.

You may not realize that when you take five, you’re not literally taking the number five, or the Reese’s product–you’re taking a break. That’s what I mean when I say people are conditioned to accept idioms as commonplace language.

Idioms don’t waste time creating characters or an environment–that’s because they’re indirect stories.

How Do You Tell One?

When telling an indirect story, it should be loose in detail, but rich in meaning. Again, I’m thinking of idioms where you just intrinsically know what the story means just by saying a phrase.

Certainly, not all companies have experienced success using idioms. For example, when KFC expanded into China in the ‘80s, their signature idiom, “Finger lickin’ good,” translated to “eat your fingers off.”

The question is: how do you get to the point where your audience “just knows?”

For that, you turn to proverbs. Proverbs are pieces of cultural wisdom passed down from generation to generation. For example, you may have heard “not all that glitters is gold.” This is a cautionary tale telling you to be careful because appearances deceive.

It is a proverb, and the difference between idioms and proverbs is subtle, but distinct.

The question remains, though–since idioms and proverbs are both brief in their message, how can you get a brand’s messaging or story into that little compact slice of language?

Here, you can boil down your brand’s message or story down to a sentence or two. Then you add several elements that will make the story memorable.

Urban legends are a great example of this. For instance, you may be familiar with the urban legend that there are alligators living in the sewer system. Radio station, WABC-AM, took advantage of this by airing a commercial of that particular urban legend.

In it, a radio host questions a sewer worker about alligators living in the sewer. The worker humorously denies it while shifting his eyes. The commercial works because we tend to remember things that are unusual. The humor seals the deal.


But how do you create a marketing proverb? This is where organizations like ReadWriteThink come into the picture. ReadWriteThink, an organization that provides resources to educators, parents, and students, provides information on proverbs. According to them, proverbs often require:

  • Alliteration
  • Rhyme
  • Parallel structure
  • Repetition of key words and phrases
  • Strong imagery

Look for these qualities in the following list of proverbs, also from ReadWriteThink:

  • Look before you leap.
  • Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
  • Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  • All’s well that ends well.
  • Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.
  • If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.
  • A stitch in time saves nine.

Putting it all together, if you can craft a brand’s story or messaging with attention to these features, you can create a marketing campaign that can go the distance and last. Some businesses took advantage of this.

For example, consider this vintage ad distributed by Colgate.

Colgate's 1920 toothpaste ad uses a proverb to tell an indirect story to customers.

Source: Advertising Row

This ad uses a modified proverb to tell its story. It has wisdom, a universally-known moral, and it’s a full sentence.

As you can see, indirect stories have some serious staying power. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is a proverb that’s been around for ages. You can take a lesson from these indirect stories and adapt them to your job as a marketer using the psychological principles that make them effective, just as Colgate has done.

To make a long story short, tell an indirect story.

Have you used indirect stories? Tell us your favorites in the chat below.

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MESH is a digital marketing agency that has pioneered Account-Based Marketing via our proprietary Outcome Driven Marketing (ODM) methodology. We keep our focus on tightly integrating (or MESHing) lead generation, inbound, and outbound methodologies. We help you understand the hidden levers that impact your customers’ buying decision process, develop the right marketing strategy for your unique business case, and effectively execute and measure all aspects of your Account-Based Marketing program.

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