What Crime Great Elmore Leonard Understood About Marketing and Storytelling

By September 18, 2013In The News
What Crime Great Elmore Leonard Understood About Marketing and Storytelling

Crime writer Elmore Leonard died recently at age 87, having penned more than 40 books, as well as screenplays and short stories. The movie Get Shorty with John Travolta was from a Leonard novel, Quentin Tarantino made Rum Punch into the movie Jackie Brown, and the hit FX cable show Justified stars Leonard’s Raylan Givens, a quirky U.S. marshal who “shoots to kill.”

Leonard’s place in the literary pantheon may be debated, but no one can dispute that the consummate storyteller excelled as a communicator who knew how to grab interest and hold it, something much marketing neglects to do.

I unearthed these smart marketing gems among Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing:

“Never Open A Book With Weather”

Unless it’s a hurricane, weather is trivial. Consider these openings from Leonard’s short stories:

They had dug coal together as young men and then lost touch over the years. Now it looked like they’d be meeting again, this time as lawman and felon, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder.–“Fire in the Hole”

At Kim’s funeral—people coming up to Ben with their solemn faces—he couldn’t help thinking of what his granddad Carl had said to him fifteen years ago, that he hoped Ben would have better luck with women.–“Tenkiller”

A time would come, within a few years, when Ruben Vega would go to the church in Benson, kneel in the confessional, and say to the priest, . . .–“The Tonto Woman”

Don’t you want to know what comes next? Smart marketers work to elicit this type of urgency in their communications.

“Try To Leave Out The Part That Readers Tend To Skip”

As a writer of fast-paced crime narratives, Leonard disliked long descriptions and huge blocks of text without dialogue–things that on a webpage, where readers are scanning for what they want to know, can be deadly. From a homepage, name changed to protect the guilty:

HomesRUs has been exceedingly committed to providing high quality service throughout its many years of industry experience. Satisfied homeowners can attest to our professionalism, superior work and affordable rates. We offer the same quality workmanship and materials to all customers, regardless of the size of their project. For these and other reasons, contacting us should be your next step after you decide to renovate or remodel your home.”

Are you still there, reader?

My eyes glazed over when I read that generic paragraph. Does anybody claim to be unprofessional, inferior and unaffordable? It’s vague (is “many years” five or five hundred?), confusing (“for these and other reasons”) and verbose. How about changing the last sentence, which seems intended as a call to action, to: “Contact us for renovations or remodels”? I’m not sure I know the difference, in fact. If there isn’t any, why use both words?

Skip the marketing blather and show us how you’re special. Better, let your customers tell us, preferably with photographs. Would you rather read about “satisfied homeowners” or hear what they actually have to say?

“Use Regional Dialect, Patois, Sparingly.”

Obviously there’s an audience for Shakespearean dialogue, for example, and readers who enjoy a particular form. That’s not the point. A little bit of dialect goes a long way.

For a non-literary writer like Leonard, writing was more about communicating a good story than having perfect prose. Similarly, Ken Follett has been criticized for using modern English dialogue in his historical thrillers. Follett’s not ignorant of the fact that people spoke differently in earlier centuries. He chose accessibility over accuracy. Not every historical fiction fan wants this, but Follett’s audience does, as his sales attest.

Marketing is about communicating first. Be extremely careful with industry terminology and marketing hype. I’m amazed by how often I’m subjected to meaningless descriptors such as “technology solutions” (to what exactly?) and technical terms that probably are over the heads of most readers. How will your technology make my life easier? If you include terminology, explain its significance as a selling point.

But please be sparing.

Remember that, like fiction writing, marketing communications at core is about telling a captivating story. This may, but not always, be the story of how your company was founded, but stories that illustrate how you help people, whether how-tos, testimonials, work samples or even biographies.

All can be captivating when communicated well. Elmore Leonard fans enjoy his skillful command of narrative, his colorful characters and his witty dialogue. Take a page from this master.

What makes your eyes glaze over in a company’s marketing communications? Tell us below.

Linda Rastelli

Linda Rastelli

Linda Rastelli is an award-winning journalist, scriptwriter, publicist and co-author of "Marketing: Essential techniques and strategies geared toward results" (John Wiley & Sons, 2007). She enjoys helping businesses sharpen and communicate their marketing messages and the challenge of making complex or technical ideas accessible. Journalism taught her to ask the right questions and to get to the point, scriptwriting taught her to think visually, and writing books taught her patience (but not quickly enough).
Linda Rastelli