The Psychology of Storytelling
Philip Pullman once said: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
There are few mediums more captivating than a well told story. From ‘what happened next?’ to personal connections we make through characters and events, everyone loves them.
What you may not know is that stories are a very integral part of being persuasive.
Those in sales and marketing have known for a long time that stories trump data when it comes to persuasion because stories are easier to understand and relate to.
I won’t keep you waiting with a cliffhanger, but if you’re interested in understanding power of storytelling found through research, keep reading.
Why You Need to Incorporate Storytelling
But why should you have to incorporate this flowery style into your writing?
A lot of folks are averse to telling stories because they believe that “the facts” are the most persuasive pieces of content they can deliver.
It’s not, and here’s a visualization that helps to explain why:
Is it better to say nothing in a memorable fashion?
No, of course not.
Instead, know that how you say something is just as important as what you are saying.
Refusal to recognize this places you at risk of having your good information become lost in a sea of less-worthy content. You also miss out on the connections to be made via a strong narrative.
Here’s the thing: While we are all often resistant to the idea of being told what to do, we are very susceptible to agreeing with the “moral of the story” due to how it is presented to us.
How Stories Affect the Mind
Do stories really hold that much influence?
According to research by psychologists Green & Brock, they do.
In fact, it’s likely that you greatly underestimate how much stories affect you.
The reason that stories work so well on us is that we are susceptible to getting “swept up” in both their message and in the manner of their telling.
Quite literally, stories are able to transport our mind to another place, and in this place we may embrace things we’d likely scoff at in the “harsh, real world”.
Think about it: You’ll often see politicians create a “story” for their campaign, and focus a lot of their efforts speaking with the public in crafting and standing by these stories.
Creating the story of “blue collar guy who is harsh on crime and supports states rights” is easier to understand than discussing the complexities of how the administration plans to actually tackle the crime rate.
You see this being utilized every day on platforms as big as TED talks to speeches by world leaders.
Instead of only discussing the information, they begin talks with phrases like, “Imagine if you will…”, and as we’ve seen, it’s with very good reason: stories help sell arguments of all types, from, “I believe that these liberal/conservative points of view are correct,” to, “I believe this product is suited for my goals.”
This information is useless, however, unless we address how to write better stories.
How to Create Better Stories
The #1 trait of a persuasive story is how “engaging” the story is.
There are a million writers out there that will go on and on about how to craft amazing stories, but is any of that (potentially good) advice backed up by research?
In fact, there is an additional study conducted by Green & Brock that addresses just what makes a story engaging.
Here’s what they found:
1.) Suspense works just as well as you’d expect
The “cliffhanger” just may be the oldest trick in the writing book, especially writing for television, but there is a reason why it’s used so often…
Despite our numerous exposure to this method, our brain just can’t “get over” suspenseful moments: it’s a relationship that just won’t die, we will always want to know what happens next.
In fact, suspense works so well that the hotly debated Zeigarnik Effect would have you believe that it’s the best way to kill procrastination.
Research in that area seems to point to humans being much more inclined to finish something that has already been started (researchers interrupted people doing “brain buster” tasks before they could complete them… nearly 90% of people went on to finish the task anyway, despite being told they could stop).
Suspense in stories really allows you to create an addictive narrative, as long as the suspense appears early enough to capture interest, and doesn’t keep people hanging on forever
2.) Creating detailed imagery helps craft the setting YOU want
Want to get people swept up in your stories?
Tell them what they are getting swept up in to, and they will respond.
Could any of us relate to the heroic deeds in tales like those of the Lord of the Rings without Tolkien’s exquisitely detailed descriptions of the dangers of Mordor or the perils faced by Frodo and Sam?
The imagery paints the picture of any good story, we could say that [Spoilers if you haven’t read/seen Lord of the Rings] “Frodo and Sam fight a giant spider,” but Tolkien spends an entire chapter on the ordeal, taking the time to help the reader visualize the ferocious nature of the enemy and the bravery of our heroes who persevere despite their many weaknesses (doubt, fear, dismay, etc.)
Implementing the “real” into a fantastic setting often helps create a better connection with the reader.
I don’t know the feeling of encountering a spider the size of a house, but I do know what terror feels like, and I also know how hard it can be to persevere in the face of immense doubt of your abilities.
These “all-too-real” elements of a fantastical story make it easier to relate to.
3.) Literary techniques (like metaphors or irony) are essential pieces of memorable stories
As with most highschool kids in the United States, I was required to read a lot of the “staples” of highschool literature.
By far my favorite work was Animal Farm, a story that serves as a great example of the power of the many literary techniques at your disposal.
In the beginning, the story in Animal Farm seems quirky at best: When the de-facto leader of the animals, Old Major, dies, two pigs called Snowball and Napoleon take over and see out his “vision”, which they interpret to be the driving out of Mr. Jones, the farm owner.
Snowball is eventually chased away by Napoleon, and Napoleon begins to enact new rules for the Animal Farm, which begin to become warped as Napoleon and the pigs become more like their previous masters, culminating with the memorable phrase revealing what the rules have truly become:
ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.
Needless to say, there is a lot at work under the surface of this story, as it is an allegorical tale that relates the events of the rise of Stalin and the Soviet Union before the second World War II.
Suddenly, a book about pigs taking over a farm begins to serve as a cautionary tale on how political dogma can be turned into malleable propaganda.
There are many literary techniques and a countless amount of examples, I’m simply serving up this particular one to show you a singular instance of a writer using them to turn a seemingly simplistic story into a extraordinarily memorable and highly controversial work of art.
4.) Modelling works because change is easier with an example
If you want someone to change a behavior (or become more inclined to taking a desired action), then you can “model” it with a story.
The character in said story should go through the transformation that you would like the reader to go through.
The transportation effect is really evident here: people place themselves in the situation being told, reimagining themselves as the main character.
Oftentimes, they are made to see why the choices made were the right choices.
Strangely enough, I often see web hosting providers showcase stories of customers past “cheap web-hosting nightmares” in which the customer describes a situation where they were freaking out from their site being down after receiving massive exposure, eventually “learning their lesson” and vowing to never again use anything but ______ [insert whoever is selling].
Positive stories are also used quite often, stories where individuals solve a huge menace in their life or get to where most people would like to be serve as transportation vehicles to recruiting new people to the cause.
If you run a fitness based business (as an example), highlighting a tale of triumph over the generalized disadvantages of being out-of-shape to accomplish what previously seemed like “impossible” fitness results is a great way to get people fired up to become more interested in fitness.
6 More Characteristics of Highly Persuasive Stories
Dooley discusses what a difficult time lawyers have in persuading the jury during a tough case, and the comparison he makes to your typical “car salesman” is spot on:
One of the toughest persuasion tasks is convincing a jury in a courtroom.
Car salespeople have it easy by comparison – they control the environment and have the undivided attention of the customer.
Imagine if you were in a Lexus showroom listening to why you should buy one of their vehicles, and at your elbow was a BMW salesperson, periodically objecting to the Lexus pitch and then delivering her own.
That’s the situation in a courtroom – arguments presented by one side will be directly (and mercilessly) attacked by the other side.
So, how do the top lawyers overcome this?
Researchers Melanie Green (of UNC, mentioned above as well) and Dr. Philip Mazzocco (OSU) conducted research on that very question, and their results reveal 6 interesting characteristics of persuasive stories, which we can compare to the earlier study.
Their research was called Narrative Persuasion in Legal Settings: What’s the Story?, and in the piece they discuss why stories are much more influential than facts (again, a conclusion backed by numerous studies) through their ability to change emotional beliefs in a way that “logical” arguments just can’t touch.
Knowing what we know about how emotions effect people’s reaction to written content, we can conclude that this is some research that warrants a closer look.
So, what were the 6 characteristics?
Similar to how a good joke turns into a great joke with perfect delivery, Mazzoco and Green’s research pointed to delivery in the courtroom being of the utmost importance.
This translates to writing in a similar fashion: pacing and deliver of the story matter as much as the content.
What does that mean?
Well, it is largely determined by the author’s ability to keep the “flow” of the story going and to deliver during pivotal moments, the same way a good prosecutor may begin to bare down on a witness that starts to show signs of “cracking”.
Memorability also matters as well, check out this hugely viral story on Reddit entitled “Today you, tomorrow me.”
You’ll notice the main line is delivered in a way that creates a lasting impression.
Without very specific and stirring visual cues in a story, listeners (or readers) may not be as totally immersed as they could have been with something to “see.”
If a prosecutor wants to convict a man of assault, he is (without a doubt) going to paint a picture for the audience of the suffering of the defendant, and will likely use expressive language to evoke a feeling of sympathy from the jury, who (as they listen) visualize the potential suffering of the man/woman in front of them. (Words like: victim, violated, abused, atrocious, attack, malicious, etc.)
Many studies show that the brain “lights up” in reacting to imagery, truly transporting the reader to the events being described (recall any good story you’ve read or heard, you know that you placed yourself “there” during it’s telling).
As I mentioned, I love finding complimentary evidence because it helps us in being more certain that the strategies we are using are accurate.
That being said, check out this quote from Dooley on the importance of realism:
Even if you are painting a fictional picture with the story, its elements need to relate to the reality that the audience is familiar with, for example, basic human motivations.
Doesn’t that remind you almost exactly of what I was talking about with the Lord of the Rings example? (in the earlier study)
It seems that we can conclusively say that the human mind is able to relate to and absorb stories much better if there is a “human” element in the story that is easy for the audience to imagine, even when the actual tale may not be.
One example I can’t help but think for this point is the film Memento and it’s subsequent praise & criticism for it’s plot structure.
The debate is over the telling of the main character’s story, which happens entirely in reverse (he has amnesia, and the viewer watches the ending of the movie and slowly views events preceding it).
The critics of the film point to the fact that it is quite hard to enjoy the film a second time: the suspense is really just imaginary because the plot is so confusing when you watch it backwards.
Great movies, they would argue, can be enjoyed again even when you know what’s coming.
That’s because they use an effective structure that keeps you glued to the screen to see what’s next, even if you already know (obviously losing it’s effect over time for most people)
This research would agree, showing that people prefer stories that follow a logical manner, and that elements of suspense are most effective when established early to keep people engaged.
Context can often have a significant impact on the persuasiveness of a story.
If the teller of a story comes off as not being genuine, as incompetent, or as just an “unlikable” person, it can have an averse effect on the story itself.
I’ve often noticed that stories on places like Reddit tend to flop when they are over-exaggerated or use language that is too flowery (not “real”).
Dooley also addresses the importance of more basic surroundings (in a literal sense), such as the detrimental effects of a noisy courtroom or a cluttered and messy website for instances online.
It is often a good idea to address these concerns of the audience by establishing the storyteller (be it you or someone else) as sincere and credible enough to listen to.
Certainly the factor that you have the least “control” over, both in the courtroom and for your content.
People vary to such a great degree that the same story can have either a large or very minimal impact on them.
Dooley mentions that jurors often go through a selection process and that lawyers are careful in keeping their eye out for “suitable” or “unsuitable” members.
While you won’t necessarily be doing the same thing with customers, you can do the same thing with your content: a thriving, engaged audience is only created when you determine who you don’t want reading your content along with who you do.
Be sure to establish in your unique selling proposition (and your subsequent content) just what kind of reader your really after, and what kind you aren’t.
Beyond the “Digital Campfire”
If you’re familiar with the works of Steven Pinker, you’ll recognize the incredible importance that language has played in human history in the preservation of information (stories being used to because they were easier to remember).
Today, a huge contribution of the internet is to serve as our generation’s “digital campfire”.
When it comes to selling, however, facts remain an important compliment to stories.
The research by Mazzocco and Green also discusses evidence that points to two ways in which the human mind processes information:
- Rational appraisal
Experiential is the way most closely associated with stories, as it is when our minds (as the researchers put it):
“…[construct] an imaginary world filled with quasi-experiences.”
Meaning, we can relate to stories due to their general message, even when we haven’t had the same exact experience.
Even more interesting?
The researchers would suggest we can only operate with one at a time.
This would insinuate that you should use both the power of stories and the “logical” argument in different phases.
We make our decision emotionally (and, to varying degrees, unconsciously), and then let our rational processes justify that decision with facts.
Use stories to activate the experiential side of your reader’s brain, and you’ll have won their attention and interest.
When you back those stories up with facts, you’ll have won their trust.
Over To You
Not as much to ask you about for this article, although as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for reading, please share this article if you enjoyed it.
Image by Laura Zalenga