Why Stories Sell: Transportation Leads to Persuasion

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Psychological research on persuasion suggests that stories which transport people are more likely to be persuasive.

Marketers have known for years that stories are a powerful tool for persuading people. That’s partly because stories (unlike statistics) are easy to understand.

That’s why politicians try to persuade us by telling stories about their vision of the world. They do spout statistics as well, but normally only in support of some kind of grand narrative.

We instinctively understand that people resist being told what to do, but will respond to the moral of a story. So we try to persuade each other with little stories about ‘someone we know’. Then we simplify and embellish them to make the moral clear.

Engage to persuade

Research suggests that trying to persuade people by telling them stories does indeed work (Green & Brock, 2000). The question is why? Because if we know why, we can make the stories we tell more persuasive.

Stories work so well to persuade us because, if they’re well told, we get swept up in them, we are transported inside them.

Transportation is key to why they work. Once inside the story we are less likely to notice things which don’t match up with our everyday experience.

For example an aspirational Hollywood movie with a can-do spirit might convince us that we can tackle any problem, despite what we know about how the real world works.

Also, when concentrating on a story people are less aware that they are subject to a persuasion attempt: the message gets in under the radar.

Two sorts of people who may be particularly susceptible to being persuaded by stories are those who seek out emotional situations and those who enjoy thinking (Thompson & Haddock, 2011).

Stories which contain emotional elements draw in those looking for an emotional charge. Meanwhile the twists and turns of the plot and the meaning of the story draw in those looking to rev up their brains.

Whether through emotion or thought, stories that engage are more likely to persuade. The higher the emotional and semantic content of a story, then, the more likely they are to distract people from the persuasion attempt.

Crafting better stories

Highly persuasive stories need to be engaging. Here are some more factors that make an engaging and persuasive story (from Green & Brock, 2005):

  • Literary techniques like foregrounding, which is using things like irony or metaphor to make the banal and everyday seem new and fresh. It’s about shaking the reader out of the mundane.
  • Imagery is important as it helps the story come alive in the reader’s mind.
  • Suspense keep us reading for the oldest of reasons: to find out what happens next.
  • Modelling: if you want someone to change a behaviour, then you can model it. The character in the story has to go through the transformation that you want the reader to go through.

For inspiration break down your favourite novels, TV shows or films to see how the narrative works. Oddly whether the story is true or not doesn’t seem to matter that much, people are persuaded by fiction just as much as fact.

There are all sorts of innovative applications. Doctors at Harvard Medical School are given stories and novels to read to encourage humane treatment of their patients. Lawyers continually use stories in court to persuade. Public health bodies lobby TV shows to get their health issues included in popular narratives.

Persuading through narrative is as old as the hills and it works. So what’s your story?

Image credit: Stephen Poff

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 18 January 2012

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