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?
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Stephen Poff
Psychology of Persuasion
→ This post is part of a series on persuasion techniques:
- How to Influence People
- The Persuasive Power of Swearing
- Loudest Voice = Majority Opinion
- Don’t Take No For An Answer
- The Influence of Fleeting Attraction
- Caffeine Makes Us Easier to Persuade
- Persuasion: The Right-Ear Advantage
- Balanced Arguments Are More Persuasive
- The Battle Between Thoughts and Emotions in Persuasion
- Are Fast Talkers More Persuasive?
- Persuasion: The Sleeper Effect
- Communicating Persuasively: Email or Face-to-Face?
- The Influence of Positive Framing
- The Illusion of Truth
- 9 Propaganda Techniques in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11
- Persuasion: The Third-Person Effect
- 20 Simple Steps to the Perfect Persuasive Message
- Why Stories Sell: Transportation Leads to Persuasion
- How To Encourage People To Change Their Own Minds
- When Does Reverse Psychology Work?
- The One (Really Easy) Persuasion Technique Everyone Should Know
- The Single Most Effective Method for Influencing People Fast
- 9 Ways The Mind Resists Persuasion and How To Sustain or Overcome Them
- How To Make Persuasive Eye Contact