The Science of Persuading With Stories

Most of us who write persuasive copy have heard many times that stories do a better job of connecting to and persuading audiences than flat, rational arguments. It is a pretty central assumption of marketing and advocacy writing. So I was surprised to learn that while social psychologists have been studying rhetoric-based persuasion for 60 years, story-based persuasion has only been studied for the last 15 or so. In “Narrative Persuasion in Legal Settings” Philip Mazzocco and Melanie Green write about this science for lawyers interested in persuading juries, but most of what they have to say applies to anyone interested in persuasion. (Thanks to Roger Dooley for pointing out the article.)

The authors identify two reasons why stories are more effective than fact-based arguments at persuading audiences. First, while some opinions people hold are rational and thought-out, many others—they use the example of liking ice cream—are emotional. You cannot change an emotionally charged opinion with rational argument, but you can get readers or listeners to empathize with a hero in a story and thereby affect the emotions they have connected to that subject. Second, presenting a rational argument immediately activates the reader or listener’s critical mind, inviting him or her to analyze and counterargue. But if you can immerse that person in a story, you bypass that resistance.

Because human mental processing resources are fundamentally limited, we propose individuals can only engage in one processing mode at a time. Hence, when deeply immersed in a story, recipients are less likely to scrutinize relating themes and claims.

So what makes a story experience persuasive? Mazzocco and Green identify six elements. Three of them can be taken as straightforward tips to persuasive writers: you need (1) vivid imagery, (2) a grounding in emotional reality, and (3) good structure, with a beginning, middle, and end, hopefully with some stakes and suspense to move things along.

Two more are only partly in the storyteller’s control: context and audience. You cannot tell a persuasive story if you are always being interrupted, or if you are trying to force a story on someone who doesn’t want to hear it right now. Similarly, you cannot persuade a person who simply has a poor ability to immerse him- or herself imaginatively in a story. Marketers and other persuasive writers have some ability to select contexts and audiences when they tell stories, and must exercise that ability as much as possible.

The last element seems almost a classic example of begging the question: to tell a persuasive story, you need a good storyteller.

Some storytellers are simply more capable of evoking immersive imagery, pacing a story for dramatic effect, and describing characters and events in a way that creates an emotional impact, and these storytellers are likely to achieve maximum persuasive impact.

While “become a better storyteller” is not an especially helpful tip for storytellers, it is a useful reminder for editors and other publications managers: the ability to tell a good story counts. Value it.

There is much more good stuff in the original article. Check it out.

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One Comment

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