We know that anecdotes can be a convincing way to sell a product, particularly if the story is told by someone we trust. (See Your Brain on Stories.) Evolutionary psychology may offer a reason. Human brains evolved when we had just two ways to learn about dangers and rewards in their environment: personal experience, and communication from other trusted humans. As Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons point out in The Invisible Gorilla,

You might know from reading Consumer Reports that Hondas and Toyotas have excellent reliability. Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, surveys thousands of car owners and compiles their responses to generate their reliability ratings. But your one friend who complains that his Toyota is perpetually in the shop and insists that he would never buy another one can have more power than the aggregated reports of thousands of strangers…

We naturally generalize from one example to the population as a whole, and our memories for such inferences are inherently sticky. Individual examples lodge in our minds, but statistics and averages do not… Our ancestors lacked acccess to huge data sets, statistics, and experimental methods. By necessity, we learned from specific examples, not by compiling data from many people across a wide range of situations.

This is why infomercials always include personal success stories told by the individuals themselves. (Another reason might be that they lack the statistically valid research to back up their claims.) Even if you can show that two thirds of the people who used your diet aid lost weight, having one credible individual tell her personal story can be much more potent.

Beyond Testimonials

Short testimonials are not a bad thing at all. Letting potential customers know that other real people used your product with success is always a good thing. But turning a testimonial into a personal anecdote will greatly increase its impact. Adding a name, a face, and story will play to the way our brains evolved, and will be both more convincing and more memorable.

This also explains why word-of-mouth is such a powerful tool: if the story is told not by a celebrity or paid endorser, but by someone we actually know, it will be even more potent.

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