Six Characteristics of Highly Persuasive Stories
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. One trial-proven persuasion strategy is the use of stories.
Researchers Philip Mazzocco and Melanie Green draw a contrast between rhetorical persuasion, in essence arguing with facts and logic, and the use of narratives to influence decisions. They conclude that stories are more effective at changing emotional beliefs that logical arguments have difficulty reaching.
The whole discussion is an interesting read, but for me one big takeaway is the list of factors that have been found to make stories more persuasive:
- Delivery Counts. For spoken narratives (as one normally finds in a courtroom), a good storyteller is more persuasive than a mediocre one. Dramatic pacing, use of imagery, and other factors affect the impact the story has on the listener. (If your story will be told in written form, it’s safe to assume that effective use of language and an appropirate narrative style will have that same effect.) And, as I described in Stories Synchronize Brains, when a story is told properly, there’s a sort of mind-meld connection between the teller and listener.
- Vivid Imagery. Immersive images will enable the audience to “see” the characters and scenes being described, and will trump dry factual information that lacks that impact. (If you have any doubts, brain scans show vivid action imagery lights up the reader’s or listener’s brain as if he were performing those same actions: Your Brain on Stories
- Realism and Understandability. 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. Needless to say, the audience must be able to understand the story – the authors point out that Shakespeare resonates with readers because he was so in tune with human nature, but a younger audience might not make that connection for language reasons. A response to the article by Glen Kuper notest that stories must be coherent (“narrative probability”) and consistent with the listeners past experiences (“narrative fidelity”)
- Structure. Stories need to flow in a logical manner, and usually have a beginning, middle, and end. Suspense can keep an audience tuned in. Starting with a provocative question or curious situation will make listeners want to hear what comes next.
- Context and Surroundings. The same story may vary in its persuasive impact depending on the context in which it is told. A story told by a pushy salesperson will be less believable because listeners will attribute ulterior motives to the person telling it. At a more basic level, problematic surroundings (like a noisy environment, or, presumably, a web page with distracting elements near the text) can also reduce the story’s effectiveness.
- Audience. This is one factor you may not have direct control over: people vary in their ability to be transported by stories. Stories will be less likely to persuade audience members who lack the imagination to visualize what they are hearing or reading. While the authors suggest a simple test that could be used to evaluate potential jurors, most of us won’t be able to evaluate customers in that manner. If you could identify your less imaginative prospects, though, you could attempt to persuade them with logic and argument rather than a narrative.
Rational vs. Experiential
Mazzocco and Green find evidence that human brains process information in two ways, rational appraisal and “experiential.” The first includes digesting facts, comparing new information to one’s knowledge and past experience, etc. The second, in contrast, “involves the construction of an imaginary world filled with quasi-experiences.” It’s the experiential processing – creating the experience (that didn’t really happen) in the customer’s mind that can be reached most effectively by stories.
The authors suggest that we can only think in one mode at a time, so the persuader should shift approaches depending on which style would be most effective in supporting each phase of the argument.
There’s another way to look at this duality: We make our decision emotionally (and, to varying degrees, unconsciously), and then let our rational processes justify that decision with facts.
So, here’s the Neuromarketing takeaway: even if you can persuade at the emotional level with a story, you may still need to provide factual persuasion elements to keep the customer’s entire brain happy.