Six Characteristics of Highly Persuasive Stories


Jury in courtroomOne 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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”)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

  1. Rick Duris says

    Not trying to argue but I’m surprised. I’m surprised “relevancy to the intended audience” wasn’t at the top of the list. – Rick

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Good point, Rick. Since the authors were focused on trial jury persuasion, I guess relevance is assumed. Even if the topic isn’t interesting to a juror, he/she has no choice but to try to pay attention in order to make an informed decision.

    In the world of marketing, irrelevant messages will be tuned out far more quickly than relevant ones.

  3. Rick Duris says

    Roger, too kind, you are.

    “Since the authors were focused on trial jury persuasion, I guess relevance is assumed.”

    Or maybe relevancy is so obvious it isn’t worth mentioning. 🙂

    – Rick

  4. Famous Alice says

    Thanks for the succinct reminder of how and why stories work so well. I am posting these six points to my bulletin board!

    Just Saturday I spoke to a group of SAG-AFTRA actors on Personal Branding and my opening used these principles. The actors loved it! Now I have the science behind why.

  5. Roger Dooley says

    I find that’s often the case, Alice – sometimes, for example, brain scan data doesn’t tell us anything new about human behavior, but it can explain some of the “why” and “how!” Thanks for sharing that experience!


  6. David Murray says

    Hi Roger
    Do you have any examples of the use of stories in marketing. I’m thinking of print advertising. It would be nice to see some examples of this.

  7. Roger Dooley says

    David, stories are very common in all media. Testimonials are often most effective when presented as a story. For example, instead of, “I lost 53 pounds with Magic Wate-Off!” something like, “Two years ago, my 1st-grade son told me his friends wouldn’t visit his house because I was too fat. They made fun of him because of my weight. I cried for an hour after he went to bed. Then, I saw a commercial for Magic Wate-Off…”

    Here’s another example:

  8. Ronny Business Broker says

    Can you please help me to have a good story for my book printing company.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Ronny, you’ll have to come up with your own story… Perhaps a success story for one of your authors/projects?


  9. Steve says

    I started using stories as the format in my next book instead of the dry text book style from my first book (business books on Business Operations). The response from the members of my writer’s group from the first short story prompted me to add more. With the feedback of how well they work, and how they better understand the points I’m trying to make, I’ve revamped the whole book. From real world stories from past experiences to wildly fictitious ones, I’m seeing the impact.

    I don’t understand all the brain science, but I see the results.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That makes a lot of sense, Steve – who likes to read text books? Good luck with your project!


  10. Jason Hull says

    I think this shows why readers are more engaged with websites where the author “bleeds all over the page.” The author is trying to invoke pathos in an attempt to get the reader to sympathize or empathize with him. It’s also possible to use storytelling to weave both ethos and logos into the tale, hitting all of the rhetorical buttons while taking the reader along in the journey.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Jason, the combination of story and emotion are indeed powerful. It’s funny – just about everyone agrees that stories engage visitors, but so few sites actually use the technique…

  11. Loraine Antrim says

    Whether delivering a presentation or creating marketing materials, stories can create connections that really resonate for an audience. However…not everyone can “tell” or deliver a story. It’s like telling a joke, some can, some can’t. It takes practice and skill, all of which can be learned. I would just caution readers to think about how they package stories. If you don’t have the skills yet, a badly constructed and badly told story can be worse than none at all! Loraine Antrim

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good point, Loraine. I do think most people are better story-tellers than joke-tellers, as the latter requires special skills to deliver: timing, inflection, precise wording, and nailing the punchline. We’ve all heard jokes that fell flat because the teller botched a small but critical element.

      On the other hand, people are natural story-tellers, and a story told with very average skill will hold the audience’s attention more than facts and figures. Of course, stories can be botched, too… Too much irrelevant detail is one cardinal sin – it causes us to tune out and makes it harder to follow the arc of the narrative.


  12. Greg Geilman says

    So true about the testimonials aspect of story-telling. We find that our customers have a much easier time convincing visitors to our website of their experience with us than we could ever do on our own. And they do it by telling their story. Here are a few examples of our recent video testimonials:

  13. John Toumpakke says

    Right on about the delivery!

    It’s more than just the ‘words.’ The power of pauses… associations and easy understanding are among the most persuasive elements of storytelling.

    And the realism of a personal story – especially about setbacks and overcoming hardships is extra influential.

    I’m new here and I love your stuff Roger 🙂

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for stopping by, John, hope you get some good ideas here!


  14. […] really enjoyed a recent analysis (and the actual research) discussed in a piece by Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence (great book, that’s my aff […]

  15. […] really enjoyed a recent analysis (and the actual research) discussed in a piece by Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence (great book, that’s my aff […]

  16. […] really enjoyed a recent analysis (and the actual research) discussed in a piece by Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence (great book, that’s my aff […]

  17. […] Stories are persuasive. (Ok, I’ll bite.) (link) […]

  18. Steve Turnbull says

    Hi Roger, as a film-maker and games developer I’m fascinated by stories (Hero’s Journey model in particular) and loved this piece. I’m also into all things brain-related.

    Perhaps you’d like to check out our acclaimed (and now completely free) brain/memory game Memneon:

    Kind regards,

    Steve @ Alchemista UK

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