Why Stories Sell


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.

Image via Shutterstock

  1. jay says

    Or our fondness for and the effectiveness for stories might have absolutely nothing to do w/the theory of evolution.

  2. Brendon Clark says

    Two immediate thoughts.

    First. In social psychological terms, anecdotes are more powerful persuaders than advertisements. The paint my neighbor recommends is better than the one I see on tv.

    However, other factors are at play too, particularly the likability, attractiveness and credibility of the source. Is the anecdote coming from someone I know and like, or someone demonstrably like me? After all, isn’t what we’re really talking about simply relationships and trust here? Like Jay, I find the evolutionary explanation a stretch here.

    Second. A story, especially a good story, allows me to disengage a little from reason. A great book can have me suspend disbelief and accept all kinds of outrageous possibilities. With a good marketing story, if it engages me emotionally, if I like the source, if I attribute to them some positive characteristics, then we see good evidence for a halo effect extending to the product they’re selling.

    If I get this far, then all the positive feelings I’ve got will lower frontal lobe action, reducing my critical thinking, making me more easily accept what I’m hearing, more likely to engage in some approach behavior, rank the product more favorably, buy it etc.

    I think they tried a bit hard with their explanation, and better answers are around.

  3. victor antonio says

    Roger, on the money!

    The trick “is” getting a credible testimonial that others perceive as true/genuine and not staged. When I get video testimonials, I favor those that come across real and honest and edit out those that are “over the top” (e.g., your service is the best, you are amazing, etc..).

    Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the latter, but know that others will view them as self-centered and opportunistic and will therefore not have the ‘credibility’ punch I’m looking for.

    Thanks for article….Victor

  4. Régis Kuckaertz says

    Hey, thanks very much, this is very interesting (as usual).

    I remember I already saw this exact example (Consumer Reports) used in Barry Schwartz’s “The Paradox of Choice”. It is based on research conducted by Daniel Kahneman, they call our fondness to prefer anecdotes over scientific evidences the availability heuristic.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Interesting link, Régis, thanks!


  5. Gregg Swanson says

    Very helpful information! I might take this one step further and suggest that metaphors also help drive a behavior. If a person doesn’t have a personal story and can’t borrow one, a metaphor makes a great substitute…at least this has been my experience.

  6. Larry LaFata says

    No question about it, Roger, selling through stories
    is as persuasive as you can get. A lot of my products
    are based on how important the subconscious is to achieve
    our outcomes.

    Stories and metaphors both work by getting past your consious mind to reach your subconsious mind.

    All the top marketing ‘gurus’ talk about using stories as well.

    It is not as easy as it sounds however, as Victor notes above. Having
    it not sound ‘canned’ or contrived can be very tricky.

    I’m going to agree with you that the human mind’s high level of acceptance of stories is part of the evolutional past of the human mind.

    PS I was referred to your excellent blog thru Ion Interactive

  7. Utkarsh says

    The first thing that popped into my head was Telebrands. They sell products on TV. They have stories being narrated by common people.. “I was fat, then I found morning walker”. They even reenact the entire story. They still don’t work (atleast not to me).

    “All orders will be sent by VPP” 😛

    1. Roger Dooley says

      If you keep seeing those ads, Utkarsh, they probably work well enough on other people to justify buying all that TV time!


  8. Rodney says

    I think the point of this article is important to keep in mind. Use stories over statistics when trying to sell because stories are more memorable and believable.

    It’s also good to keep in mind that we have a third way of learning which is through observation. That’s why product demonstrations done properly are so effective (and are also used on infomercials too). We generalize from what we observe even if it isn’t happening to us.

  9. Marc Millan says

    I just think we are connected in a spiritual sense to something emotional and those can be found in stories we relate to. This is why we cheer for underdogs, we root for teams or cry at movies, there is something within a story and it’s relevant truth that resonates within us. We are all searching for that real experience over and over again.

  10. Rob Sherman says

    Continuing upon what Victor wrote …

    Facts tell, stories sell – a common mantra among sales professionals. A mix, however, may be most compelling. Telling you the following fact may have little impact:

    Over 75% of the US population is online.

    The same fact with a projected personal story/outcome at the end increases the impact significantly.

    75% of the US population is online so you better become effective at reaching them there or you’re going to lose them to your competitors.

    The other element that’s of key importance today is to deliver the story with authentic language and tone in keeping with the audience you need to reach. If the tone seems inauthentic, “over the top” as Victor put it, or depending upon your audience, overly hip, or overly prepared, whatever, if the tone doesn’t resonate with us, we disconnect and the message and impact of the story is lost.

  11. Paul Ward says

    I don’t think anyone should doubt that the brain and its functions are the result of evolution. I do think we should doubt that this fact makes the brain’s functions more logical or explainable. Not all (in fact not many) of evolution’s “choices” provide a permanent advantage that can be seen and explained.

    Nevertheless, research such as that done by Kahneman shows us that the brain’s functions can be understood at least in controlled experiments, and that these functions may contrast our “intuitive” (usually value- and self image-based) expectations.

    Marketers who don’t know this research, in my opinion, are failing to grasp the biggest opportunity in front of them: use the result of controlled research to your advantage, and to create new experiments that you measure. Marketers have the technical tools (in fact, they’ve been applying them often in brutish experiments in, say, direct marketing). They just need to get the neuromarketing fever.

    And, in my view, they need to maintain very, very high ethical standards. Neuromarketing improves our ability to manipulate people. This is not always good, in the deepest sense.

  12. Chris Corbett says

    Great points, and I’ve seen stories work in the fundraising environment (as has also been demonstrated by decades of testing).

    But I caution against the evolutionary explanation. That’s conjecture, and an equally persuasive explanation is that we have been created to in a way that hardwires us respond to stories (the downside being that we are susceptible to the manipulation that sometimes accompanies an overemphasis on stories).

    For instance, you could argue: (1) Humans have been created to be inherently relational beings, and thus gravitate to stories of other people that they can relate to. (2) Humans have been created to be tangible beings–not merely “minds” but entities emotions and bodies and eyes and other sensory apparati–and thus gravitate to the tangible rather than the abstract. (3) Humans have been hardwired to have emotions, and stories speak to emotions.

    At any rate, the power of stories for good or ill is demonstrable no matter what explanatory paradigm you use as to how we got that way.

  13. Robin Jennings says

    I spent quite a number of years working at an art gallery and dealt with hundreds of customers over a long period of time.

    In almost every case when i discussed the personal story of the artist and told an anecdote on the peice, the clients attention was immediately raised. They may not have purchased a peice that day and often they would forget what peice they actually liked, but they always remembered the story.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Great example of story power, Robin! That reminds me of TV coverage of the Olympics, where they will do a human interest story on an individual athlete so you will actually care when the actual (often obscure) event is taking place. “She’s the one who wants to win a medal for her sister, who’s dying of leukemia.”


  14. cyril says

    is it advisable to feign a customer testimonial

    1. Roger Dooley says

      So many testimonials are anonymous or nearly so (as presented on websites), that they might be fake. Or not. How do I know that the rave review from “JP, Atlanta” is real, vs. written by the company itself? The most powerful testimonials are those that have real names, real companies, photos, etc.

      Could you fake a testimonial? Sure. But if your product has not garnered a single comment worth publishing, maybe it would be worth focusing on that problem instead of writing phony comments. Be sure you are providing an easy way for customers to let you know how you are doing – soon, you’ll have a pile of potential testimonials.


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