Using stories in persuasion has been recommended by renowned marketers like Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki.
Tell a compelling narrative, and people are more likely to buy.
But is this really true? If so, why do stories work so well?
According to research by Melanie Green and Timothy Brock at Ohio State University, story is persuasive because of its ability to transport.
Stories persuade by transporting us
A good story plucks the audience from the reality of their daily lives and transports them to a world with a simpler, clearer narrative.
Psychologists Green and Brock define transportation as a process where “all mental systems and capacities become focused on events occurring in the narrative.”
When experiencing a compelling story the listener is mentally transported into the world of the narrative. This is so powerful that they often don’t notice physical changes in their environment (like a person entering the room).
They also experience a suspension of disbelief, becoming unaware of any real-world facts or details that may contradict the story.
This is why we accept inaccurate or implausible details, such as talking animals, in films and books.
Stories persuade by transforming us
More important to the discussion of creating narratives that persuade in a business sense, is a narrative’s ability to transform.
Entering the story’s world changes the way the listener processes information.
Their beliefs become more consistent with the story, and they develop more positive attitudes towards the characters in the story.
Paraphrased from the Green/Brock study:
When we are transported into a story, we tend to show beliefs consistent with the conclusions of the story. We also tend to have a positive attitude toward the hero in the story. It is likely that individuals altered their real-world beliefs in response to experiences in a story world.
Think about the persuasive power of your own personal story or the story of your business. Would it be good for your market to have a “positive attitude toward the hero in your story”? Would it be beneficial if your market had beliefs consistent with the conclusions of your story?
3 ways to tell a story that transports and transforms
Now that we know the two factors that make a persuasive story – transportation and transformation – how can we achieve them? The following elements are proven to help:
#1 – Create a mental picture
According to this 2004 study, creating a mental representation of a positive scenario helps change a person’s attitudes and intentions.
The study showed that when using mental simulation in advertising, it “leads to a higher evaluation of the product, as well as the advertisement that elicits the simulation.”
Conversion Voodoo’s homepage does this really well.
Apart from a large “hero shot” of what you’re most likely to be doing during the time you accessed their website, they also ask “What would a 15 to 150% increase in profits mean to you?” leading you to imagine what would happen as a result of that.
The stronger the mental simulation you create, the more persuasive and effective the audience transportation will be.
#2 – Create tension or suspense
According to Green and Brock, for a story to be truly engaging, the audience should be excited and in doubt about the ending. If it’s a hero’s journey, the audience wants to know in the end if the hero triumphs.
It’s the uncertainty that keeps the audience hooked.
Take the case of this video called “The Power of Words”.
It’s a video ad for a book, but rather than the author declaring that “the right words can create powerful changes”, they use a cathartic story that makes you wonder what the woman wrote on the beggar’s sign.
This way, the message becomes much more powerful and impactful. The suspense transports and transforms you.
#3 – Offer a model
When it comes to changing behavior, Green and Brock recommend that you use modeling in your story.
Their book, “Persuasion”, states that “If your goal is to get someone to change his or her behavior, the most effective route will often be to have an attractive other person model the behavior.” This means that if your story has a protagonist, he or she must go through the change that you want the audience to go through as well.
New York Times bestselling author Tim Ferriss often uses modeling in his books and blogs.
Ferriss doesn’t directly tell you to try his techniques, but tells you how other people – including himself – have accomplished their goals. Some examples are his blog post about transforming from a geek to a freak in 4 weeks, and his way of selling the idea of mundane outsourcing by using AJ Jacobs’ story.
If you understand persuasive storytelling you can transform your audience from passive reader to paying customer.