The Psychology of Storytelling
Updated: Mar 25
PROVEN WAYS TO CREATE BETTER STORIES (AND WHY STORIES SELL)
Guest post by Gregory Ciatti
Stories are a very integral part of being persuasive.
You’d think that as a guy that loves research and data, I’d be averse to storytelling as a whole. As a marketer though, I can’t be: those in sales and marketing have known for a long time that stories trump data when it comes to persuasion because stories are easier to understand and relate to. Are you incorporating stories into your copy? Are you utilizing them on your blog?
WHY YOU NEED TO INCORPORATE STORYTELLING
Storytelling works. But a lot of folks are averse to telling stories because they believe that “the facts” are the most persuasive pieces of content they can deliver. It’s not.
How you say something is just as important as what you are saying. While we are all often resistant to the idea of being told what to do, we are very susceptible to agreeing with the “moral of the story” due to how it is presented to us.
HOW STORIES AFFECT THE MIND
The reason that stories work so well on us is that we are susceptible to getting “swept up” in both their message and in the manner of their telling.
Quite literally, stories are able to transport our mind to another place, and in this place we may embrace things we’d likely scoff at in the “harsh, real world”.
Think about this example: You’ll often see politicians create a “story” for their campaign, and focus a lot of their efforts speaking with the public in crafting and standing by these stories.
Creating the story of “tough guy who is harsh on crime and supports states rights” is easier to understand than discussing the complexities of how the administration plans to actually tackle the crime rate.
You see this being utilized every day on platforms as big as TED talks to speeches by world leaders. Instead of only discussing the “information”, they begin talks with phrases like, “Imagine if you will…” Stories help sell arguments of all types.
HOW TO CREATE BETTER STORIES
The #1 trait of a persuasive story is how “engaging” the story is. A study conducted by Green & Brock addresses just what makes a story engaging.
1.) Suspense Our brain just can’t “get over” suspenseful moments: it’s a relationship that just won’t die, we will always want to know what happens next!
In fact, suspense works so well that the hotly debated Zeigarnik Effect would have you believe that it’s the best way to kill procrastination.
Research in that area seems to point to humans being much more inclined to finish something that has already been started (researchers interrupted people doing “brain buster” tasks before they could complete them… nearly 90% of people went on to finish the task anyway, despite being told they could stop).
Suspense in stories really allows you to create addictive content, as long as the suspense appears early enough in the post to activate the Zeigarnik Effect.
2.) Detailed imagery helps craft the setting you want.
If you want to get people swept up in your stories, tell them what they are getting swept up in to, and they will respond. Imagery paints the picture of any good story. These “all-too-real” elements of a fantastical story make it easier to relate to.
3.) Literary techniques (like metaphors or irony) are essential pieces of memorable stories As with most high school kids in the United States, I was required to read a lot of the “staples” of highschool literature.
By far my favorite work was Animal Farm, a story that serves as a great example of the power of the many literary techniques at your disposal.
In the beginning, the story in Animal Farm seems quirky at best: When the de-facto leader of the animals, Old Major, dies, two pigs called Snowball and Napoleon take over and see out his “vision”, which they interpret to be the driving out of Mr. Jones, the farm owner.
Snowball is eventually chased away by Napoleon, and Napoleon begins to enact new rules for the Animal Farm, which begin to become warped as Napoleon and the pigs become more like their previous masters, culminating with the memorable phrase revealing what the rules have truly become:
ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.
Needless to say, there is a lot at work under the surface of this story, as it is an allegorical tale that relates the events of the rise of Stalin and the Soviet Union before the second World War II.
Suddenly, a book about pigs taking over a farm begins to serve as a cautionary tale on how political dogma can be turned into malleable propaganda.
There are many literary techniques and a countless amount of examples, I’m simply serving up this particular one to show you a singular instance of a writer using them to turn a seemingly simplistic story into a extraordinarily memorable and highly controversial work of art.
4.) Modelling works because change is easier with an example
If you want someone to change a behavior (or become more inclined to taking a desired action), then you can “model” it with a story.
The character in said story should go through the transformation that you would like the reader to go through.
The transportation effect is really evident here: people place themselves in the situation being told, reimagining themselves as the main character.
Oftentimes, they are made to see why the choices made were the right choices.
Strangely enough (or maybe it’s not so strange…), I often see web hosting providers showcase stories of customers past “cheap web-hosting nightmares” in which the customer describes a situation where they were freaking out from their site being down after receiving massive exposure, eventually “learning their lesson” and vowing to never again use anything but ______ [insert whoever is selling].
Positive stories are also used quite often, stories where individuals solve a huge menace in their life or get to where most people would like to be serve as transportation vehicles to recruiting new people to the cause.
If you run a fitness based business (as an example), highlighting a tale of triumph over the generalized disadvantages of being out-of-shape to accomplish what previously seemed like “impossible” fitness results is a great way to get people fired up to become more interested in fitness.
NOTE: Ciotti shares 6 more interesting characteristics of persuasive stories from the research of Melanie Green and Dr. Philip Mazzocco here.