Stories work better than facts.

Stories capture attention. Stories are remembered and can be very persuasive. All of these are reasons why stories and storytelling have become such a hot topic in marketing communications in the era of ‘Content is King’.

Imagine this – you are a brand manager at L.L. Bean and tasked with communicating that the Maine Hunting Shoe possesses great qualities; it’s waterproof, full-grain leather, steel shank, rubber chain-tread, shaped foot form and made by expert craftspeople. In addition, you aim to prove that L.L. Bean is innovative, passionate about the outdoors and obsessed about quality and customer experience.

You could simply tell them these true facts. Or you could tell a story…

Once upon a time (in 1912) Leon L. Bean, an avid outdoorsman, returned from a hunting trip disgruntled because of his cold, wet feet. With little resources but a lot of motivation and ingenuity, he invented a new boot by stitching lightweight leather tops to waterproof rubber bottoms.

The boots worked so well he decided to sell them to other hunters. The Main Hunting Shoe was available via mail order to nonresident Maine hunting license holders. All was going swell until he encountered a hitch – most of the first 100 pairs sold had a stitching problem resulting in leakage. Mr. Bean faced a defining moment!

His response? He refunded the customers’ money even though it nearly broke him and fixed the process so future boots were indeed water tight. That decision led to the legendary L.L. Bean “Guarantee of 100% Satisfaction.”

This is a brand story that suggests that the brand values top-of-line boot qualities, innovation, customer experience and a passion for the outdoors. The heritage story of this brand is much more effective in communicating the quality of the boot and values of the brand than plain facts could be.

Communicating facts is direct and efficient and thus appealing, but it is the story that is memorable, powerful and persuasive – everything a brand hopes for in their communication efforts. Like the fabled tortoise, stories always win. Why are stories memorable and persuasive? Stories are Remembered Many studies in psychology and elsewhere have found that facts are more likely to be remembered if they’re included as part of a story.

In one such study, Psychologist Arthur Graesser and his colleagues rated short written pieces based on their familiarity, interestingness and narrative strength. Those pieces high on narrative strength were read in half the time by experimental subjects and recall was double the other pieces. Familiarity and interestingness had little effect. Stories are more memorable than dry facts. Stories command your attention because they’re interesting, relatable and engaging. Because the story receiver is involved with the information being communicated, the content therein is more likely to resonate than a recitation of facts. The story arc becomes one thing to remember rather than a set of facts.

Stories are Persuasive It’s not a modern concept – storytelling has been used for persuasion for thousands of years. Aesop was a storyteller whose moral tales can be traced back to 560 BC. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the bestselling book of the 19th century, is lauded for establishing literature’s role as an agent for social change. A host of studies have supported the hypothesis that facts presented as a story lead to greater changes in beliefs and sentiment, in turn leading to changes in attitudes, intentions and behaviors.

Why/how do stories have that much power?

Stories are persuasive because they inhibit counter-arguing. The power of the story can distract the recipient and stall suspicion. Studies confirm that a story can reduce the tendency to confront or counter the facts shared. Since the messaging isn’t contradicted or refuted, it’s more likely the entire message can be communicated without losing the audience. As a result, storytelling is especially effective when attempting to communicate messaging that is outside of the recipient’s latitude of acceptance.

A story teller is often perceived as more authentic, credible, and likable than a person who relays dry facts. By simply telling a story, a brand spokesperson can deliver a point without being perceived as phony, contrived or a commercial selling vehicle.

Stories persuade because they allow people to deduce logic themselves. We know from research and common sense that self-discovery is much more powerful than having people talk at you. The L.L. Bean founder story requires the audience to deduce the boot qualities and firm values. It isn’t explicitly told to them. The persuasive power of a story is enhanced when a story can draw people in, a process psychologists call narrative transportation. The audience is transported from his or her existing reality into the story or narrative. Research shows that when narrative transportation happens; perceptions, attitudes and intentions change to reflect the story.

After reviewing 132 studies on the topic, Tom van Laer and his European colleagues learned that elevating narrative transportation has a statistically significant and meaningful impact on story-consistent beliefs, affective responses (liking), story-consistent attitudes, story-consistent intentions and a decrease in critical thoughts. The more real the story appears, the greater its impact. Stories work.

The challenge is to find the right (persuasive) stories to tell and leverage them over time to strengthen your key messages and shift attitudes around your brand.

Sources

(1) A. C. Graesser, N. L. Hoffman and L.F. Clark, “Structural Components of Reading Time,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 2, 1980, 135-151.

(2) Ton Van Laer, Ko DeRuyter, Luca M. Viscounti, Martin Wetzels, “The Extended Transportation-Imagery Model: A Meta-analysis of the Antecedents and Consequences of Consumers’ Narrative Transportation,” Journal of Consumer Research, February, 2014, p. 2

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