Can Stories Be Persuasive?
Research on "narrative persuasion" considers how stories can change minds.
Posted October 21, 2020
There’s a reason why adventure, action, and drama films make way more money than documentaries. Granted, there are lots of documentaries made every year, but they still account for a small fraction of ticket sales.
The reason is humans’ love for stories. Yes, we’re curious and interested in learning about all sorts of things. But tell us a story, and we’re swept away. We’ve loved stories for ages. The written record alone gives us epic stories from ancient Greece, Shakespeare’s romantic dramas, and classic fairy tales that we still tell today.
So I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that people generally like stories. But can they be used to persuade?
Persuasion by Storytelling
A narrative message is one that tells a story involving connected events and characters. It has a beginning, middle, and end, and it has either blatant or subtle message about some topic. You may have heard stories about people suffering from a preventable health issue—maybe a smoker battling lung cancer or someone with cancer who ignored early warning signs. These stories are clearly meant to highlight the importance of quitting smoking or getting regular cancer screenings.
This is in contrast to the non-narrative approach communicators often take—presenting facts and figures, laying out their arguments, and making their pitch. So is there any extra advantage of narrative beyond these time-tested strategies?
Stories Are Effective Persuasion Tools
On average, telling stories provides a persuasive edge. While the exact amount of extra persuasion you get from a story varies from study to study, researchers have occasionally collected up all the available evidence to see whether there’s a good case for narrative persuasion.
As one example, a few years ago, researchers collected 74 studies testing the use of stories in all kinds of persuasive communication, and they found a reliable tendency for stories to be a bit more persuasive than control conditions.
Even more recently, researchers collected 14 studies that tested the long-term impact of stories. Even after several weeks or months had passed, people’s beliefs and opinions continued to show more persuasion by stories than by other messages.
So the record paints a consistent pattern: on average, telling stories as a way to make a point can effectively nudge people’s opinions, beliefs, and behaviors.
Using Stories Affects Impressions of the Communicator
Some new research has also considered not just whether stories are especially persuasive, but whether they change people’s perception of the communicator.
Across a handful of studies, researchers presented a brief exchange between two people. In this scenario, a person asked for his colleague’s opinion of a local bank. In some versions of the study, his colleague went on to give the facts and statistics, highlighting the bank’s interest rates and history of offering satisfactory service. But in other versions of the study, his colleague goes on to tell a story about a friend who has used the bank and had a great experience. In the end, the point was always the same: it’s a good bank to invest with. But what do we think of the Mr. Facts vs. Mr. Story?
The researchers thought people’s impressions might look different for two types of traits that lots of research has shown to be central to how we see people: competence and warmth.
When it came to people’s impressions of how competent the person is, they generally saw the colleague as smarter and more skilled when he gave a statistical argument, compared to when he told a story. And when they were given a choice of who to work with on a competitive activity, they tended to pick someone who gave his opinion with a review of the evidence over someone who told a story.
But when it came to their impressions of how warm the person is, it was the story-teller who seemed more warm and friendly. And when people could choose who they wanted to work within an activity that required cooperation, they were more likely to opt for the story-teller.
And They Lived Happily Ever After?
Across lots of research, it seems that stories can be powerful. They nudge people to consider new ideas, empathize with others, make different decisions, and even form different impressions of the communicator themselves.
But just because stories often provide a persuasive edge, that’s not always the case. If a story isn’t engaging or its point isn’t totally clear, then it won’t necessarily change minds. And lots of people may prefer to learn about the facts of an issue and are turned off by stories. So as always, even when the bulk of the research points in one direction, it’s not always the end of the story.
Braddock, K., & Dillard, J. P. (2016). Meta-analytic evidence for the persuasive effect of narratives on beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. Communication Monographs, 83(4), 446-467.
Oschatz, C., & Marker, C. (2020). Long-term persuasive effects in narrative communication research: A meta-analysis. Journal of Communication, 70(4), 473-496.
Clark, J. L., Green, M. C., & Simons, J. J. P. (2019. Narrative warmth and quantitative competence: Message type affects impressions of a speaker. PLoS ONE, 14(12): e0226713.