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The Science of Storytelling: 6 Ways to Write More Persuasive Stories

Guest post by Gregory Ciotti.

When it comes to crafting “words that sell”, the research shows us that stories are among the most persuasive forms of writing out there.

Persuasive writing is an essential part of blogging—there’s no two ways about it. So if you plan on selling anything, connecting†deeply with your readers, or going viral with a post that bares all about your life (like Jon Morrow did), you better be prepared to create stories that actually move people.

Why do stories work so well?

They work because “transportation leads to persuasion,” and as such, if you can capture your reader’s attention, you can nudge them towards being a customer or a brand advocate who supports your business at every turn.

That’s all good and fun… but how exactly can you write more persuasive stories?

Today, I’ve got some academic research that will show you how!

The six elements of better stories

According to some fascinating research by Dr. Philip Mazzocco and Melanie Green, called Narrative Persuasion in Legal Settings: What’s the Story?, stories are powerful because of their ability to affect emotional beliefs in a way that logical arguments just can’t touch.

That is to say, stories get in “under the radar” because we are so open to hearing them. We tend to block out sales pitches or “do as I say” styles of dictation, but stories are inviting, personal, and capture our imagination.

The researchers looked at persuasive aspects of stories in the court room, which is certainly one of the hardest places to craft stories, as you have another person (the other lawyer) trying to shoot down your arguments at every turn.

From their research, Mazzocco and Green found six consistent elements that are apart of startingly effective stories…

1. Audience

As a blogger, you have far more control over this aspect than a lawyer does, so pay attention!

Above, I mentioned a post by Jon Morrow than went viral here on Problogger.net. While the story was an amazing one, a key element of that post that many might miss is that Jon constructed it for a very particular audience: those looking to do what he’s done (i.e. turn blogging into a lifestyle-sustaining business).

Picking Problogger.net was perfect because he knew the audience would be receptive to such a story. He’s done it time and time again—here’s another post on Copyblogger in a similar vein that addresses fighting for your dreams.

How can you implement this critical technique in your own efforts?

The answer lies in finding your target customer (or reader) and crafting your message and content entirely around them. What are their hopes, fears, and dreams? You better know if you hope to stay with them after they leave the page.

If you can’t identify this ideal reader, then who are you really writing for? Without this information, it’s much harder, if not impossible, to tell a really persuasive story: you need to have the right audience in mind first.

If you’re going “off-site” (via a guest post) like Jon did, then you also need to be careful in choosing another blogger’s platform: be sure to write for their audience.

2. Realism

This one may seem surprising, but it’s actually not if you look into the reasoning.

Although fiction stories are popular, the best ones are always easy to relate to on some level. Although you may not be a WWII spy or a dragon-slaying knight, you can relate to the emotions, struggles, and thoughts of the characters.

Roger Dooley put this best when he said:

Even if you are painting a fictional picture with the story, its elements need to relate to the reality that the audience is familiar with, for example, basic human motivations.

Make sure your stories have something the audience can relate to on a deeper level, beyond the events that are being told.

For instance, in Joel Ryan’s article titled, An Unexpected Ass-Kicking, he relays the tale of meeting the inventor of the computer.

The story wouldn’t have gone viral without another element, though: Joel connected the tale to his readers’ own psyches by relating how it’s important to not be afraid of things that “haven’t been done before”, because if Russell Kirsch had believed that, we wouldn’t have the computer today>

3. Delivery

In the same way that a comedian’s timing is practically everything, Mazzacco and Green found that story delivery was critical to crafting a tale people could get wrapped up in.

Delivery is a mix of pacing, flow, and hitting readers with heavy lines at the perfect moment.

One of my favorite examples (in fiction) is how George R.R. Martin, author of the A Song of Fire and Ice series, ends his chapters with a surprising close or a startling realization.

This example isn’t a story, but it perfectly demonstrates my point: Brian Clark’s post called, The Writer Runs This Show is a fantastic demonstration of using dramatic pacing throughout a post.

Note how he interrupts the manifesto with “The writer runs this show,” over and over to drive his point home.

4. Imagery

Did the sun rise, or did the sun’s rays reflect rainbows off of the crisp morning dew?

Interesting research on the matter says that your stories should be describing the latter: the human mind gets swept up in stories only when the visuals are painted clearly.

Transportation (the key to story persuasion) cannot happen if you use vague details and boring language.

You have to craft the scene with startling detail to wrap your reader up in your message: they need to share in the struggle you went through, the joys you encountered, and the doubts you battled.

If you read Benny Hsu’s post on his first iPhone App store feature (and his subsequent $30,000 week), you can feel his excitement with every word; you’re not just getting the play-by-play of what happened.

Let readers see what you’re “seeing” in your tale, and they’ll be more willing to go along with the journey.

5. Structure

While some movies, like Memento, can get away with switching things up once or twice, the classics always follow this one golden rule: keep story structure simple.

People prefer stories that follow a logical manner, for example: elements of suspense are most effective when they’re established early to keep people engaged, plot twists are best saved for the climax, and having a strong ending makes a story more memorable.

This is especially true for writing in the business world. Let your creativity shine through the actual story being told, not in how you decide to structure it.

When you try to get cute with plot structure and other storytelling staples, you’ll risk losing people rather than creating something memorable.

In all of the most popular story-related blog posts I’ve come across, I’ve yet to see a story that defies the classic story structure that focuses on being enticing in the beginning, building up in the middle, and finishing with a satisfying conclusion (and a powerful message).

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

6. Context

While the study referenced the storyteller and the physical environment as important factors in how persuasive the tale was, for online storytelling we have a different set of variables…

For the storyteller, the author of the tale still matters: elements of trust established with the audience and social proof play roles in making a tale believable and easily digested.

As a blogger, you should already know about the powers of social proof, but are you utilizing it in your off-site features? A persuasive story on another site should always include a brief introduction explaining why you’re qualified to tell it, otherwise people will glaze over and block you out.

For surroundings, we now have to turn to a element that strictly applies to the web: design.

According to a fascinating research study entitled, Trust & Mistrust of Online Health Sites, it’s your blog’s design that is most likely to influence first-time visitors about the site’s trustworthiness, not the quality of your content.

A bad design makes people feel like your site isn’t trustworthy, and any storytelling efforts that you attempt will be greatly hindered, so clean up your surroundings!

Your turn

Here’s what to do next…

  1. Let me know in the comments what you thought of this research.
  2. Tell me about one of your favorite stories that you’ve read on the web, and let us know which blogger told it.

Gregory Ciotti is the content strategist for Help Scout, the invisible customer service software for solopreneurs and small-business owners. Get more from Greg on the Help Scout blog.

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Comments

  1. Cindy Wu says:

    This is very much important one I like most is realism in writings.

    • Totally right on realism. Being able to relate to an emotion or character in it can really help out a lot. ON a side not Cindy, would you say this is something you have been doing why you blog? Or something you may try and see what type of results you get?

  2. My favorite story I read was actually an email sent out by Mark Hoverson. Without delving too deep, he talked about an expensive meal he took his wife to. It wasn’t the most exciting or amazing story, but the imagery he used painted a picture so real that my mouth was literally watering and I wanted that same darn steak he was eating in the story!

    I think imagery is incredibly powerful… when you can take your reader’s imagination to another place you’ve done something remarkable and they’ll love you for it. Thanks for the awesome post!

  3. Rahul says:

    very nice tips!!! for story writing i like the audience because good story more audience so focus on audience thanks for sharing such tips…

  4. Thanks Greg for this awesome post. The best stories that really captivates me are the one written by Jon Morrow and Brian Clark. They are awesome.

    Here is 3 posts from them, 2 by jon and by 1 by Brian.
    http://www.copyblogger.com/fight-for-your-ideas/
    http://www.copyblogger.com/the-secret-of-life/
    http://www.problogger.net/archives/2011/05/18/how-to-quit-your-job-move-to-paradise-and-get-paid-to-change-the-world/

    Thanks for this post.

  5. Rachel says:

    Great post. Very true. How do you feel about bloggers who post with typos or poor grammar. I don’t know if it’s just because I was an English major, but I can read a fantastic story and then run into some just plain bad writing and I no longer really care how great the story is. However, the fact that I have seen these errors posted in comments before and watched them go unchanged leads me to believe that most people just don’t care.

  6. Great post, Gregory!

    I noticed that my blog really started getting interaction and traffic when I starting making my stories real. I share dog care tips and I would crowd source for articles and heard crickets. When I started sharing my own personal experience with our dogs (we have 3) along with the crowdsourcing, that’s when people would not only read/comment/share – but they’d stick around on my blog to read other things.

    Today, I get emails from people telling me how much they enjoy my blog and I can’t believe that the answer was as simple as being more personal. It helps me tell a story that engages people.

    Best of luck everyone!

    • Hey Kimberly,

      Your totally right on making your stories real and adding in value that you actually experience. I started you blogging very bland and just felt I was writing in a very monotone way.

      I started spicing it up a bit with more details and adding my own methods and experiences, and I feel overall it has helped out quite a bit.

      That’s cool too, your getting emails from your readers too, I hope myself to enjoy that.

      Chris

  7. Saif @ SEO says:

    Excellent post. I think that imagination and realness is more important in a story. Great post to write in effective way :)

  8. John Wodka says:

    Gregory,
    Imagery with structure together are key. I really enjoyed Robert McKee’s book “Story” about screenwriting. He talks about having a rhythm in your storytelling, making sure that conflict continues to build, but you have to have breaks in the action (a breath) before the big crescendo.

    I think many writers start strong but lose the attention hold on readers and fall flat.

    Look forward to reading more from you.

  9. Joshua says:

    You have to capture the attention of the readers. Let the story be a compelling one. Picking the right audience is very important. The wrong audience will not be interested to read the story.

  10. Gregory,

    I love to see you attaching writing to the science that underlies the psychological relationship between reader and writer. This is what I try to do consistently in my blog because I most writers don’t explore it.
    Psychology has everything to do with writing and reading, and you show that through effective research.

    As I read, I asked myself, what story is Gregory telling here? I think that you are telling the real story of a process of discovery about how a writer like you and your audience can most effectively connect with an ideal reader. You follow all of your guides, making a story that is real and detailed, drawing the reader in or transporting the reader to receive your message.

    Well done in both example and detail,

    Darin.

  11. hey Chris,

    from what I understood…

    we have to…

    craft a powerful, realist story… share it with a real target audience… deliver it at the right time, in the right way… keep drama and pacing into balance… use descriptive language and startling details… and do everything with extreme passion

    my favorite story is… I don’t have one in particular… I like when business people start off their article with a personal story or anecdote though. It brings life into the content.

  12. Claudia says:

    I’ve noticed that it’s important to find a balance in your descriptions – where quite a few personal bloggers turn their blog into an amateur poetry website, other bloggers refrain from adding any details or examples at all. Descriptions should add color to the picture you’re painting without adding details that distract your readers’ attention from the story line.

  13. Ed Cox says:

    Gregory,
    Thank you for the great reminders. These came for me at the right time; I am in the midst of writing a 20-minute business talk, and I have decided to incorporate three stories from my life that illustrate key decisions that have guided my professional life. My best takeaway from your blog is to be sure to create the details that take the audience right along with me visually and emotionally. Thanks!
    Ed

  14. Linda says:

    Depend a lot and the niche that are you writing on. For example if you are on a medical niche, the realism of your stories need to be fist thing that you have in mind.

    I read a few days ago a GREAT story of a tinnitus suffer. She writed in about 600 words her last 3 years of life and she made me to feel all that she feelt: fear, pain, hate, confidence, joy and in the end satisfaction.

  15. Sarah Park says:

    Great post! Writing a story is like sharing your personal views and experiences. Being more personal with a post is still a lot more effective.

  16. Fantastic blog. I did research a long time ago, on how to write screenplays for film and television. There needs to be a structure, flow, rhythm, pace and a twist at the end. The beginning of the story needs to grab the attention of the audience (first paragraph). Once you grab your audiences attention, you take them on a roller coaster ride. A ride they will never forget and they tell others about it. To me Steven Spielberg is the greatest visual story teller. I never imagined the idea of turning your blog posts into stories. This idea makes the whole blogging experience so much more exciting. Thank you Gregory Ciotti for telling this wonderful story with a motivating twist at the end. I also love the way you motivated others to add a comment.

  17. Sue Neal says:

    Hi Greg, thanks for sharing this fascinating research.

    The online story that springs to my mind is The Most Beautiful Boat in the World, written by Robert Bruce for Copyblogger – very powerful and I think ticks all these boxes. It’s simple, vivid and powerful – ages since I read it, but it sprang to mind straight away when I read your post, which is an indication of its impact.

    Sue

  18. Gregory, every word you write is true. Yet transporting the reader is a challenge on-line because they have to sit down in the seat for at least a few minutes. People like photos more than words. They read the headers of paragraphs. They like their text broken into single sentences, as your fine article does. We have barrels of digital ink and, thankfully, miles of white space. Online readers don’t read, they scan. It’s like writing a series of billboards, not a novel. Burma Shave.