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…
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.
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>
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.
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.
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!
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!
Here’s what to do next…
- Let me know in the comments what you thought of this research.
- Tell me about one of your favorite stories that you’ve read on the web, and let us know which blogger told it.