Psychological research on persuasion suggests that stories which transport people are more likely to be persuasive.
This psychological effect is vital to success in the highly competitive business-to-business sales domain. The world has moved from solution and even consultative sales to include collaboration. Insight is key in a collaborative sales client engagement. A persuasive reference “story” that conveys relevant and distinct cause and effect in a specific context lends credence to insight. Once a client has articulated their problem or result impact and evidence and even suggested a solution, insight is the display of acknowledgement and recognition supported by a case study or reference story; an instance or instances of a particular similar situation – convincingly channeled through a story.
Research suggests that trying to persuade people by telling them stories does indeed work (Green & Bond 2000). Transportation is proposed as a mechanism whereby narratives can affect beliefs. Defined as absorption into a story, transportation entails imagery, affect, and attentional focus. On the other hand, reduced transportation leads to reduced story-consistent beliefs and evaluations. The studies also show that transportation and corresponding beliefs are generally unaffected by labelling a story as fact or as fiction.
So, it is our being transported inside of a well told story, our being immersed in the content, absolutely relating to the context that makes the telling of reference stories more persuasive. And once inside the story we are less likely to notice things that are not necessarily true yet but real for us. It becomes personal. That is because our relationship with something determines our experience, not the something. Stories don’t have to match up with our everyday experience to be real.
Two sorts of people who may be particularly susceptible to being persuaded by stories are those who seek out emotional situations and those who enjoy thinking, according to Thompson & Haddock (European Journal of Social Psychology). Without going into the neurolinguistics of this observation, whether through emotion or thought, stories that engage are more likely to persuade and the higher the emotional and the semantic content of a story, the more likely they are to persuade and distract from the persuasion attempt.
I am quite sure that theatrics will not go down very well in the CxO boardroom, yet how does a sales professional create the context in which highly persuasive reference stories are engaging? Green and Brock in their book Persuasion provide the awareness of factors that make an engaging and persuasive story, including:
- Foregrounding – which is using things like rhetoric, irony, metaphor and analogy to make the ordinary extraordinary,
- Visualisation – imagery is important in evoking a more visual experience of the story in the mind of the audience,
- Transformation – expressing the change experienced in the story to get the audience to relate, and
- Scenarios – cause and effect, problem or results impact and evidence, upshots and aftermaths.
With a compelling reference story, persuasion should really be strongest just after a message is delivered. One would expect that over time the persuasive effect should weaken as the audiences experience normalizes. However, studies have shown that this is not the case and that under certain circumstances the persuasion persists.
The question of sustained persuasion is the subject of another article.