Sometimes Facts Are Better Than Storytelling In Persuasion

Storytelling is not always the best way to deliver facts

Storytelling is all the rage – well it’s always been all the rage, witness Oedipus Rex ,The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible, Pride & Prejudice. As a business though, storytelling has come into vogue as the purpose of or method of communication, sometimes to the detriment of communicating. 

Strong stories, that are simple, emotional, truthful, first-hand experiences, and authentic — meaning the teller believes what they’re saying — are powerful, and help us understand and contextualize facts and events. 

Storytelling As Information

USC Professors of Neuroscience Antono and Hanna Damasio’s research that has proven how emotions play a “critical role in high-level cognition,” has shaped much of what we understand about the connection between learning and emotions — emotions often elicited by storytelling. You can read other research on the topic here and here – it’s fascinating.

My favorite business writer, Pat Lencioni, has written most of his impactful, best-selling leadership books as fables (if you haven’t read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team or The Five Temptations of a CEO, run don’t walk to read these – you will be a better team member, leader, human being).  The best TED Talks are great stories – if you get accepted to give one, they will send a coach to you if you don’t have a good enough story in your first draft of the talk. 

However, while it’s indisputable that stories can be powerful in persuasion, sometimes stories backfire in conveying compelling facts that might win people over to your side. 

Rebecca J. Krause and Derek D. Rucker of Northwestern University published research earlier this year that provides further evidence of how using strong facts can break through a narrative in the persuasion process. They found that “the persuasiveness of narratives depends on whether the facts they contain are strong or weak.” You can read Susie Allen’s summary of the research here

“If you have a powerful case and an ironclad set of facts on your side, stories might do you no favors…you’re better off presenting that content in a straightforward way, like a list. By contrast, if you’re trying to sell people on slightly less convincing information, stories can vastly increase your audience’s receptiveness.” 

No wonder the listicle performs so well as click bait! 

What’s a Communicator to do?

Well. Storytelling as a marketing tool is only as good as the facts of the products, services or practices they are talking about. While, if the facts are weak you might initially persuade an audience by obfuscating the facts with a story, the truth will emerge and weak facts will eventually be known and create distrust in your brand.

If your facts are strong, using a list or more straight forward way of presenting them will help people remember them. However, facts without context rarely help people move the needle to action. We recommend starting with contextual introduction to the facts, presenting the facts straightforwardly, and then tying them up in a bow that helps explain their impact to the audience – a story vignette if you will.

The best communication moves people to action that is backed up by the experience that action delivers. As professionals, we need to do everything we can to help our clients connect with their audiences in a way that doesn’t backfire, but propels them forward. 

And that starts with knowing when and how to use storytelling to your advantage.