Here’s How to Combine Storytelling and Data to Produce Persuasive Content

Posted by nikkielizabethdemere

[Estimated read time: 5 minutes]

Can you recall Don Draper using statistics in a quote? Neither can I.

Draper’s pitches were successful because they focused on stories. (Remember the famous Kodak Carousel pitch?) He was on to something: Research highlights stories as key to capturing an audience’s attention.

Jennifer Aaker, a social psychologist and professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, cites a study in which students were asked to present a one-minute persuasive pitch to their class members. Each pitch included an average of 2.5 statistics. Only one of those pitches included a story. Ten minutes later, the researcher asked the students to pull out a sheet of paper and write down every idea they remembered. Only 5% of the students remembered a statistic; 63% of the students remembered the story.

For most people, numbers aren’t memorable. Stories are.

kwUFkb1.pngNumerous studies have shown that stories aren’t only more effective in making a message memorable, they’re also more emotionally persuasive. Pair this with research that shows we make decisions primarily with emotion (using logic to justify them later), and you have the power of story in a nutshell.

Your brain on stories

When we hear a story, not only are the language parts of the brain activated, but also every other part of the brain we would use if we were living the story. Mentally, we become the protagonist. In our minds, the story is real and it’s happening to us, not to somebody else.

Warm chocolate oozed out of the center of the cake, swirling with mocha eddies of ice cream.

Oh, sorry — are you feeling hungry now?

There are 63 grams of fat in Chili’s Chocolate Molten Lava Cake.

How eager are you to forget that statistic?

If the story is about food, your sensory cortex lights up. If the story is about motion, you motor cortex lights up, as if you were the one shoveling cake into your mouth or driving a race car.

An even more remarkable study from Princeton shows that when you tell a story, your brain and your listeners’ brains actually sync up. This implies that you can plant ideas and emotions into your audience’s brain through story.

Don’t ditch the data

There’s a case to be made for ditching data altogether in favor of story.

If you’ve read about the “identifiable victim effect” — demonstrated by Carnegie Mellon researchers presenting study participants with the story of a starving child versus statistics about child starvation in Africa — you know why. In the experiment, participants who received the Save the Children pamphlet featuring the story of a starving child named Rokia donated double the money of those who saw a pamphlet with statistics only.

But, in another experiment (part of the same study), they handed participants a Save the Children pamphlet that included both the story and the statistics.

ajYCsuK.pngThat may seem like damning evidence as far as data is concerned.

Paul Slovic, one of the researchers, explains this phenomenon (nearly a 40% drop) as a “drop in the bucket” effect. Read about poor starving Rokia, and your emotions and mind are fully engaged. But read about the millions of starving children on the African continent, and as Slovic says, “The data sends a bad feeling that counteracts the warm glow from helping Rokia.”

But data doesn’t always give a bad feeling. It all depends on how you use it.

Marry stories with data for compelling content

If story activates the emotional centers of the brain, data activates the logic centers. Activating both at the same time can be incredibly powerful — if done correctly. For example, if you tell a story about someone your business or product has helped, then combine that story with data that explains how much you’ve helped them, your story becomes more trustworthy.

In John Allen Paulos’ New York Times piece “Stories vs. Statistics,” he explains that people are afraid of committing two types of judgment errors: observing something that is not really there (Type 1 error); and missing something that is there (Type 2 error). Some people are more comfortable committing one type of error over the other, depending on their personality types, and this is where stories and statistics come into play.

fJEBlMO.pngFor a certain type of consumer, story is really all they need. They’re ready to make a decision based purely on the emotional connection you make with them. But others aren’t so sure about your story. They’re less impressed by the flashy details. Their discerning minds want proof in the form of hard numbers.

Why do numbers make us trust? While data and statistics can be woven into just about any form to support just about any theory, we still think of numbers as unbiased, objective, unemotional. Perhaps this bias is a result of how our brains treat numerical information; it just doesn’t tickle the emotional parts of ourselves. We treat numbers with logic and, illogical as it may be, expect the same treatment from data in return.

It’s a bias we marketers can use, especially when we know that, while people are likely to act on their gut instinct, they still confirm that instinct with logic.

I would argue that we need to use data in this way, as a confirmation of the story we’re telling, not as a replacement for the story.

Professor Jennifer Aaker explains it like this:

nzNte6Z.png

Whether you’re writing a web page, ebook, or presentation, lead with the story. Grab attention with an anecdote that paints a narrative picture of the problem you’re trying to solve. Then, don’t just throw a data set in.

Instead, put your data into a meaningful, visual context that literally illustrates your point.

In Visage’s related ebook, they tell you how to thoughtfully blend the data and storytelling to provide value, insight, and meaning to your audience.

And, to drive your point home, explain your data visualization. Don’t assume audiences will get it at a glance (even if they can). Highlight important patterns. Explain your axes. Answer the question lingering in your audience’s mind: “So what?”

When you deliver data within the context of a larger story, that is the moment when it becomes incredibly powerful, and you become your most persuasive.

How are you using data in your content marketing?

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