If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with the amount of new information you encounter each day, take solace in the fact you’re not alone. Every minute, 571 new websites are created, 204,166,667 emails are sent, Facebook users create 684,478 new posts, and YouTube users upload 48 hours of video. The challenge this deluge creates is clear. Management researchers have been grappling with the issue of “information overload” since at least the 1970s. “When the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity,” researchers have noted, “a reduction in decision quality will occur.”
In the context of online communication, this reduction leads to a failure or unwillingness of the audience to process your message. This leads to the much-discussed tendency of users to scan and skim—instead of read and contemplate—web content. As a result, best practice tells us to chunk content, use prominent descriptive headings, resort to common forms like lists, and make gratuitous use of bullets. This is great advice—especially for those new to optimization—and it can produce impressive results. But for businesses that have already developed some understanding of customers through iterative testing and optimization, it may be time to move beyond these best practices.
In fact the exact opposite—using more words to tell a more complex narrative—may prove to be more effective. Though easily scanned pages are ubiquitous online, there’s evidence that one of the oldest content forms of all—story and narrative—might ultimately be the most persuasive means of communication.
In a frequently referenced study, participants were asked to share a sum of money with a stranger. Before facing the decision, half the group received a placebo and the other half received a does of oxytocin—a chemical associated with feelings of empathy. The participants that received oxytocin were 80 percent more generous than those given placebo. This finding has been supported by fMRI research and a number of other studies.
It has also been extended to scenarios without the artificial introduction of oxytocin. To stimulate feelings of empathy in these studies, researchers showed participants a short video telling the story of a young boy unwittingly dying of cancer, and the struggle his father faces knowing his happy son’s time is limited. The story, they found, elicited strong feelings of distress and empathy. Analyzing blood samples taken before and after watching the story found participants produced high levels of cortisol—a chemical associated with feelings of distress, known to increase concentration—and oxytocin.
Researchers also asked participants alternately to give money to a stranger or donate to a charity after watching the video. Participants who had produced the highest levels of cortisol and oxytocin gave most generously to both the stranger and charity. The narrative, researchers discovered, changed people’s behavior by changing the chemistry of their brain.
In another series of experiments, researchers examined the effect a narrative arc had on the persuasiveness of a story. This arc was called “transportation” and was more specifically defined as the extent to which an individual is absorbed into a story. When participants had preexisting favorable opinions about the characters and story, transportation augmented these beliefs proportionally. In addition, participants experiencing higher levels of transportation found fewer negative qualities and inconsistencies in stories. Importantly, the effect of transportation didn’t change whether stories were presented as true accounts or fictions. “Transportation” was found to displace and subsume preexisting beliefs. Narratives, researchers concluded, changed people’s behavior by changing or replacing their previous beliefs with those described in a story.
Storytelling in Practice
Storytelling is common in branding creative designed to create or reinforce a general opinion or impression of a company and its products. Storytelling is significantly less common, however, at basic levels of communication like product descriptions—but it’s precisely these points in the consumer decision journey that narrative has the most potential.
The importance of this has not been lost on all retailers. In fact, one notable company has used product storytelling to define its brand for decades.
Patagonia sells high-end active apparel, marketed towards outdoors enthusiasts. On the surface, some of the high-performance ultra-light clothing—like this jacket—appears to be little more than a few panels of nylon stitched together. Yet the brand remains competitive in a niche market crowded with other retailers. Part of this success is product-level storytelling.
The “product information” copy for this jacket reads:
The problem is that you never see it coming on the Diamond. One moment you’re climbing vertical, east-facing granite at 13,000 feet. The next you’re staring at heavy, dark clouds boiling over the summit from the west. Seconds later, lightning cracks. The Alpine Houdini’s ultralight waterproof/breathable membrane and absence of anything superfluous serves the simplicity crucial to alpine rock climbing – and its afternoon thunderstorms. It is emergency rainwear for climbing that also blocks wind and traps your heat on chilly belay ledges, packs into its single internal chest pocket (with clip-in loop) and seals up with elastic wrist cuffs and a single-pull drawcord waist. With helmet-compatible, single-pull adjustable hood.
In this example, Patagonia isn’t describing a jacket—it’s describing an experience. By placing the reader in the mountains, facing an impending storm the copy creates a hook, a relatable moment, and achieves transportation. Whether the customer has actually experienced this situation or not, it feels immediate and tangible thanks to the storytelling. And the product seems more appealing as a result.
Storytelling, of course, is more art than science. And while certain narrative models provide useful guides for writers, there are no formulas that guarantee success. It is possible, however, to use testing, experimentation, and analysis to tease out the most valuable approach, tone, and level of detail for each specific audience. Testing helps designers evaluate the effectiveness of certain styles and product managers to vet new feature ideas—and testing can empower copywriters and marketers working to refine the message tone and narrative strategy of a product or brand, too. Research clearly shows that storytelling has a powerfully persuasive force on an audience—and because of this, considering a narrative approach should be part of every optimization strategy.