Story and persuasion

Story and persuasion

convince_John GoodeLast time, I wrote about how Tim Bilodeau of Medicines for Humanity came to understand that narrative-based speeches are the most effective way to reach an audience. This week, I explain this phenomenon in more detail and tell why I believe storytelling is a human being’s most effective tool for changing minds and moving others to action.

How we convince others: In a general sense, there are three ways to persuade another person, a group or an audience: coercion (force or threat), argumentation (using reason and rational discourse that appeal to people’s logic and intellect), and narrative (telling stories that engage others and move them to action).

Let’s examine each of these methods. For example, imagine you are part of a work group, the designated leader or not, and you would like to convince the others to embrace your point of view about an issue.

One approach would be to use pressure or coercion. Of course, this brute force approach assumes that you have the hierarchical jurisdiction to act as sovereign ruler. As an autocratic boss, you let your subordinates know who is in charge, and you use your position to get the results and behavior you desire. The others are not necessarily convinced of anything other than the necessity to follow orders. Coercion may achieve results in the short term, but in the end most people will resent anyone who leads this way.

A more democratic, inclusive method involves presenting the listeners with rational argument and rhetoric. Rhetorical approaches can be quite effective, but I would contend that it is difficult to convince others with logic alone. Why? Think about what happens when a speaker seeks to persuade any type of audience with facts, statistics, logic and reason.

As listeners, we are constantly making judgements about what is being said, even arguing with the speaker in our minds. We use other sources of information, our own ideas, and whatever we might have read or heard in other places. This is a normal dynamic, since we are taught in school to do critical thinking, in other words to use analysis to pick apart arguments.

We experience rational discourse as outsiders looking in. With rhetorical argumentation—or numbers, charts and statistics—we as listeners remain outside, looking on and criticizing, searching for flaws in the logic. We keep our distance from the teller, and even generate our own counter-arguments. And, when a very good presenter does manage to convince us, it is still often not enough to move us to action. Human beings are simply not inspired to act by reason alone.

Story touches us in a far more holistic way than rhetoric: It is only through narrative that we can touch the entire brain—the left (feeling) hemisphere as well as the right (logical and rational) hemisphere, the subconscious as well as the conscious. Since stories reach both our emotional and our rational sides, they allow us to see and feel information, as opposed to merely understanding it.

When we listen to a story, we share the space with the teller, and we experience it in an entirely different way than argumentation. We are not sitting outside, arguing in our minds with the teller. There is nothing to argue with; we are simply in the story with the speaker, imagining what it must have felt like to be there in that moment.

As such, the great advantage of narrative is that it invites us in. If a story is well told, we experience it from the inside; it touches our hearts as well as our heads. And, when a speaker arouses our emotion, not just our intellect, we are more readily moved to action.

One word of caution, though: As a somewhat outspoken proponent of story-based discourse, I may leave people with the mistaken impression that I advocate replacing all rational argumentation with narrative. This is not the case. Presenting data and telling stories are two forms of communication that should complement each other. What I do believe, though, is that in our organizations today, storytelling is a powerful tool that remains vastly underutilized.

When we fail to integrate narrative into our conversations and presentations, we miss a great opportunity to reach our listeners and to touch their hearts.

Image: Flickr-user John Goode

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