The Power of Storytelling

David Kelly
Apr 18 · 7 min read
Image courtesy of Fusion Charts


Nearly all of us are seeking to hold more of it in our lives. To be successful at anything, we must be able to influence other people.

When we are trying to influence others, we aim to convince or persuade others to change their minds about a belief or take a specific action that we so desire.

Here are just a few examples of ways we try to influence, persuade, or convince our fellow human beings.

We must convince a significant other that we are a worthy partner.

Business owners must convince potential customers that their products or services are worth their hard earned money.

Authors must persuade potential readers that their book is a worthwhile read.

Politicians must convince citizens that they are worthy of their vote.

Job seekers must prove to hiring managers that they are a worthwhile candidates for the job.

Even as the writer of this article, I am trying to convince you that we are in a constant process of trying to convince and influence others. Influencing others is vitally important if we want to accomplish our goals as business owners, politicians, authors, musicians, etc. The list goes on and on. We understand its importance.

One must then ask the question: what is the best way to influence other people?

The majority of us likely believe that we can convince others by using facts and figures. At the outset, this seems like a logical route to take. Facts and figure represent objective truth. If we are trying to persuade someone to join our ideology or buy our product, this seems like a winning strategy. While utilizing this method is commonplace, it truthfully is not as effective as we tend to believe it is.

Consider the Identifiable Victim Effect, a psychological phenomena. This effect refers to our tendency as human beings to develop greater sympathy and offer more aid when we can specifically identify and resonate with a victim that we perceive is under great hardship. Studies show that we are likely to offer more help when we can identify with one victim compared to a vaguely defined large group. This is true even when the victim is part of the group.

How does this work in action?

The Identifiable Victim Effect

For example’s sake, let’s use a tragedy such as when a natural disaster strikes a third world nation. Let’s say that this natural disaster has devastated the lives of tens of thousands. Nonprofits such as The Red Cross will respond by providing relief to those affected. Their relief efforts of course cost money. Being a nonprofit, they must seek donations to aid these efforts.

The Identifiable Victim Effect shows how The Red Cross can have the best chance of obtaining donations. By choosing to focus in on the story of one singular victim, such as a young girl, this presents the greatest odds of obtaining donations. By showcasing the story of how this young girl’s life has been put in jeopardy, the organization’s odds of receiving donations are highest.

If The Red Cross chooses to then talk about the young girl AND her brother, the odds of receiving donations fall considerably. If the Red Cross chooses to focus on the young girl’s entire family, the odds decrease even further. If they choose to talk about the young girl’s entire community, the odds of receiving donations goes even further down. Get the picture?

In the graph below, we see how the psychological phenomena works in action. A singular indefinable victim receives the highest donations. A statistical victim receives the least. Most intriguing, an identifiable victim paired with statistics fairs far worse than the identifiable victim on their own.

Why does this phenomena take place in us human beings? The answer is rather simple. Let’s tick with our example from before. By being provided with a story about the young girl, we can visualize her suffering on a much deeper, emotional level. When presented with the story, we may think about the young girl as if she were part of our family or community. This facilitates greater levels of sympathy, leading to higher rates of donations.

Our Brains on Storytelling

The oldest cave painting in the world is located in Spain in the Altamira Cave. Unbelievably, this painting is estimated to be 35,600 years old. Dating as far back as over 35,000 years ago, storytelling has been a fundamental way that we communicate as human beings.

Essentially, our ability to comprehend and be influenced by stories is quite strong. Data and objective facts are a rather new phenomena. In fact, cognitive scientist, Donald Hoffman argues that human beings have evolved not perceive reality as it exists objectively. Rather, Hoffman argues that we perceive reality in a way that gave us the greatest chance of survival.

Science has been able to show that when we sit through a PowerPoint presentation with simple bullet points and pictures, only a few parts of the brain become activated. These are called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Both of these parts of the brain are involved in the processing of language.

Researchers from Spain have found that when we are being told a story, our brains light up. Amazingly, listening to someone else’s experience activates the same parts of our brains as if we were experiencing the event ourselves. This is in addition to the language parts of the brain being activated that we have already observed.

Stories can activate our entire brain. Facts and data simply cannot. That is why stories are powerful tools of persuasion and influence.

Evolution has wired our brains to decode and understand stories. A good story presents events that unfold in a chronological order. The beginning event leads to the next, which leads to the event following, and so forth until the story reaches the end. Stories, when broken down into their simplest forms, are connections of cause and effect.

This is precisely how our brains have been evolved to understand and think. If an elder man in my tribe details a story about how a young boy wandered out into the woods at night and became a snack for a bear, what happens? As a young boy in the tribe, I learn very quickly not to wander out in the woods at night as to avoid this fate for myself. It does not matter whether the story is actually true or not. What matters is that I understand the sequence of events and how these events lead to the young boys demise.

Jeremy Hsu has found that “Personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”

This is perhaps why metaphors are so powerful. Our brains will connect metaphors to literal meanings and happenings in our lives. Why? Our brain is searching for the cause and effect relationship by trying to tie to previous experiences that we’ve had. This effect is exemplified to an extreme degree in the music we listen to. We connect with songs that hold the most personal meanings to us.

Storytelling in Marketing

Strong storytelling should be implemented in any marketing campaign. Here are just a few examples of how storytelling can be used in business.

Gyms or personal trainers could highlight a story of a member or client that has experienced a remarkable weight loss transformation.

B2B services could highlight a story about how much their service has impacted their previous or current clients.

Real estate agents could highlight a story where they sold a home in quickly manner for a price that the seller did not believe was possible.

In each of these examples, facts or figures could be used. Personal trainer could show state that they have transformed X amount of clients. B2B services could talk about how they have had X amount of client successes. Real Estate agents could show how they sold X homes last year.

While these statistics would still prove the value of the services provided, they would not do as good of a job of influencing a potential customer.

David Kelly

Written by

Writing about politics, society, business, music, and all things personal development. Let’s connect on insta: @thedavidjkelly

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