September 8, 2020

The Art and Science of Persuasive Storytelling

Joshua Reynolds

Persuasive Storytelling: An invaluable corporate asset

Business leaders often think of narrative development and persuasive storytelling as “fluff”, “spin” or “hype”. But in a recent Forbes interview, Salesforce founder, chairman and CEO Marc Benioff shared that persuasive storytelling was one of the most important aspects of his job — one not often taught in business school.

Indeed, the competitive advantages that persuasive storytelling afford companies of all sizes have been well documented for years. According to Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone. And a number of iconic technology companies — Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, IBM, Oracle, and many others — discovered long ago that it takes more than an amazing product to succeed. It takes customers, partners, employees and investors buying into what you stand for — and that requires a disciplined approach to storytelling.

Persuasive storytelling is harder than it sounds. It’s not just pretty word-smithing, eye-catching design, clever sound bites or amusing anecdotes. Storytelling is an art. Persuasion is a science. When you put the two together, you end up with something game-changing.

Because ultimately, perception is the filter of reality. Persuasive storytelling weaves the fabric of that filter and shapes how we interpret the facts around us, and how relate to our world.

The art and science of persuasive storytelling

The art of storytelling has been passed down since the first cave drawings appeared. In the 1960s – 70s, Joseph Campbell taught courses in a universal pattern to all world mythologies and stories, which he documented in his "Hero's Journey" model. In the early 2000s, I began to experiment with that model to inform the corporate messaging work my team and I were doing with clients, and we quickly discovered that with a few mild adjustments, it worked beautifully. We continued to adjust it and improve upon it with each project, and eventually we hit upon a five-chapter Persuasive Storytelling model, which The Holmes Report recognized with a Top 25 Innovator award in 2015.

But persuasive storytelling requires more than simply crafting a story with the right elements. Persuasion and rhetoric is a science, with frameworks going back to Aristotle and Cicero. In essence, persuasion begins with empathy. As Cicero put it more than 2,000 years ago, “If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thought, feel my feelings and speak my words.

More recently, Dr. Robert Cialdini documented six principles of persuasion, a series of mental shortcuts for convincing people to change their behavior. And while the social experiments he describes in his work are primarily aimed at sales and campaign scenarios, they apply just as effectively to persuasive storytelling.

Why? Because as modern neuroscience has taught us, our brains are hardwired to learn through stories. We identify with people, plot lines and principles we can relate to, and we rethink our own identity and behavior as a result. On an individual level, storytelling can lead to powerful personal breakthroughs and transformations. On a global level, storytelling is the bedrock of civilizations and cultures. And in a modern business setting, carefully crafted narratives — told well — can boost sales, attract talent, impact stock prices and influence regulations.

The backdrop of a global pandemic, economic downturn, political polarization and increasingly devastating natural disasters has created a deafening white noise of fear, doubt and self-interest. Narratives that are grounded in common purpose—and are about something bigger than yourself—can break through that white noise and get to your audience.

That’s why business leaders who can master the art and science of persuasive storytelling will always have an advantage over those who dismiss it as mere word-smithing.

Reclaiming “Persuasion”

The word “persuasion” often gets a bad rap nowadays. People hear that word and often think of it as “manipulation”. They imagine someone is trying to talk them into something they don’t want or need. But that’s not how it always was. It used to refer to what you truly believe in—what you had come to persuade yourself was true. It was synonymous with a creed or value system. And this more classical interpretation is how Rob RoyConsulting approaches persuasive storytelling. It all starts with belief.

According to classic scholars, there are three modes of persuasion — ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos-based persuasion is rooted in who your audience thinks you are, and is attached to your personal credibility. Pathos-based persuasion is rooted in using emotional appeals to win people over. And logos-based persuasion is about appealing to logic and reason.

Individually, any one of these approaches are effective, to a certain extent. But each one has its shortcomings. With ethos, persuading people based on your title, status or experience alone isn’t enough. You need to be filled with personal conviction that the story you’re telling is not only true, but beneficial to your audience. With pathos, swaying people based on their emotions alone is equally dangerous — not only because it is a base form of emotional manipulation, but also because people’s feelings can easily be swayed in new directions. As for logos, our species is rarely as logical as we’d like to believe. Many of our most important decisions are the result of listening to our hearts.

But when ethos, pathos and logos operate together within a powerful narrative structure, they’re not only more effective, they become rooted in something real and authentic.

And that’s when the magic happens.

A mindset for breaking through to your persuasive story

Rob Roy Consulting has worked with clients in all industries, sectors and cultures to help them tell stories that resonate with customers and prospects. Our philosophy is simple: the most persuasive stories start with conviction. Because conviction convinces. Conviction means believing in what you are saying — because it is true and because you know that it will benefit your audience to hear it. And conviction informs every aspect of marketing and communications, from the ground up.

It’s a mindset that can’t be found through cosmetic improvements in word choice, politically crafted spin or the momentary hype around a new technology. True conviction can be found through a process of engaging our curiosity, our compassion and our courage. And when expressed through a disciplined approach to persuasive storytelling, it can do wonders for your career, your company and your entire community.

And it's something I owe much of my own personal success to.

We can’t wait to share what we’ve learned about compelling, conviction-based narratives. In this series, we will explore actionable strategies and frameworks for boosting your own persuasive impact, constructing your own irresistible narratives, and rediscovering your power as a persuasive storyteller.

Stay tuned!

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