We All Tell Them, We All Hear Them But What Makes Them Powerful Persuasion Tools?
Stories. They’re powerful, impactful, and engaging. Much like a single-word opening or a triple-adjective description.
I am a storyteller. As a filmmaker, the story is everything, and I truly believe it’s in my blood.
One of my earliest memories, around 5 years old, takes place on boxing day at my Uncle’s house. We used to drive to Essex every Christmas afternoon to spend the night. This story isn’t about my uncle, however, it’s about my dad. It was just after we’d eaten, pockets of people contributed to a wall of voices that filled the house. Among one of these pockets, I stood, listening.
At this moment, Dad was ‘pocket spokesperson’. I watched in awe as he captured the undeniably undivided attention of 6 or 7 individuals with nothing but a beer in his hand, and a story to tell. When it was funny, people laughed. Really laughed. When it was emotional, I could see the genuine sadness on his listeners’ faces. At 5 years old, I could not believe how one man could capture and hold the attention of all those people so effortlessly.
I continued to watch in the same way as the years went by. I learned and began doing it myself. Let me tell you, there is no better feeling in the world than watching as people lose themselves in your story. It didn’t really matter what the story was about.
Even today, the story told is not the point. It’s the storyteller that really matters. It’s not the words, but the wordsmith who impacts a person. Changes their mind, or perspective, or view. This is what brings power to stories. In story lies power and in power lies persuasion.
The engagement induced by a well-told story is what this article is all about. Looking to change the way you persuade? Learning to engage your audience in a story will far surpass your standard business persuasion techniques. Reading on will inspire new ways you can persuade. Besides, learning to tell a good story has more than just this application. Stories move people, they change perspectives and inspire ideas. The better you get at telling stories, the richer your conversations become.
Why Do Stories Work?
Rooting For an Underdog
When told well, stories are incredibly effective for persuading. This is because, naturally, we root for people. Think of your favourite Hollywood film, for example. Mine (or one of them) is “The Wolf of Wall Street”. For those that haven’t seen this film; Jordan Belfort arises from the stock-market crash and prospers in the act of persuading lazy, yet money-hungry victims to invest in stocks that will certainly leave them broke. Belfort became a very rich man doing this, as I’m sure you’ve heard.
The importance here, however, is not his financial riches – but his conversational ability. The man could bluff most anyone into blowing their life savings on unwise investments.
This film, or rather this story, is important for two reasons:
1. Audience Investment
Martin Scorsese created a film that made an audience root for someone who did very bad things to innocent people. This is the power of storytelling. Despite the knowledge of these characters horrific actions, we naturally want them to succeed. Against everything in our nature, all we want is for the bad man to stay out of prison.
The point here is that well-told stories are so powerful that they can make us want good people to fail, and bad people to succeed. Nowhere else in life is this possible. If you’d like to persuade someone, make them root for something. Telling a good story can make someone go against everything they believe in to serve a happy ending.
…but how!? Well, it’s quite simple.
The Film is Written Specifically to Focus Your Attention on a Few Key Things
- Jordan Belfort’s raging party antics.
- A newfound relationship.
- A craze for money.
- His friends and colleagues committed the same insane levels of debauchery.
So, why are these things key? They’re key because they strategically only tell half a story.
As the writer tells this story, he conveniently leaves out the financial ruin of Belfort’s victims. He provides the character with a desire and then gives it to him. Thereby providing an audience with a desire, and giving it to them too. We never hear of the outcome of these deals. We never hear of or see the consequences felt by investors.
This is key because if we don’t see, we don’t care. We see the heartbreak of Belfort’s first wife when he cheats on her, but this gets little screen time. In fact, the line: “Within two weeks, I filed for a divorce and moved Naomi [second wife] into the apartment” is the only transitional explanation we get for this part of the story.
The writer blinds us with false prosper, and strategically leaves out any negatives created by it. This is the key to persuasion in storytelling. The storyteller has an all-powerful position that enables them to present any ideas they desire, and have them believed in regardless.
2. Belfort’s Telephone Terrorists
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll be familiar with the concept of telephone terrorism. Belfort provided his countless ‘telephone terrorists’ (who didn’t take no for an answer) with a script. A script that guaranteed the investment from his victims.
The genius of this script is that it made whoever was on the other end of the phone root for themselves. His workers did not tell a story, they created one. They made whoever was on the other end of the phone the main character.
They presented them with a story so good and so possible that they’d invest £5,000 in stocks awaiting a return of £150,000. This, of course, was never going to happen. However, Belfort’s script made his victims so invested in the potential of their own story, that the only option was for them to invest.
The script worked to shift the victim’s focus from the downside risk to the upside potential. When you blind someone by their potential to prosper, they struggle to see anything that suggests otherwise. How they delivered the script, however, was key too.
These people applied humility, openness, honesty, and many other positive qualities to a string of sentences that guaranteed the financial loss of their ‘customers’. By applying these emotions, workers appeared to have invested themselves in the very same story they built for their victims.
What fuels decisions more than someone telling you it’s the best move to make? Not much. They established trust, made themselves seem vulnerable, and then told the victim “I’m in this with you, let me make you rich”. What does a story need, besides the main character? A supporting role.
This is how and why stories work for persuasion. They let you create a world in which anything is possible and allow you to make someone else believe the same thing.
Something that’s valuable for persuasion, or sales tactics in general, is being unique. To capture attention is your aim and the chosen method of persuasion will either intrigue or repel someone in the first ten words.
Choose to use the same block of persuasion techniques used in your general routine and watch as your audience is instantly opposed to your objectives. However, begin to tell an engaging story and watch as attention grows and the investment in your plot begins to win the audience over.
The left brain is analytical – facts, statistics. Regular persuasion techniques utilise left-brain tendencies. This is how most persuade:
- Present a problem.
- Give a statistic for the severity of the problem, or how many people experience it.
- Offer a solution.
- Throw at you a number of facts explaining why this solution will work, and why it’s worth your hard-earned cash.
We all know this persuasion routine and, when done well, it works. However, as soon as you start telling a story, your audience won’t know your exact routine. Even if you’ve done it a thousand times, it feels to them like it’s just for them. Here, you’re utilising the right brain. Emotion, feeling, story. That is what sets stories aside as a much more effective tool for persuasion.
What Makes a Good Story?
The Art of Story
Storytelling is an art. The key, or one of them, to the art of telling stories is belief. I heard a phrase once, in a FaceBook video; ‘the best liars always stay as close to the truth as possible’. This struck a chord with me because it changed the way I wrote and told stories.
Yes, fantasy wonderlands filled with honour, hope, and a talking animal or two are great. These aren’t the only stories, however. In fact, these are exactly the opposite of the stories that persuade. The best stories in this sense, are ones that could have actually happened.
But… but how? How do I dream up a believable story that fits the situation? The answer to this is very simple: don’t.
The best self defence advice I have ever received is ‘avoid the fight’. Stop worrying about how you’re going to defend yourself in the fight and do whatever you can to avoid it happening in the first place. The same applies to these stories. Stop running into walls trying to come up with a story, and tell one that actually happened. Your tale will be all the more believable because of it.
Emotion Allows Investment
A good story, especially one that persuades, must allow the audience to become invested in it. Character investment, plot investment, and audience engagement are all common phrases in screenwriting. Allow your audience to connect with your story and the people in it.
This is achieved by making emotion the driving force behind your story. Picture this; a stockbroker attempts to persuade someone that a brand-new small-time medical company out of East Romania is the next big thing in medicinal development and it’s absolutely bonkers to pass up the investment. The stockbroker could say this, and it may work. Option two, however, goes a little something like this:
“John, If I could, I would introduce you to someone. Sarah is a mother of three who was diagnosed with an extremely rare heart condition last year. And John, I’m afraid it’s quite serious. Now Sarah… Sarah really has been through the mill. Multiple surgeries, experimental treatments, and the rest. John, despite all this, our Sarah is laying up in a hospital bed at this very moment. Now John, this company out of Romania might actually have a treatment for Sarah.
One that looks much more promising than the rest. But the company needs funds to distribute this treatment across the UK. Now the best part about my job, John, is that I can gift the opportunity for someone like yourself to help a poor mother in need, like Sarah, and… make a little money yourself. How much can you help today John?”
Stories driven by emotion create engagement and investment. This is what you’re aiming for in a persuasive story.
7 Actionable Pieces
1. Believe in Your Story
2. Care About the Story
3. Tell Stories That Actually Happened
4. Focus on the Good – Leave Out the Bad
5. Get ’em Invested
6. Make Them Root For Something
7. Finally… Remember That it’s Not About the Story, it’s About You
What Else is Key to Sealing the Deal?
The words ‘well-told’ have been included a few times already. This is for good reason. As aforementioned, it’s not really about the story. It’s much more about the way you tell it. Give the same story, worded exactly the same to two people and they’ll both tell it very differently. So what’s the most effective way?
Care about your story. Your job as the storyteller is to make it seem like this was the most important time of your life. When it feels like you care, a story that takes place for half an hour on a random Thursday will be incredibly engaging.
This is why it helps to tell stories that actually happened. Especially ones that you directly experienced. This is because you’re already invested in the plot, which makes it infinitely easier for your audience to become invested in the plot. Simply caring about your story is the fundamental key to winning your listener(s) over.
As I began with a story, I shall finish with one. I was maybe 15, out with a load of mates for my birthday. True to British culture, we sat in the middle of a field drinking cheap beer and listening to very loud music. I began to tell a story. There were people there that day that I didn’t know. This was a little daunting. I told a story about a mishap between a friend and a pigeon, this is still one of my favourites. As I told the story, I felt something I’d never felt before.
Utter engagement. Even these people I didn’t know seemed invested. When the punchline of the story brought my moment to an end, people laughed. Really laughed. That was quite possibly the best feeling in the world.
So, I implore you to tell stories. Learn to tell them well. Use them to persuade, to move, to motivate, and all of the above.
Tell stories you know, tell stories you care about, be unique in your persuasion, and most importantly… just tell stories. Practice does indeed make perfect.