The Great Persuasion Tool

Sex sells. At least that’s what marketers used to think. It’s been a popular notion since 1885, when a soap manufacturer discovered that he could increase sales by simply slipping erotic trading cards of female stars into his products’ wrappers.

But a 2014 study upended conventional wisdom, concluding that there was another persuasion ploy that was much better than sex. Given that this is a website all about storytelling, you can probably guess the answer. In a content analysis of more than 100 Superbowl commercials, a Johns Hopkins University researcher found that ads in the classic five-act story format were rated significantly more popular than any other kind of ad — including those filled with humor or sexual innuendo.

Corporate marketers began to discover this new method of persuasion nearly two decades ago. And storytelling has been skyrocketing in popularity in executive suites ever since. Now, corporations are hiring such Hollywood gurus as Robert McKee, the famous University of California screenwriting professor turned consultant, who shows companies how to use stories in sales and other corporate work.

The author of the recent book “Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post Advertising World,” McKee argues that stories are much more persuasive than traditional advertisements these days. That’s because people distrust ads that focus solely on facts and logic, while they can’t stand ads designed to manipulate their emotions. Stories, McKee says, capture readers’ attention and give them meaningful emotional experiences — emotional because readers empathize with the story’s characters and meaningful because the tales offer insights into human nature. People get so engrossed in the plot that they get distracted from thinking critically, he says.

McKee has proven again and again that stories sell — not just products, but also ideas. He’s worked with lots of major corporations, including Microsoft, Mercedes- Benz, and Time Warner. One of my favorite examples of his success, though, involves a less well-known company, Boldt, a construction firm based in Appleton, Wisc.

Before Boldt hired McKee, the company was winning about one of every ten bids, lower than the national average for private construction projects. Then, McKee taught executives about the power of stories and showed the company how to “turn data into drama,” as he put it, and create a story-driven bid.

Suddenly, the mundane work of construction came alive. McKee made Boldt a key player in the drama, he says, with the company going on “a heroic quest for engineering excellence, transparent costings, sustainability, and worker safety.” The basic information was the same, but the story’s form and emotional resonance made a huge difference. Before long, Boldt’s bidding success rate soared, jumping to 5 wins out of every ten bids.

With evidence growing that storytelling can boost the bottom line, it’s no surprise that many companies now consider narrative techniques a business imperative.

Now, all kinds of employees are learning about the elements of stories: the characters, the conflicts, the quests for change. They also study classic story structures, including the famous Freytag’s pyramid, named after 19th century German novelist, Gustav Freytag, learning its five parts: introduction, rising action, the climax, falling action, and finally, the resolution.

But getting really good at storytelling takes a lot of practice. In fact, that’s why Randy Olson, a scientist turned filmmaker, doesn’t think just teach one-time storytelling workshops. Interested in helping scientists convey complex ideas, Olson not only wrote a wonderful book entitled “Houston. We Have a Narrative,” but he also developed Story Circles, a 10-week program to help people build what he calls their “narrative intuition.” Olson believes that the narrative part of the brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised repeatedly in order to be developed. In his Story Circles, inspired by an intensive Hollywood acting program, five participants meet for an hour every week, spending half their time analyzing texts and the other half discussing one participant’s work-in-progress.

For those not interested in a ten-week program, there’s a unique card game developed by Ron Ploof, another storytelling expert. Called the StoryHow PitchDeck, the cards help players develop narratives by mixing and matching four different kinds of cards: plot points, character types, motivations that drive action and techniques like foreshadowing.

When I have my clients play this game, they quickly discover that storytelling is not as easy as it seems. Lots of people think they know how to craft stories, simply because they’ve read so many of them. But nearly every card in the game can pose a challenge — and teach a valuable lesson.

Mastering these skills may take time. But the effort is clearly worthwhile, given the persuasive powers of stories. Sex really doesn’t sell much anymore, especially in this era of the Me Too movement. Now, consider the new dictum coined by McKee: “If you can’t tell, you can’t sell.”