Technology & InternetStory Mind, Data Mind

Communicate Influentially by Appealing to the Story Mind


Narrative Transport and Evaluative Mindset are Distinct Modes

Have you ever been “lost in a story?” It could be an exciting movie, an engrossing book, or a deep conversation with a friend. Time slows down and your imagination engages. You feel like you’re one of the characters living in the story. Psychologists call this immersive experience “narrative transport,” a term that I love because it speaks to the power of stories to move people.

Have you ever been “lost in a math problem?” Probably not in the same way as a story. For most people, this experience is a very different kind of “lost.” Evaluating, judging, and calculating put us in an analytical mindset, which is a distinct cognitive state.

Vanderbilt University psychologist Jennifer Edson Escalas studies narrative transport. She has conducted research comparing advertisements with narrative and analytical self-referencing statements. Escalas found that the narrative-style ads were more persuasive than the analytical format, which viewers tended to evaluate more critically.

Escalas says, “Transportation is not a lack of thought.  It is a distinct process from analytical thought.”

That’s because throwing lots of data at people puts their minds into an analytical state. You’re essentially putting their brain on alert, warning them, “Hey, numbers coming! Analyze, evaluate, and challenge the figures. Get ready to poke some holes in this argument!”


Hard to Generate Feelings Toward Statistics

If emotional narratives are more powerful than rational arguments, then wouldn't adding a few facts and figures improve the outcome? Wrong, says Psychologist Deborah Small, marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business at UPENN. Unfortunately, the research suggests that we can’t operate in both modes simultaneously.

Professor Small did an experiment testing the effect of emotions in non-profit communications and found that the emotional appeals got more funding than any other approach, including the emotional plea backed up with statistics.  She notes that a common mistake in marketing, “is trying to appeal both to emotion and to reason. They assume this would be more effective than appealing to only one or the other, but it isn’t."

Small continues, "It's easy to override people's feelings by giving them statistical information, but it's not so easy to add feelings where feelings aren't naturally there to begin with. It's hard for humans to generate feelings toward statistics.”


Activate the Story Mind

If the two communication modes are so different, why do we choose the analytical mode so often in professional communication? It may be due to culture, habit, pride, or any number of reasons. It’s tempting to trumpet the latest technical features of your products and services that you’ve worked so hard to develop. However, "people pay greater attention and have stronger emotional reactions to vivid rather than pallid information," says Professor Small.

Think about the next influential communication need to have. It could be a sensitive meeting with an employee, a persuasive email to your board, or an exciting new marketing message to your clients. Decide whether you’re trying to reach people’s story minds or data minds and choose between the narrative or evaluative approach.

To activate the story mind, you might:

  • Ask yourself, “Could I use a story here instead of this slide, graph, or number?”
  • Illustrate a broad pattern with a case study of a specific example.
  • Paint a picture using vivid metaphors, sensory details, analogies, and anecdotes.
  • Reflect on how you feel about the data and weave that emotion into your communication.
  • Profile people such as clients, partners, employees, and funders through testimonials. Use their words, not yours.
  • Simplify large numbers with meaningful expressions like, “Eleven dollars per person daily.”
  • Get the listener to reflect and engage with phrases like, “Imagine that you are…”
  • Highlight your capabilities in action with success stories about past projects, instead of just a generic list of services.

What experiences have you had with switching between narrative and evaluative approaches in sales, marketing, leadership, or other professional communication settings? I’d love to hear!

Andrew Nemiccolo is founder of Seven Story Learning. He leads story workshops and helps clients develop their success stories into case studies and B2B marketing content.



Escalas, Jennifer Edson (2007), “Narrative versus Analytical Self-Referencing and Persuasion,” Journal of Consumer Research, v. 34, n. 4 (March), pp. 421-429 (Lead Article).

"Sympathy and Callousness: The Impact of Deliberative Thought on Donations to Identifiable and Statistical Victims," Deborah A. Small, George Loewenstein, Paul Slovic; Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, March 2007.

Flickr photo courtesy of digitalbob8, Creative Commons license.



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