Platforms for storytelling are continuously expanding as activists and marketers alike recognize the persuasive power of narrative. Institutions and groups invested in social action are increasingly turning to narrative to convey their messages and inspire change.
Yet, a basic question often remains—what makes narrative so compelling? Within a persuasive narrative, what aspects motivate an audience to action? Here at HI, we continuously ponder these questions and think critically about how scientific research can provide answers. Through rigorous research, we’ve compiled several tips for creating a compelling narrative that will both engage an audience and encourage them to act.
Real or not real?
Storytelling often conjures images of impossible, mythical adventures, but any experience, whether real or imagined, can be equally engaging if presented through narrative. A study by LaMarre and Landreville (2009) examined the difference in participant engagement when watching either a film that reenacted historical events from the Rwandan genocide (Hotel Rwanda, 2004) or a documentary on the same subject (The Triumph of Evil, 1999). Despite the fact that participants reported different emotional responses after watching the films, researchers found that regardless of whether viewers watched the documentary or the reenactment, they showed similar levels of issue interest and engagement with the narrative.
Fictional stories are as effective as factual stories in influencing or shifting attitudes and beliefs related to the narrative (Green & Brock 2000, Green, Garst, Brock and Chung 2006). Whether a narrative documents real events, is based on a true story, or remains purely fiction, it can provide an equally compelling experience for audiences.
Take them to the moon and back
Upon the release of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), fans reported experiencing depression after seeing the movie. Although triggering such a response was likely not Cameron’s intention, the emotional investment from his audience indicated their complete transportation into the world of Pandora.
Narrative transportation occurs when an audience experiences a new place and time through imagery provided by a story’s compelling visuals or words. During narrative transportation, audience members focus their energy on the imagined story, allowing them to disengage from their current state and temporarily enter into another world (Upfal 2010). Transported readers or viewers are less likely to approach an engaging narrative with disbelief or a critical eye, and consequently their beliefs may be more easily influenced (Green & Brock 2000). A difference in presentation or a shift in point of view of our ordinary, everyday world has the ability to transport an audience.
New shoes to step into
While transportation immerses the audience into a new place or situation, one of the most powerful connections a viewer makes with a narrative is through a story’s characters. Researcher Jonathan Cohen (2001) defines identification as the process of losing awareness of the self and strengthening one’s emotional and cognitive connection to a character. Identification allows audiences to vicariously experience narrative events, potentially causing a shift in their attitudes and behavior after internalizing a character’s trials and choices.
In 2012, researchers Kaufman and Libby conducted a series of studies, adding additional support that this “experience-taking” phenomenon may result in a temporary shift in one’s beliefs and worldviews. One study found that participants who read a story from the first-person point of view, where the main character attended the same university as the participants, were more likely to model the character’s behavior (in this case, voting in an election), than participants who read a story in third-person point of view with a character who attended a different university.
Another study suggested that introducing too many concrete traits about a character early on in a story, such as a character’s race or sexuality, might prevent the general audience from identifying with him or her. This does not imply that relatable characters should be genderless, colorless, or shapeless, but instead that characters should face common obstacles, allowing the audience to enter their proverbial shoes and reconsider how they might handle the situation.
Aligning the synapses
Within our brains, billions of cells are constantly communicating with one another, producing enormous amounts of electrical activity identified as brain waves. Brain waves operate at different rhythms depending on our concentration levels. In contrast with beta waves, which are primarily emitted when we concentrate intensively, and delta waves, which occur during deep sleep, theta waves increase when we are experiencing a new situation, such as finding our way through an unfamiliar city.
A recent study found that when theta waves peaked and simultaneously synchronized with spikes in activity from the hippocampus and amygdala, areas in the brain associated with memory and emotion, the participants best remembered new images being introduced (Rutishauser, Ross & Mamelak 2010). An effective narrative will introduce something novel to the audience, something that they must focus on to process and comprehend. Although it appears that we maintain little control over the rhythms of our brain waves, neuroscience research also reveals that emotional arousal increases theta activity from the amygdala (Paré, Collins & Pelletier 2002) . Inducing strong emotion through a narrative with novel elements may intensify theta activity and make a story more memorable.
By combining science with the art of storytelling, we can produce strategies that encourage engagement, empathy, and action.
Trip them up
The more emotionally connected an audience is to the issues raised by a narrative, the more personally invested they will become. In the aforementioned study that compared two films on the Rwandan genocide, participants who viewed the documentary reported similar levels of engagement with participants who watched the feature film, but documentary watchers reported higher levels of guilt and disgust than those who viewed the feature film. The increase in negative sentiment positively correlated with an increase in issue interest (LaMarre & Landreville 2009).
Besides arousing interest in an issue, inducing negative emotions may also increase empathy within audience members. Researchers Bagozzi and Moore (1994) presented participants with two ads warning against child abuse in a narrative format, one with strong emotional appeal and one with weak emotional appeal. Compared to participants who viewed the ad with a weak emotional appeal, participants who viewed the ad with a strong emotional appeal reported experiencing higher levels of negative emotions such as fear, tenseness, anger and sadness; scored higher on the empathy scale; and reported significantly greater likelihood to take action for the cause. With heightened interest in the issues and a stronger sense of empathy, an audience may be motivated to address the problems raised in the narrative.
In the age of modern technology, today’s most recent social campaigns ask the concerned public to ‘like’ their Facebook websites and follow their Twitter feeds. Retweeting and liking, also known as clicktivism is a practice slowly substituting for actual action. Social media is an invaluable tool for spreading the word and raising awareness about pressing issues, but sustainable social change begins with demands by acting upon real solutions.
Providing the audience with solutions they can carry out in day-to-day life may encourage them to act upon the concerning issues addressed in a compelling narrative. As the mini-documentary The Story of Bottled Water comes to a close, Annie Leonard provides tips for how to avoid adding to plastic waste—tips as simple as carrying a reusable water bottle. Even Aesop understood the importance of putting the moral at the end of the story.
And the moral of this story is…
Simply understanding the importance of stories is not enough—we must utilize and develop the tools we have to achieve greater social impact. By combining science with the art of storytelling, we can produce strategies that encourage engagement, empathy, and action.
Whether you’re a writer, filmmaker, producer, visionary, dreamer, leader, teacher, parent, or student, narrative storytelling can change the way your audience understands and relates to your message. Tell stories that transport them, that give them new shoes to try on and that touch their hearts. Remember, with great powerful narrative comes great social responsibility.