A set of researchers at Ohio State University wanted to compare the effectiveness of narratives and statistics in influencing consumers' opinions. In one study, they asked participants to estimate how likely it is that a refrigerator they might purchase would break down at some point. Before stating the estimate, each participant was told they'd be given information to help them with the task. For one group, the information consisted of stories told by consumers about the times they'd had to deal with a refrigerator breaking down. Participants in the other group were given actual statistics about the frequency of appliance breakdowns.
Frequency estimates from the group who were told just the stories averaged about one-third higher than did the estimates from the group given just the statistics. The stories of trouble led the consumers to exaggerate the actual frequency of trouble. As a general rule, narratives are more influential—and more memorable—than numbers.
What makes a story most powerful? Researchers at National Tsing Hua University, National Central University, and Wistron Corporation, all headquartered in Taiwan, isolated four characteristics:
- Authenticity. Make the story believable. Keep the important details the same each time you tell the story. Reports of outrageous outcomes in bizarre circumstances aren’t influential.
- Conciseness. Keep it short. Make the point of each story crystal clear.
- Reversal. Use contrast in your story. Good versus evil. Natural versus artificial.
- Humor. This heads off mental counterarguments. The shopper is too busy chuckling to challenge the points of your story.
- Search goods have features, the value of which can be relatively easily assessed before purchase. A refrigerator is a search good. Conciseness and humor add power to stories about search goods more than to stories about experience goods.
- The value of an experience good’s features is more difficult for the shopper to assess until it’s been purchased and used. A maintenance contract for a refrigerator is an experience good. Authenticity and reversal are especially important in stories about experience goods.
For your profitability: Sell Well: What Really Moves Your Shoppers
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Tell Positive Stories About Your Products
Coach Your Staff with Stories
Humor Your Customers