Science backs up the power of the narrative in convincing an audience, says Ogilvy PR global chairman

Narrative storytelling is the key to persuading an audience, with science backing this up, Ogilvy PR global chairman Christopher Graves told a room full of PR professionals.


Christopher Graves: Narrative transportation is what we do at our very best

Speaking at today’s PRIA conference, Graves said: “As communicators you know if something is as dull as dishwater and entirely rational, you’re not going to move anyone,” guiding audiences through behaviour and marketing sciences that explain the way humans make decisions and process information.

Graves said effective narrative is “immersive” and “strips away that thread of identity and allows you to imagine what it maybe like to take the other side, take the other view”.

“Narrative transportation is what we do at our very best, it is telling a story that allows you to imagine yourself in that situation and through that experience you become immersed, it’s an empathetic experience and now I might have you, I might have total engagement,” he said.

Graves said the narrative does not need to be fact to effectively convince or persuade an audience.

“It’s the experience that changes the mind, not the labelling of fact or fiction,” he said.


Citing an experiment around mirror neurons which Graves said “some say are the bio-chemical evolutionary root of human empathy, by watching we can experience”, he asked how communicators can trigger this great empathy.

“How would you in a wholly ethical way trigger mirrored neurons in your audience?”

Graves said the way to do this is by drawing on the “concreteness effect”.

“What they’re finding is the brain will treat concrete language very differently from abstract language. The good news is for those of you who are already great writers, you tend to write in a concrete fashion.”

Graves said to write in a concrete fashion is the ability to paint a picture for the audience.

“If you have your audience make a picture in their mind different from what you’re telling them, that’s the ‘concreteness effect’.

“Not only does the brain more readily grasps things it can picture, it turns out it correlates with believability.”

Sending his point home, Graves said: “So imagine 11 Republican candidates in the primaries in the US across a stage and they’re facing a highly abstract question about an abstract concept called immigration reform and one candidate who indubitably understands the concreteness effect says ‘I will build a wall’ and we can all picture a wall, we don’t picture how it’s feasible, we just picture it.

Using the simple, concrete, highly-imaginable writing, things that people can picture is so much more effective then the labelling and the abstraction,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean we make everything stupid.”

Graves also spoke on creating social norms with a campaign, referencing how communications can be framed through a gain or through a loss.

Referencing a campaign to end binge-drinking on university campuses which suggested everyone was binge-drinking which resulted in binge-drinking incidents to grow as opposed to a campaign suggesting most people did not binge-drink, the situation improved.

“Creating implied social norms for communicators is an immensely powerful thing, think through that with everything you are working on, are you creating a great norm for people to gravitate to?” he said. 


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