The Future of Storymaking: How Stories Persuade Us To Change Our Minds and Actions

AI image of a man on a laptop and the galaxy coming out of the laptop.
By Stephen Taylor |

There will always be new ways to craft stories. As long as we have new technologies, new platforms, new interests or simply (new) news, storymaking traditions will evolve to match. 

That said, some parts of bringing a story together never change—or at least haven’t since the invention of formal storytelling. So, as we look at The Future of Storymaking, it’s helpful to look backward as well, noting areas in which stories have stayed the same across cultures and through the years. 

Put another way, to understand how storymaking will change in the next 50 or 100 years, we’ll also need to understand how stories themselves won’t change.  

We can expect new formats or interactive shapes for the content we create. Every year, we see new systems for audience– tailoring and targeting, too. We’re also likely to see fresh angles on old themes as content publishing continues to become more accessible and inclusive. 

Here are two frameworks, one from the present and one from the far past, illustrating how we can expect The Future of Storymaking to stay the same. 

A person reading a story

The Rhetoric of Stories Today: Transportation Theory 

It will come as no surprise that emotional, relatable stories help change the minds and actions of audiences today. Every year, dozens of marketing oracles explain how brands need to invest in authentic stories if they want to lead an audience or community anywhere new. And every year more brands try this—sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. 

So, how do stories get this persuasive power? 

Transportation theory, pioneered by Dr. Melanie C. Green, is a well-researched exploration of this topic. Transportation theory describes how people get swept up in a narrative. It happens more or less the same way whether we’re reading, listening, watching or encountering the story in some mix of media and modalities. 

When a story transports us, we lose consciousness of our real-world surroundings. We start identifying more strongly with the characters we’re encountering in the story—even if we know they’re fictional. Strong attachment to the events and characters in the story leads us to yet greater detachment from our own time and place. As a result, our inclination to counterargue or resist persuasion is temporarily reduced as we see ourselves not here but there, inside the story. 

With more than 20 years of active research behind it, transportation theory gives both evidence and detailed explanations of how stories change our minds. Here are a few key findings

  • Virtually anyone can experience transportation, but we’re more likely to be transported if we see ourselves in the characters in the story and, if we identify with them before and after the transporting experience (hence one need for inclusive stories). 
  • Powerful emotion will pull us deeper into the story world. 
  • Getting caught up in the story leaves us with positive feelings, no matter the content of that story. 
  • A story doesn’t need to be true, or to be presented as such, to be persuasive. 
  • Strong sensory experiences make for greater transportation. 
  • Transporting experiences change our attitudes about taking action—including buying a specific product featured in the story. 
  • Across dozens of studies, audiences report different attitudes and beliefs after encountering a transporting narrative than they did beforehand

Here’s the big takeaway from the first major study on transportation theory: “To the extent that individuals are absorbed into a story or transported into a narrative world, they may show effects of the story on their real-world beliefs.”

A person listening to a story

The Rhetoric of Stories Yesterday: Quintilian’s Narratio 

Transportation theory is one of many formal approaches to telling persuasive stories. Orators in Greece and Rome made a systematic study of this topic as early as 2,500 years ago. 

In classical Roman oratory, a speech would be broken down into several major sections, each with its own role to fulfill. For instance, orators used the exordium to get the audience in the right frame of mind, the confirmatio to present the major points of argument, a refutatio to anticipate or respond to counterarguments, and so on. The narratio, or narrative explanation, is the most story–like and, like stories today, was understood as being highly persuasive. 

For example, the great Roman orator and teacher Quintilian saw the narratio as an opportunity not just to convey information but to change the minds and hearts of his audiences. Quintilian recorded his thoughts about the narratio in his 12-volume rhetoric textbook, Institutio Oratoria,. 

Even without what we might call experiment-based findings, Quintilian’s message goes hand-in-hand with transportation theory today: 

  • Anyone can be moved by a story told well. 
  • Powerful stories can shape a person’s values, beliefs and actions. 
  • Believability and fact are not the same; an audience will care more that a story is believable than that it is factual. 
  • Vivid imagery and involvement of the senses tends to make a story more plausible. 
  • Telling a story can lead an audience to “feel as if they were actual eyewitnesses of the scene” being portrayed. 

In other words, Quintilian saw storytelling as an opportunity to transport an audience into someone else’s shoes. And, like transportation theorists, he was confident that this kind of storytelling would lead audiences to seriously consider arguments they might otherwise reject. 

A person immersed in story through virtual reality

Storymaking Hasn’t Changed Much—Yet 

There are countless other ways to understand or explain why stories stick with us, change our minds and inspire us to adjust our actions. It’s striking, however, that rhetoricians 2,000 years ago and scholars today reach basically the same conclusions about persuasive stories. Sensory experiences, emotional attachment and connection to human characters—the feeling that you could stand in their place—are still core pillars of persuasive storymaking.  

For counterpoint, look at the stories today and compare them with stories of one or two thousand years ago. You’ll find that today’s Oscar winners and yesterday’s epics share a lot of common ground, both in what they’re about and why people care. 

That alone makes the case that some kinds of stories are here to stay.

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