The Best in Narrative Psychology

When you meet someone for the first time or reconnect with an old friend or go to a dinner party what takes place? Think of any situation where you are interacting with others. We share an anecdote from our day at the dinner party. We tell that old friend about what has taken place with our family and career. We attempt to connect with someone new by conveying our experiences and interests. This does not mean listing or dating activities. In every instance we use storytelling to communicate, engage, and relate.

Storytelling helps us make sense of our lives and the world around us. They are an incredibly effective method of finding and sharing meaning and context. Mary Catherine Bateson, writer and cultural anthropologist, believes that, “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” We are hardwired for stories because we have been telling them for centuries.

Marketing and advertising practitioners continue to debate the application of storytelling in business. The most voracious advocates cannot see past the construct and even the hardiest critics employ storytelling. So why all this sharing of tales? Stories inspire and motivate. Stories make ideas stick. Stories persuade. Stories educate and entertain. That makes for good marketing.

A few years back at the Festival of Creativity in Cannes I had the pleasure of interviewing Arianna Huffington, Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, of The Huffington Post. It was also a challenge as her handlers held me to just three questions. She once said, “People think in stories, not statistics, and marketers need to be master storytellers.”

I am a fan of storytelling because when done right they become so powerful that they can change people’s minds and behavior. That is the ultimate goal of marketing…to persuade, inspire, convince. It is to drive people to action not just passive absorption or disregard for marketing messages.

This is why I now subscribe to a more involved form of business storytelling. It injects a psychological focus into the practice. Narrative psychology examines how human beings create meaning from experiences by portraying themselves as protagonists in stories. Psychologists in this area believe that stories, rather than logical arguments, are the primary means by which we communicate meaning and values. To be honest, marketers have borrowed liberally from this field (always have and always will).

Narrative psychology goes further and looks at how human beings deal with experience by observing stories and listening to the stories of others. We have all heard that marketing is now about experiences so you can see the two skill-sets are needed in marketing. Where I see it work best is where business stories are the aggregate of customer experiences and/or the ideal experience a company wishes for a customer. Yes, it is a bit of chicken and egg.

What follows is a list of articles that will introduce you to aspects of narrative psychology. It is an eclectic collection given the subject and that is a story unto itself.

Michael Lewis and the Narrative Nonfiction Formula By Cody Delistraty in The Los Angeles Review of Books

Check this article out for examining “hindsight bias,” “peak-end rule,” and “prospect theory,” but also “availability heuristics” (mental shortcuts people use to quickly make decisions and understand topics, concepts, and people) and “loss aversion” (people tend to prefer avoiding losses rather than making equivalent gains). Also “hedonic psychology,” the study of which experiences make life satisfying or not.

What Makes Things Cool By Derek Thompson in The Atlantic
Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design, had a theory of popularity and culture—a four-letter code that he said could help artists sell anything to anyone. Was he right? Loewy believed that consumers are torn between a curiosity about new things and a fear of anything too new. Read this piece from Derek Thompson…a fantastic writer worth following.

The Inside Story By Peter Guber in Psychology Today

This article’s publisher signals that the content will go deep but actually it is quite digestible and offers a big promise: “Telling stories is not just the oldest form of entertainment, it’s the highest form of consciousness. The need for narrative is embedded deep in our brains. Increasingly, success in the information age demands that we harness the hidden power of stories. Here’s what you need to know to tell a killer tale.”

Life’s Stories By Julie Back in The Atlantic
How you arrange the plot points of your life into a narrative can shape who you are—and is a fundamental part of being human. This other piece from The Atlantic has some juicy insights into our own narrative storytelling. It includes this thought, “When people drop the cheesy pick-up line “What’s your story?”, like a man who nicks his carotid artery while shaving, they’ve accidentally hit upon something vital.” And this thought provoker, “Any creation of a narrative is a bit of a lie.” It is a bit uncomfortable but worth it.

The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story By Maria Popova in BrainPickings

“Stories,” Neil Gaiman asserted in his wonderful lecture on what makes stories last, “are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.” But what is the natural selection of these organisms — what makes the ones that endure fit for survival? What, in other words, makes a great story?

This is How We’ll Experience Storytelling in the Future By Margaret Rhodes in Wired

Think of this article as an homage to Marshall McLuhan. If the “medium is the message” then how are new technologies going to impact storytelling. Here is a tidbit…“Originally stories were living things,” says Charlie Melcher. “It was a dialogue, something you could interrupt, or physically respond to.” Melcher thinks that sort of interactivity is exactly what the future holds.

Connecting with Consumers Using Deep Metaphors By Martha Lagace in Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

This article and interview’s summary reads, “Consumer needs and desires are not entirely mysterious. In fact, marketers of successful brands regularly draw on a rich assortment of insights excavated from research into basic frames or orientations we have toward the world around us.” It is an interview with HBS professor emeritus Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman, authors of Marketing Metaphoria. Key concepts include: Deep metaphors are powerful predictors of what customers think and how they react to new or existing goods and services and recent advances in various disciplines are providing concepts and techniques enabling marketers to dig into what consumers don’t know they know.

Can Science Explain Why We Tell Stories By Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker

Here is an outtake: “There’s no escaping stories, or the pressures to tell them. And so the pathetic story-pitcher turns to pop science—to Jonathan Gottschall’s new book, “The Storytelling Animal,” for instance— for some scientific, or at least speculative, ideas about what makes stories work and why we like them. Gottschall’s encouraging thesis is that human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.”

One last note: thanks to Flipboard, a site with 70 million users and 26 million digital magazines. The day this was posted Flipboard featured it on their homepage as a cover story and a lead in the site’s Storytelling, Psychology, and Life Sciences magazines. That attention drove thousands to our site and we are grateful.


3 replies
  1. Fred Tashew
    Fred Tashew says:

    It seems to me that marketing and advertising has always told stories. Yes, early on it was an expression of product attributes but now it is more involved. Every 30 second tv ad was a little story. The difference is telling ones customers relate to not one where the company is talking only to itself.

  2. Carole Ketchum
    Carole Ketchum says:

    One thing that is never discussed in this work is the danger of oversimplification. All advertisers seem to do is rehash the same tired metaphors and archetype. That is why consumers tune out.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *