Berger: Thinking in Terms of Narrative

This is the 7th post on Jonah Berger’s book “Contagious”, where he lays out what makes messages go viral.

We think that we are capable of seeing what is around us.  So when we look, we see what is to be seen. In other words, we tend to think that we think in terms of information. That we can use data to shape our decisions.

Sorry. This is just not born out by research. Humans tend to think in terms of narrative, not information. What does this mean? Our minds “focus on stories  (and) information comes along for the ride”.

This idea is as old as the hills. Indeed, stories were the original form of entertainment. The Iliad and the Odyssey, and many other ancient tales, provided listeners with ways to  enjoy seeing beyond their narrow worlds.  The structure is simple – there is a beginning, middle and end. If the beginning is engrossing, listeners stay to the end.

While we have many more channels for entertainment today, we have not lost our taste for stories. We listen to them and tell them for all of the reasons that content goes viral – to make ourselves more important, to share a remarkable event, and so on.  consider, for example, online reviews. These are often more like stories than ratings.

An important aspect of stories is the information that they convey. From the Three Pigs to the Boy that Cried Wolf, there is a lesson or lessons (or information) conveyed from the story itself.  These lessons are carried forward in the details of what happened. For example, “With no experience in dealing with cold weather, I bought a wool jacket. Then it got cold and I found out that looking great doesn’t necessarily feel so great in a cold wind”.

Notice that this story information is not just about what did happen (I got cold) but there is a lesson or (should happen) inherent in the facts (I should dress to be warm). And because something actually happened, this lesson is more persuasive than it would be on its own. The commercial use is obvious – if you want people to relay information about your product or service, make it part of a narrative worth sharing – like Jared who lost 245 pounds eating Subway sandwiches.

The trick here is to create a “trojan horse” storyline. Subway has a vested interest to tell Jared’s story. It connects the brand with weight loss – something direct advertising might not be able to achieve. Similarly, a soap company like Dove, has a vested interest in showing women how artificial fashion advertising is. Why? Because it is impossible for women to look like the models whose looks are falsified to get “perfect” beauty in photo shoots. Why not just wash with soap?

This last point is critical. Stories can go viral for a number of reasons. But for a company to benefit from them, the lesson of the story has to relate to the brand. Unrelated  remarkable narratives may go viral, but they will not lead to sales.

This point is critical for a reason that is not immediately obvious. When people share stories, they leave out or even change details that do not seem important. Only the essential parts of the story remain constant. So if you want your trojan horse to stay in the storyline as it is shared, make it essential to the story!


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