Why Personal Narratives are so Persuasive – and How to Make Your Narrative Especially Compelling

It’s one thing to read a statistic that 50% of renters in a neighborhood are housing voucher recipients. It’s another thing to sit across a dining room table from one of those renters and hear her frustrations with the lack of viable housing options and how she felt trapped in this particular neighborhood where she worried about her kids’ safety. 

Both pieces of information – the statistic and the woman’s story – ultimately pointed to the same broader issue: the housing voucher system was reinforcing segregation and contributing to pockets of concentrated poverty in neighborhoods that had already experienced significant disinvestment. As I reported in 2019 on the factors that fueled this trend and explored potential ways to balance the local housing market, I was struck by the importance of bringing together a variety of types of information in order to explain this complex situation well.

Personal narratives are a vital part of how we make sense of the world around us. Journalists often refer to this as “putting a face on an issue,” knowing that people relate to people more than facts and figures. And there’s more than conventional wisdom backing up this approach: A whole body of research points to what makes personal narratives an especially persuasive form of communication. 

Research shows evidence alone can be persuasive, if a few key factors are in place: a credible messenger, citing sources of information perceived as unbiased, and tailored framing of the information to the audience to make the facts seem new and directly relevant to their money, time, and other resources. 

But the path to persuasion changes when we shift from analytical, evidence-based claims to conveying information through narratives. 

With narrative messaging, people don’t lead with the same degree of resistance they would bring to an analytical argument attempting to convince them of something – especially if they have preconceived opposition to the idea. When engrossed in a story, we’re more likely to accept the beliefs and themes subtly presented and allow those beliefs to shape our attitudes, compared to a case for or against a hot-button issue. 

It’s hard to argue with someone’s personal experience. 

The academic term for this persuasive effect is “narrative transportation,” the experience of being transported – mentally and emotionally – into the world of the story. All narratives are not created equal, and research offers insights into what elements make for an especially “transporting” story. 

The story needs to have a relatable narrator or characters, a cohesive plot, vivid imagery so the audience can visualize what’s happening, and plausibility – the sense that these people and events could exist, even if we’re talking about a fictional story. 

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, these elements – character, plot, setting, descriptive details – probably sound familiar. Good storytelling is good storytelling, whether you’re a researcher trying to understand what type of messaging is most likely to persuade or a writer trying to hone your craft. 

For me, there’s a certain magic that happens when the principles of persuasive communication meet good storytelling. It’s why I’m passionate about helping people tell their stories well and finding a platform for a diverse set of perspectives to guide how we approach complex issues.

Do you want support in shaping a personal narrative?

I offer one-on-one writing coaching and narrative building workshops, which help participants develop the skills to share their stories in meaningful ways as op-eds, personal essays, blog posts, or advocacy statements.