Nothing beats losing yourself in a good story, right?
Think about when you go see a movie. The theater’s filled with endless talking, laughing, and crunching of popcorn.
People’s faces are ablaze with blue-hued lights from their phones. And no matter how far away you sit from the rest of the crowd, 3 or 4 people always need to “just squeeze by.”
But through all that noise, all that annoyance, and all that chaos, the lights finally lower. And then… silence. At least, most of the time.
Every now and then, you get that one jerk who’s always talking too loud. Or always opening up his blinding phone to text a friend. Or always drawing the most vehement, blood-boiling rage from everyone else in the room.
Why? Why does that guy suck so much?
Because they’re breaking the immersion. Or, more technically, Narrative Transportation.
We all know what immersion is…
Getting so swept away in a tale that your whole world—your deadlines, your worries, even your very own thoughts—fade away. And all that’s left another life for you to get wrapped up in entirely.
But it’s a force that’s more than the sign of a great story. It’s also one that can also shift people’s beliefs more powerfully than even the most well-constructed argument.
And as any copywriter knows, tapping into the power of Narrative Transportation can do wonders for conversions.
Because as we’ve said before, storytelling matters.
And knowing how to do it right can open up a brand new world of opportunities.
In this article, I’ll be taking a more in-depth look at what Narrative Transportation is. I’ll also be looking at why it even matters and the 4 reasons why using it helps boost conversions.
What Is Narrative Transportation Theory?
The Narrative Transportation Theory supposes that the more a person loses themselves in a story, the more likely they are to adopt the attitudes and ideas of that story.
The better the immersion factor then, the better the conversion factor as well.
The theory has been championed most notably by Professor Melanie C. Green.
In her experiments outlined in her and Timothy C. Brock’s The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives, Green talks about a couple of notable points of Narrative Transportation.
Some of the most interesting points include:
- Individuals who have undergone a high degree of transportation are less able to identify details or aspects that ring false than those who experience a low degree of transportation.
- Belief adoption is similarly affected by both fiction and non-fiction.
- Typical rhetoric (logic-based arguments) is a divergent process—where the idea in question is evaluated against the diverse beliefs and experiences of the individual. Transportation, on the other hand, is a convergent process—where the individual’s thoughts and beliefs are less engaged.
On top of that, there are three general elements that help boost immersion:
- Eliciting Emotional Reactions
- Producing Vivid Mental Imagery
- Focusing the Attention of the Audience
And when these elements are used effectively, it draws readers in and makes them more susceptible to idea adoption.
The 4 Principles Of Inducing Narrative Transportation
But why does Narrative Transportation work? What is it specifically about Narrative Transportation that primes the reader to absorb the beliefs embedded in what they’re consuming?
In an interview with David McRaney, Green points out 4 principles of Narrative Transportation that may be at the heart of its power to change minds.
1. Makes Readers More Receptive
One of the biggest reasons for why Narrative Transportation sets the stage for belief adoption is because higher levels of immersion reduce counterarguing.
Counterarguing is our natural tendency to question what we hear. It’s the skeptic inside of us—our own personal devil’s advocate—saying, That’s not what I’ve heard or I don’t think this would work for me.
And there are two main reasons why Narrative Transportation is so good at reducing countarguing.
1(a). Transportation Takes Brain Power
First and foremost, immersion can be exhausting.
Now, hear me out on this.
As some experts have suspected in the past, counterarguing may actually take more effort than simply believing. In the article “You Can’t Not Believe Everything You Read”, authors Daniel Gilbert, Romin Tafarodi, and Patrick Malone write that:
Acceptance, then, may be a passive and inevitable act, whereas rejection [or counterarguing] may be an active operation that undoes the initial passive acceptance.
Counterarguing, then, takes work, effort, brainpower.
And when immersion is strong, the mind is already working overtime. Its “hands” are busy with processing emotions, constructing mental imagery, and tuning out details from the real world—all at the same time.
So when a story has an especially high Narrative Transportation factor, it cuts down on counterarguing simply because your brain is busy with something else: building up that super lush, super vivid, and super immersive reality inside your noggin.
After all, your brain’s just an organ like everything else—it can only handle so much work at one time.
For example, America is now fascinated with true crime documentaries and exposés into cults (Wild Wild Country or any of the many Scientology docs out, anyone?).
And one of the tactics that these cults use to brainwash their victims is to mentally wear them down—no sleep, few bathroom breaks, little food, and water. It’s all designed to break down the individual, exhaust the brain, and make them more receptive to the creepy ideas they’re trying to implant.
And why does it work (sometimes)? Because their ability to counterargue and think critically about what they’re hearing is severely diminished.
Now, this isn’t to say that getting wrapped up in a great story is equivalent to having to hold it for 3 days straight, of course. But it does help show that a preoccupied brain is a more receptive one.
1(b). Messages In Stories Are Sneakier
Stories are also exceptionally good at reducing counterarguing because the audience simply isn’t primed for a debate.
Most people today don’t open a book expecting to be launched into arguments that question their fundamental ways of life (unless you’re taking on stories by Dostoevsky or Kafka—and really, where’s the fun in that?).
People read stories because they can relax. They get swept away into another reality that they can’t live out in their own lives.
And when a character does come upon some life-altering new idea, the reader may be more likely to adopt it simply because they weren’t already poised for an argument.
For instance, think of yourself when watching a presidential debate. You’re scrutinizing everything the candidates are saying, trying to see if their points match up with what you believe.
It’s an active process, where you’re continually evaluating and re-evaluating the speeches (and often pandering bologna) you’re hearing.
But watching Stranger Things on Netflix? You’re just taking it all in. You’re getting swept away.
You’re tense, of course (and with that giant creepy slime monster tearing through Hawkins, who wouldn’t be?). But you probably aren’t spending the full 45mins of an episode meditating on the themes of lost innocence, womanhood, shared trauma, and the frailty of life (poor, poor Barb…).
So when they do come into play, they hit you from an unexpected angle that you’re a lot less likely to scrutinize.
And without being primed for counterarguing, readers face fewer obstacles to believing an idea to be true and adopting it for themselves.
2. Solidifies Connections To Characters
Another way that immersion helps make your audience more receptive to ideas is by creating strong connections to central characters.
In a truly immersive story, the audience relates on at least some level to the characters being depicted. It could be the way they think, how they speak, what they’ve been through in the past—the possibilities are endless.
But what matters is that there is a connection to themselves. And the stronger that relationship is, the more impactful the events happening to that character will be.
As Professor Melanie C. Green says (and I’m paraphrasing here), it’s like the story is actually happening to the reader or perhaps to a close friend rather than some random and unimportant person.
Don’t be confused, though—connections like these don’t have to be based only on admirable characters. Because as you probably know, the good guys aren’t the only ones that people identify with. As McRaney and Green point out in their interview, just look at how far anti-hero shows and movies have come.
The Shield, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, House, The Sopranos, Dexter—the list goes on and on. And even though the protagonists of these shows are deplorable in at least some sense (from violating social faux pas to downright murder), viewers still identify with them.
So the good, the bad, and the ugly all have the power to build those connections with readers. And as they connect, the ideas and experiences that they go through, question, and adopt all become more meaningful to the audience as a result.
3. Creates Emotional Attachment
Most of us have heard the old saying that our decisions are driven by emotion and justified by logic. And while that’s not entirely true, the point here is that emotion can be massively influential in stimulating action.
Emotions affect motivation, response to stress, mood, general behavior, and even the encoding of memories. And the more emotionally charged an experience is, the more likely that experience is to be remembered.
Now, researchers have found that a lot of this has to do with the release of norepinephrine in the brain during especially emotional experiences. In fact, it (along with epinephrine, a.k.a. adrenalin) is partially responsible for the “fight or flight” reaction in the body.
We all know what that feels like, right? When you hear a bump in the night and no matter how tired you are or how early you have to get up, your eyes bolt open and you’re instantly as awake as if you were drenched with a bucket of ice water.
That’s the “fight or flight” response—your body’s way of pumping itself up when it thinks it’s in mortal danger.
And when norepinephrine floods the brain, it has the peculiar ability to make neurons more sensitive to stimulation and, thus, more sensitive to memory formation.
So it goes like this: Stronger emotion ⇒ more norepinephrine ⇒ more sensitive neurons ⇒ stronger memory formation.
Narratives then can be particularly influencing opinions because they are often filled with strong emotions. And when those emotions are coupled with ideas, individuals are more likely to internalize them—more likely to make them a part of who they are.
So with more emotion that genuinely speaks to readers, the ideas in stories are much more likely to have an impact and be adopted.
It’s why tapping into emotions is always a go-to tool for professional copywriters.
4. Boosts Perceptions Of Realism
Finally, the realism factor of stories helps make a narrative experience feel almost like a real-life experience.
Green states that because of the vivid details and mental imagery that these stories create:
In a certain way, they can be encoded in our minds the way real experiences are. And you know obviously, it’s not exactly the same. But we think about it as maybe being the next best thing.
Take mirror neurons, for example.
These highly specialized cells are found in the brains of humans and other social animals. And as the name implies, they fire off when you witness something happening in another animal like you.
When you see another person smile, the smile mirror neurons in your mind light up. And on a lesser level, you experience the same feelings associated with that smile. You, in some sense, are smiling too.
It’s pretty fantastic stuff. And there’s a lot more research that needs to be done on these cells. But essentially, just observing an experience can have a physical effect on the mind that makes it seem like you went through it too.
And the more realistic a story is, the more your brain will be likely to experience that story on a more personal level.
But how does that explain the attachment that audiences feel for John Snow? For Frodo? Or for Shrek? These tales are HUGELY fictional.
Green points out that the notion of realism isn’t exactly what you might be expecting. Rather than immersion being based on realism as it applies to our world, it’s based instead on realism within a given frame.
As Green says:
It [is] basically like… once they’ve accepted that narrative frame, like “Okay, this is the world we’re in. We’re in a world in the future. Or we’re in a science-fiction world. Or like we’re in the Adventure Time World,” whenever it is, people kind of, they give you that. They’re like, “Okay, we’re in this frame.” And then it’s like they’re judging their realism within that. So like, “Okay given that this is the situation, are these characters still acting in plausible ways, does this still make sense to me psychologically.”
For instance, the rules and laws of reality in Westeros, Middle Earth, and The Kingdom of Far Far Away are in fact stable throughout the stories told about them. And though they may be fictional realities with dragons, elves, and talking donkeys, these realities are consistent within themselves.
And THAT is what is far more critical for immersion.
With Higher Immersion Comes Better Conversion
So to wrap up, the 4 principles of Narrative Transportation that help boost immersion and make readers more receptive to ideas are that it…
- Reduces Counterarguing
- Creates Connections to Characters
- Appeals to Emotion
- Increases Perceptions of Realism
And when it’s wielded effectively, Narrative Transportation can be a valuable tool for any professional storyteller.
Now, unfortunately, the persuasive power of narratives is just being looked at through a scientific lens. Up until just a few decades ago, experiments were focused mainly on the compelling power of rhetoric—using logical arguments to persuade listeners.
And as more data-driven research is done on the topic, I suspect a flood of evidence for the persuasive power of narratives is right on the horizon.
If you’re interested in learning more about Narrative Transportation, have a quick look at the following resources:
- David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart blog/podcast – A spectacular show that highlights some of the most pervasive self-delusions that we’re ALL guilty of. I first heard of narrative transportation from this podcast. MOST of the information here is covered in Episodes 014 and 113. And more than 7 years into the show, David still continues to pick out new and exciting ideas which prove that we aren’t anywhere near as intelligent as we think.
In the end, nothing beats getting wrapped up in a good story.
And if you’re a digital marketer, business owner, copywriter, or anyone else trying to better sell your product, one of the best things you can do to boost conversions is to tell an immersive story.
It’s why we at AutoGrow try to implement storytelling into each of our funnels in our Done-For-You sales funnel service. And it’s why we continue to see massive conversion rates for each of our clients.
So if you’ve got a story to tell, then tell it. Your bottom line will thank you for it.
How have you seen storytelling help your marketing efforts? What kinds of stories have you told to hook your audience?
Let me know in the comments below!
And as always…
Keep funnelin’, stay focused,