February 13, 2010

Story as a Persuasion Tool

ScienceDaily reports, TV Drama Can Be More Persuasive Than News Program.

An excerpt:
Researchers found that college-age women who viewed a televised drama about a teen pregnancy felt more vulnerable two weeks after watching the show, and this led to more support for using birth control.

However, those who watched a news program detailing the difficulties caused by teen pregnancies were unmoved, and had no change in their intentions to use birth control.

The results show the power that narratives like TV shows can have in influencing people, said Emily Moyer-Gusé, co-author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University.

"A message that is hidden inside of a story may overcome some of the resistance people have to being told how to behave," Moyer-Gusé said.

I was asked by a journalist to comment on this study. Specifically, might these
findings may also be applied to other cause-related messages?

Here is my email reply:

This study clearly illustrates the power of story as a persuasive communication tool. When a listener identifies with a protagonist, they can picture themselves in the situation. They have taken the details presented by the narrative and connected them to memories they already hold. They’ve fused the fictional with the real and created a new and personal understanding. What results is a sense of ownership over the situation and the outcome.

Every issue requires multiple stories so that multiple viewers and listeners can find a protagonist with whom they identify. This takes work, and it takes campaign directors who are willing to admit that they don’t possess the single answer; one message does not fit all. Giving up that kind of message control is difficult for many communicators. They believe the message which with they identify is the right message. Or, the message that tested best in a focus group is the best message. Focus groups don’t test internalization and application of a message. Story, whether fictionalized or real, is a powerful persuasion tool.

One problem with educational films and other materials, is that usually they are presented with a “right” and a “wrong” answer. Students are quick to comprehend with which protagonist they are supposed to identify. This stifles authentic discussion about complex issues. Adolescents, especially, are living complex lives and will benefit from being presented with multiple pathways into understanding of an issue.

Teen pregnancy, smoking, HIV infection – these all seem like obvious issues (just say no), but to a teenager, these are complex topics, encompassing issues of health, class, and peer pressure, for example. Story helps to make sense of that complexity. Understanding an issue through the lenses of a protagonist, perhaps a hero to whom the viewer can relate, can place complex issues into an understandable and actionable context.

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