How B2B Marketers Use Psychology to Be Effective Storytellers
Great B2B marketers know that understanding how your target audience will respond to your copy is essential. However, this is easier said than done. If marketers want to produce content that shapes culture, drives results, and helps their brand generate leads, they need to understand social psychology and become effective storytellers.
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Researchers in the field of social psychology have been interested in the differences between rhetorical persuasion and narrative persuasion for much of the twentieth century. These two forms of persuasion echo the idea that there are actually two ways of processing new ideas. Some people find it more natural to respond analytically (rhetorical), while others respond better to stories that are immersive and experiential (narrative).
In this article, we dive deep into these two main communication styles and break down how you can use this knowledge to tell better stories in B2B. But first, let’s make sure you’re clear on the difference between these two types of communication.
Understanding Rhetorical Communication
Rhetorical communication is driven by logic and argument. It was first used by ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. This communication style seeks to break down how language is used to persuade listeners, and it functions based on three models that come from the Greek language: ethos, logos, and pathos.
In this context, ethos is an establishment of trust between the speaker and the audience based on how the speaker presents themself. The more trustworthy the speaker appears, the more likely an audience will respond with pathos, or emotion. Emotional responses provoke action, and those who respond with pathos are likely to follow your call to action. Logos is your message itself: if what you are trying to communicate is based in facts, research, and other supporting evidence, you are more likely to convince your audience that what they are hearing is trustworthy and ultimately worth their time. These three factors work with scientific precision to convince and convert your audience.
Understanding Narrative Communication
Narrative is a communication technique driven by imagination, and it features structural elements from fiction. Narrative storytelling allows for a brief escape from reality.
Have you ever been so engrossed in a book or a Netflix binge that the lines between reality and fiction became blurred? Even after this feeling of submersion ends, the experience of being immersed in a powerful narrative often leaves a lasting influence on you.
Studies have found that readers of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath are “likely to become more sensitive to the plight of the working man, and perhaps also more skeptical about motives of big business” (The Jury Expert, 2011). People form emotional connections to a narrative whether the characters are fictional or factual. This means that powerful narratives encourage the reader to form real-world emotional connections to the work.
It is believed that people can only use one method of processing at a time. If a reader is totally immersed in the narrative you are presenting, it is unlikely that they will switch to a more rational mode of processing and begin scrutinizing the factual information you are presenting. This works the other way, too—those who approach new information from a critical or rational stance will be unlikely to suddenly shift into being immersed in a story.
Some people will respond best to data-driven copy, while others might find this to be dry and stop reading halfway through. Those people who prefer data driven information would find narrative communication styles to be at risk of being untrue or a falsification of the truth.
So, as a marketer, you have three options for reconciling these two modes of processing:
- Appeal to rhetorical communication styles
- Appeal to narrative communication styles
- Appeal to both styles without shifting between styles – a daunting challenge!
The power of a good story to persuade your audience relies heavily on five key points:
1) Be A Good Storyteller
You need to communicate clearly while also making an appeal to your listeners’ emotions. A story is only as good as the person telling it. Think back to the last good story you heard – was it at a party? People are more likely to become immersed in a story when it is told in a captivating way. Stories told at parties over a few drinks are more likely to be lively and engaging because people feel more confident and eager to make social connections.
2) Immerse Your Audience
Bring the people you want to reach into the world you’re creating with your writing. If you’re writing for an outdoor magazine, take your readers to the woods, or out on the canoe with you. Take them to that ski hill in Vermont where they can smell the fresh powder. Writing that is filled with these mental images is likely to be remembered. Maya Angelou said it best:
“People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”
3) Know Your Audience
Are your readers more likely to read fiction and be imaginative? Do you remember the old saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink? Even if your writing hits all the right notes, and is persuasive, imaginative, and immersive, if your audience is less interested in reading, you need to reconsider your marketing strategy and be more inclusive and knowledgeable about your audience. Perhaps your targeted audience is people who use the website GoodReads. This would be a good cue that you can be more creative in your advertorial storytelling.
4) Write Structured Stories
Making sure your writing is well structured will keep readers who prefer either type of communication engaged. Analytical thinkers thrive on structure. They like math problems, argument forms, and logic puzzles. Advertising is argumentation because its final goal is to convince its audience that they have the best product for their audience. This means that if you are going to take an overtly argumentative stance in your copy, it has to be logically sound to appeal to those who are persuaded by rhetorical content.
Those who are more persuaded by imaginative narratives still thrive on structure. Most stories have a beginning, middle, and an end, with clear distinctions between protagonists and antagonists.
5) Attempt to Reach Both Sides
This isn’t a simple task, but sometimes it is necessary. Apple’s demographic includes those who prefer rhetorical persuasion and also those who prefer narrative persuasion. They respond to this problem by creating only one set of copy that works with both sets of communication styles. Here is an advertisement they have running for their new Macbook:
This copy works because it is short, true, and unexpected.
“Light. Years ahead” is a play on the idiom “light years ahead,” which is commonly used to describe something, usually technology, that is much more advanced than its competition. The clever placing of a period after the word light retains the meaning of the original idiom but highlights the laptop’s lightweight design, one of the main features of the product which makes it “years ahead” of any competition.
While the phrase “light years” is a unit of measure, it is often used hyperbolically because few people have an accurate idea of a light year’s scale. The term “light-year” incites an imaginative response because most people can only imagine how large a light year is. This appeal to imagination, along with the creative placement of the period, is certain to draw the attention of those who are persuaded by narrative.
Apple consumers know that the only competition for laptops which are “light” is the MacBook Air, which Apple is quietly trying to phase out. This phrase will catch the attention of those who like or use the MacBook Air, and encourage them to consider how this product is much more advanced.
Apple’s demographic for their Macbooks includes those who prefer all extremes of communication style: software engineers, creative professionals (including artists, writers, and musicians), academics, and business professionals. They invest a lot of time and money into staying relevant to all of these demographics.
Ultimately, it is up to you to find out who your audience is and what kind of storytelling they respond to best. Some tools for finding out the interests and preferences of your audience can be found using Google Analytics.
You can also use social analytics solutions like Simply Measured Content Share Tracking to gain insight into what type of content, or which types of stories, resonate most. For example, with Content Share Tracking, you can track the average time people spend on your blog, helping you identify the days and the stories that your audience enjoys.
At the end of the day, people respond best to content that’s clever. Sometimes great copy is imaginative and clever, and sometimes it is clever because it’s built on a solid argument. While you’re writing, consider the impression of your writing on each of these communication preferences. Craft your piece with this strategy in mind, and your copy will leave much more influence on your audience.
If you’re interested in learning more about unconventional content marketing strategies, please reach out, or check out some of these other resources about creating content that shapes culture:
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Ross is passionate about technology, the future, good people, good coffee, and storytelling. He writes about a wide range of topics, including the highs and lows of entrepreneurship, along with the lessons he's learned over the last few years. Ross is the founder of Foundation (content consulting & creation), Hustle & Grind (subscription service for entrepreneurs), and Crate (content marketing software – beta).