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Be More Persuasive by Telling Compelling Stories

The gist: Be more persuasive and inspirational by telling better stories. Five simple steps will help you form perfect arguments.


When I was a kid, my mom had stories for everything: why you should brush your teeth, eat vegetables, and not talk to strangers or do drugs. One I remember vividly, though, is about lying.

When I was six, I was on my first baseball team. I loved playing in games but didn’t care much for practice. To get out of it, I’d pretend I was sick. When she caught on to what I was up to, Mom threatened, “You were too sick for practice yesterday, so you must be too sick to play in your game today.”

The details are fuzzy, but I probably cried a lot and ran around throwing a fit. When I was done, she told me the story of the little boy who cried wolf. No one believes a liar, even when they’re telling the truth.

After that, I only needed to hear the story to know it was time to shape up each time I stretched the truth. The story changed me. Against my instincts and desires, it forced me to be a better person. I still remember it today when the temptation to lie strikes.

One little fib might not be the end of the world but, over time, you erode your credibility until it’s completely gone.

Story is a powerful motivator for change in anyone. If you have a message for the world—if you’re trying to get people to change the way they think and behave—a story could be the most powerful weapon in your toolbox.

Why Story Is a Powerful Motivator

Think of a recent argument you’ve had. Specifically, a time someone tried to get you to change something about yourself. They might have explained how they don’t like how you act and that you should change it for various reasons.

You, however, happen to like yourself just how you are!1 The more they confronted you, the more you tuned out, thought of something else, and resolved to be more the same than ever before!

Changing the way someone thinks or acts does require confrontation. You have to point out their inadequacy and try to say or do something that will make them change. Turns out, people don’t like that. Especially when what you’re trying to change is a long-held habit.

Rather than listen, you tune out and look for proof you’re perfect just the way you are. It’s called confirmation bias.2

But when you tell a story—something people connect with—it can change the reaction you get.

If someone says you’re overweight and need to lose 50 pounds, you’re probably not going to like that. But if they casually tell you—without any tone of judgment—a story about their friend who lost weight, you’ll probably listen with interest. You might even tell yourself, “I can do that! I should do that!” And if you hear that story a few times in a few different ways, you actually might.

Why? Because a story does two powerful things to persuade:

  1. It removes direct confrontation. When you tell a story, you’re no longer telling someone what they should or shouldn’t do. Instead, you’re laying out a scenario they can follow that will lead them to the result you want. But will they listen? Yes, because…
  2. It forces the listener to take part in the story. If I tell you about my friend who built a successful business in a year by waking up an hour early every day, you can’t help but place yourself in the story. You see yourself waking up early. You see yourself typing and scribbling notes. You see yourself checking your growing bank account.

This the weird thing your brain does to process a story. It forces you to take a first-person perspective, and that vision of yourself—once it’s in your head—is an incredibly powerful motivator to make a change.

For evidence of this, just look at the way people behave after watching TV. TV is a fantastic medium for storytelling, and it’s why actors determine fashion trends, weight loss and diet fads, and various other aspects of everyday life.

How to Tell a Convincing Story

It’s not enough to just understand how stories win hearts and minds. You have to be able to craft your own.

If you have a message for the world and you want to change the way people think or behave in some aspect of their life, then your success will depend on your ability to tell great stories.

The formula is pretty simple. You can create your own persuasive story in just a few minutes.

Let’s go through it and build an example together.

1. Identify the desired behavior change.

The first step is to simply get clear on what you want to see change. The more specific you can be here, the better you’ll do at finding a story that will disarm someone’s defensiveness and help them see the benefit of the change you want them to make.

Here’s an example: I think that the traditional business office is kind of a waste. Most modern businesses should be able to be run remotely without forcing employees to waste valuable time driving across town to sit at computers they already have at home.

If I were an employee at one of these businesses and I wanted to work from home, I’d want my boss to stop enforcing a strict attendance policy.

2. Find the benefits of the change.

People are motivated to take action by two different drivers:

  1. Anticipation of a gain.
  2. Fear of a loss.

To be able to tell a great story and persuade people to take action on your important idea, you’ll need to cater to both of those drivers, but focus first on what someone will get by seeing things your way. What do they stand to gain?

In my example, I can think of numerous benefits to allowing employees to work from home:

  • Happier employees who stay longer and are more dedicated.
  • Healthier employees who aren’t stressed about their commute and don’t get sick as often from their coworkers.
  • Access to a larger talent pool.
  • Cost savings from having a smaller central office.
  • A business that’s future-focused.

When I weave together my persuasive story later on, I know that I’ll want hit these points to make my case.

3. Stoke fear to instigate the change.

If you’ve ever had a great opportunity in front of you but still rejected it, you already know that a list of benefits is often not enough to drive real behavior change.

That’s why you must also focus on fear. Big, scary fears!

Study after study has confirmed that people are more likely to take action when they fear a loss than when they anticipate a gain.

To tell a persuasive story, you’ll need to paint a scene showing how avoiding the change you want them to make will cause them to lose something valuable.

The easiest way to do this is to simply flip the benefits you just came up with in the last step.

Carrying on with my remote work example, here’s what losses I would focus on as I built my case for my boss:

  • Miserable employees who leave often for better opportunities.
  • Sick employees who miss work because their coworkers spread a virus.
  • Losing ground to competitors who can hire better talent.
  • Ballooning costs from trying to make the office everyone’s “second home.”
  • A slow decline in productivity and profit by avoiding change.

Already, you can start to see how convincing it could be to use the fears and the gains together. You make them aware of the loss, and then immediately turn it into a gain with your solution.

4. Identify major objections.

You have a solid foundation now, but you’re not quite done with the research stage. To really make your story shine, you need to know what your audience’s objections are going to be.

When you’re trying to persuade someone to make a big change, they are going to have some real hesitations that may be extremely hard to get over.

To have any chance at success, you need to start by knowing what they are. What are all the “whataboutisms”—when someone says, “Yeah, but what about…”—that could come up as you’re weaving your story?

In my case, here are some of the objections my boss might have.

  • A change like this could throw the whole company into chaos.
  • We already have this big office to house everyone. It would be wasted.
  • How will I know my employees are actually getting anything done if they aren’t here?
  • What if we lose the company culture we’ve worked so hard to build?
  • What if I get lonely?

These are the big showstoppers that I’m up against. It’s good that I can anticipate them, but what I really need is to have a compelling and motivating answer to each one of them.

And that’s what comes next.

5. Find stories and examples to weave together.

This is your shining moment. All the pre-work is done, and this is where the story starts to come together.

Your job now is to polish your argument by finding real examples, case studies, and stories that illustrate the value of your argument. That is what will make you truly persuasive.

To be as effective as possible, you’ll want to focus your stories on the objections. Those objections you identified in the last step are the biggest obstacles to your success, so you must work hard to dismantle them.

In my case, I would want to find stories that illustrate other companies that transitioned to allow employees to work remotely, and how they overcame all the same objections. I’d look for stories that showed:

  • How one company transitioned slowly to prevent chaos and preserve their valuable culture.
  • How another company found a new use for their empty office or got a big benefit from downsizing their space.
  • The strategies successful remote businesses use to track employee productivity.
  • The ways that everyone stays connected to each other so they don’t get lonely.

If I can find real-world examples that fit these stories and weave them together, then I know I will have an extremely compelling and persuasive story that can really help me achieve my goal.

Persuasion Doesn’t Require Perfection

One more important piece to this puzzle is that you should take care not to polish your story too much. A perfect argument with no downsides whatsoever probably seems great to you, but it may actually make it less persuasive.

Earlier, we briefly discussed the concept of confirmation bias—people tend to look for and value data that confirms their existing beliefs and discounts data that would counter those beliefs.

To become more persuasive, you have to find a way to get people to listen to and value a story that doesn’t fit with what they already believe. A perfect story won’t do that. It’s too unbelievable, even if it’s true.

The easiest way to counter this problem is to occasionally highlight imperfections. Let people see that your argument isn’t perfect and that there are some hurdles to get over.

At first, this feels counterproductive, but it really works because it allows your story to have a few elements to it that a skeptical audience already believes. It gives them a little hit of that “I was right” feeling—but just enough to get them to pay attention, which is where you’ll slowly start to overwhelm them with persuasiveness of the rest of your story.

And that is where you’ll start actually change minds and, likewise, start changing behavior.3

Footnotes

  1. Thank you very much!
  2. Confirmation bias is a psychological principle that explains how people who hold a belief will look for evidence to confirm that belief and ignore evidence that it’s wrong, even if the evidence against it is overwhelming.
  3. Thanks to David McRaney and Melanie C. Green for their fantastic discussion about this topic in Episode 14 of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast that informed this article and sparked my imagination on the topic.