The Elements of Persuasion:
Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster & Win More Business
Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman
New York: Collins/HarperCollins Publishers ©2007
It's a brave new world, especially for business communication and marketing professionals. They/we struggle to keep up with rapidly mutating technology and the various forms of media through which an explosion of informative and entertaining messages appear. The way forward is about as clear as a fog-bound day on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Traditional advertising or marketing "pushes" information toward an audience, roughly analogous to throwing it against the wall to see what sticks. But with the diversity of media channels now running at warp speed, such an approach has become much too costly for anyone who wants to let the world know about a product or service. New technology offers methods where individuals — not whole groups or audiences — can choose, can "pull" out of the amalgam only what they want and only when they want it.
Caught in this current transition period, communicators of all stripes may often feel as if they take two steps back for every step forward. Many may seek refuge in "metrics" and data about pages viewed, conversion rates, website visitors, or actual sales. However, the most important and the most difficult element of any message to measure, the emotional impact, may never be quantified. That doesn't mean we stop trying to communicate with each other. What is does mean is that we change how we do it — and not just by buying another gadget or adding another app to the smartphone, laptop, or tablet computer.
In fact, the new media/new technology time machine drives us back as well as forward. Who (besides The Firesign Theater) would have thought that high-tech toys could take us full circle into the storyteller's once-upon-a-time? But that's where we're going: forward, into the past.
We've been hearing this for a while. One of the recent crop of books to extol the virtues of story in business communication is Annette Simmons' The Story Factor, and it's still an excellent resource. In The Elements of Persuasion, authors Maxwell and Dickman focus more specifically on business applications. And, of course (following current trends), they identify five elements they consider to be the heart of any storytelling effort.
But what is a story? According to Maxwell and Dickman, "a story is a fact, wrapped in an emotion that compels us to take an action that transforms our world." That could be as simple as a baby waving an empty bottle and saying, "All gone." Or it could be as long as the latest Iron Man movie blowing up the local cineplex, your last high school biology lab, or the health insurance directive from corporate headquarters. The Elements of Persuasion maintains that story is fundamental to our existence: "Story is not simply the content of what we think, it is also the how of how we think. It is one of the key organizing principles of our mind."
Whether you're in the corporate office, the entertainment field, or anywhere in between, Persuasion's principles can guide you to create effective stories that serve your own purposes. Maxwell and Dickman say they have "realized that all successful stories have five basic components: the passion with which the story is told, a hero who leads us through the story and allows us to see it through his or her eyes, an antagonist or obstacle that the hero must overcome, a moment of awareness that allows the hero to prevail, and the transformation in the hero and in the world that naturally results."
The authors break down the history of story from the time of Pythagoras (yes, that old Greek from high school geometry was a storyteller!) to the evolving landscape of today's multimedia messaging blur. And they focus on each element, chapter by chapter, using examples that range from Jack Welch's GE and Frank Perdue's chicken empire to Nike, Coca-Cola, the U.S. Marines, and Big Pharma. By the time you finish reading, you'll be better able to tell your own stories — and recognize when you're being fed a whopper of a line.