Storytelling science: why you need a good hero

May 14, 2013

A couple of years ago, political scientist Michael Jones published the results of a study in the Policy Studies Journal, on the most effective ways to educate and persuade the public about the threats of climate change. His research clearly demonstrated that when climate information is conveyed in narrative story format – with heroes, victims, villains and a plot – listeners are far more likely to understand the science and support solutions. In the simplest of terms and in his own words: “You have to tell a story if you want people to retain information.”

Jones conducted experiments involving 1,586 people to show how this plays out in the way people talk about climate science. Each person was randomly treated to one of four opinion articles and answered survey questions about their climate opinions before and after reading the article. Each article discussed a recent report on the U.S. effects of global warming.

One of the four was simply a list of the effects of climate change from Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean, and points in between, such as “It is 66% likely that the Great Plains area will experience more severe summer droughts.” The other three options were all identically-worded stories, with the same facts as the list, but with the good guys, bad guys and solution for global warming swapped out. He found that people were more likely to agree with scientist’s views about climate change after reading a story, rather than a list alone, regardless of which one they read.

“But what surprised us was how much the hero mattered,” Jones said. People liked the villains less after reading the story, but that didn’t affect their views much. Instead, having a hero they liked made them much more favorably disposed towards a solution. “Simple stories with likeable heroes are the most effective.”

Liz Banse

For more advice on developing stories that connect, check out this post on the hero’s journey.