“Words. Words when spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music. They have rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume. These are the properties of music, and music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t.”

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, in an attempt to extol the virtues of oratory through the character of President Josiah Bartlet, presents a poetic vision for persuasive narrative. Whether in the guise of a political speech, a religious sermon, or the closing arguments of a case, all oratory attempts to achieve the outcome that Sorkin describes. Anyone who attempts to persuade another person must contend with a widening political gap, moral conflicts, personal codes of behavior, an ever-growing sentiment of cynicism, and a rapidly diminishing sense of empathy in our communities. Before I paint too gloomy a picture, let me pivot to say that such challenges only place a greater burden on the speaker. An orator cannot focus only on the content of what they are conveying but must give greater attention to the manner in which the idea, the sentiment, or the argument is presented. To put it another way, it is not just about what, but rather, how something is communicated. To be persuasive, to achieve efficacy in argumentation, requires crafting an appropriate narrative. The oft-repeated phrase from the largely forgettable 2003 military thriller Basic provides a mantra for this perspective: “All we gotta do is tell the story right.”

The academic in me sees this topic as an opportunity to revisit the classical origins of rhetoric and the argumentative appeals of Aristotle. Excluding ethos, the use of logos and pathos figure more directly into the persuasive power of narrative. As a rhetorical appeal that is reductively understood by first-year philosophy and composition students as logic, logos represents the implicit reasoning used within an argument. Seemingly the most trustworthy and valued element of rhetoric, logos relies on objective information, data, and statistics to deductively convey the merits of a conclusion or way of thinking. However, reason and the way that we process information are not universal; not all data is equally convincing, statistics can be skewed or biased, and now we must even acknowledge the emergence of “alternative facts” (or at least, recognize that there are those who assign them value). As a result, this approach to persuasion is becoming increasingly inadequate because its content-centric focus diminishes the importance of audience awareness.

Audience awareness is at the heart of Aristotelian pathos and it is this appeal that most implicitly connects orator and audience. Pathos attempts to engage and evoke an emotional response from an audience (traditionally sadness or pity). I am sure that the more astute among you are already seeing red flags and receiving internal fallacy warnings. Though I concede that pathos is, by definition, manipulative, attempting to trigger feelings rather than employing reason, I insist that it can be extremely powerful, nevertheless. But the power and effectiveness rely on knowing one’s audience. To be able to cheer up a distraught friend requires a shared history, an awareness of the problem, and familiarity with what makes that particular friend happy. Whether you are inciting, provoking, producing, or inspiring a desired response (the “sliding scale of manipulation”) requires crafting, that is, forming a narrative that seeks a specific outcome from a specific audience.

This trip to classical antiquity (while fun for some in its own right) serves to reinforce the idea that how we convey an idea is as important as the idea that we are conveying. Turn-of-the-20th-century architect Louis Sullivan may have coined the phrase “form follows function” to express the relationship between utility and presentation in matters of structural design but modern discourse is shifting the relationship between form and function — arguably reversing it. I certainly do not subscribe to the pervading notion that substantive content matters less than style. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the rising tide that is carrying the idea. That said, comfort can be taken in the fact that narrative can sustain and marry the opposing forces of form and function, of style and substance.

Literary history, in almost every genre, provides iconic illustrations of the persuasive power of narrative. For example, the medieval morality plays of Everyman and Mankind present allegorical depictions of abstract ideas, values, and vices in an effort to inform and instruct the lay audience. Simply put, damnation was dangled to promote ethical and moral behavior. Renaissance drama, epic in 17th and 19th-century forms (the latter emphasizing nationalism), as well as the emergence of the novel and its sweeping, romantic, reimaging of history — all use their narrative forms with an eye for persuasion. You do not have to be a literary historian who “reads against the grain” to recognize this longstanding tradition.

Yet some readers might object to the round-about way that I am approaching this topic. Rhetoric and a generic (relating to genre) approach to literary criticism hardly demonstrates an alternative approach to persuasion. Here’s something you probably never received from a professor during your academic careers: “Apologies.” My efforts thus far were to establish the foundation for a shift in perspective, that the “how” of persuasion matters as much (if not more so today) as the “what.” The function and definition of narrative does not have to be limited to manipulation through story. It is a simply another way to connect, to engage, and if done correctly, persuade. Narrative can be a vehicle to carry an idea, not unlike data, statistics, evidence, and honest-to-god facts. However, the advantage that narrative has over other logos-centric means of persuasion is an acknowledgement of audience.

To reinforce and develop the idea that I am presenting in this article, I would like to share some writings of authors who develop and illustrate the relationship between narrative in literature and persuasion:

"The SAGE Handbook of Persuasion: Developments in Theory and Practice" provides a useful chapter (“Narrative Persuasion”) that explains the relationship and fundamental differences between narrative and argumentation in areas related to persuasion. Another equally important foundational text on the subject is "The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative." It takes a wider literary approach to constructing narrative, examining features of effective storytelling. Brusselle and Bilandzic’s “Fictionality and Perceived Realism in Experiencing Stories: A Model of Narrative Comprehension and Engagement” takes a theoretical approach to explain responses to perceived fictional narratives. Negative outcomes or influences, that is, those elements that lessen a narrative’s persuasive power are also examined and evaluated. Similarly, “Argument Strength and Persuasiveness of Stories” looks at the importance of argument within the narrative itself. The study examines credibility and engagement via the science of listener attention. Audience awareness and customization is the focus in Hirsh, Kang, and Bodenhausen’s “Personalized Persuasion: Tailoring Persuasive Appeals to Recipients’ Personality Traits.” Their research on message-framing literature looks for ways to maximize the potential value of personality-based communication strategies.

In a more acutely legal approach to the topic, Yanrong Chang’s “Using Storytelling in Culturally Situated Ways to Persuade” provides a cautionary tale for narrative persuasive run amok in Chinese criminal courts. Through cultural appropriation and manipulation, storytelling is used to redefine justice and reeducate the public about legal and moral conduct. Likewise, Caroline Lipovsky’s “Storytelling in Legal Settings” takes a linguistic approach to analyze the opening statements. Word choice, repetition, and rhetorical organization form the basis for this study of an Australian murder trial.

The idea that storytelling can be an effective means of persuasion is not a groundbreaking revelation. However, its increasing value in today’s culture and socio-political climate has prompted other industries to reexamine narrative function. Marketing, healthcare, and economics all are placing a premium on narrative to carry their message. A key difference and feature of a successful narrative is the attention given to the audience. The higher the awareness of audience, the better crafted the message can be.