Bellisario College researcher knows the power of telling a good story

Jonathan F. McVerry
October 10, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Everyone loves a good story, and those stories can have emotional and political effects that are long-lasting. Fuyuan Shen, professor of advertising-public relations at Penn State, wants to know more about the impact of stories. He studies narratives, their influence and what makes them effective or ineffective.

Companies use narratives to show off their products, people or visions through in-depth stories. They can be feature articles, TV advertisements or highly produced online videos. Specifically, Shen studies health advertising and how it can change beliefs and/or lead to behavior changes.

Shen has been a faculty member in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications for 17 years and heads its Department of Advertising/Public Relations. He teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses, and his research gains perspective on the power of messaging.

Next year he is leading a call for research proposals for the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, a research center within the Bellisario College, that will recruit projects from researchers all over the world that focus on narratives in corporate and public communications.

Q: Narratives are the stories that we tell and share, so what are you looking at when you study them?

Shen: I look at how narratives are used and how they affect different audiences by conducting experiments. I want to understand the implications of certain narratives and see them from different perspectives. So, I look at several types of media like print, video and online; different audiences from different generations, cultures and professions. How can stories be effective? What issues do the storytellers run into? How can they be adjusted to have more impact?

Q: Can you share an example?

Shen: In one study, we looked at news stories on the environmental impact of oil drilling. In the narrative format, we learn about how a family’s life was changed because of the drilling and how their property and house were affected by contamination. You can also present that information in a non-narrative format by just using statistics and numbers — no faces of the people affected.

We found that the stories were very powerful in generating emotional and cognitive reactions. The narratives tend to have a larger impact on us, and the impact lasts longer than the non-narrative stories. Twenty-four hours later, the impact can be still there affecting us. This way of communication is more effective. Of course, there are conditions where narratives may not work and that is something to look at in the future.

Q: When does narrative communications not work?

Shen: It could be issues that we have strong opinions on or issues that we have made up our mind on. These can be hard. Some messaging can work but have less of an effect than other messaging. There are a lot of variables. For example, one of my studies found that narratives in audio/video format tended to have stronger effects than print media.

Or if you have a story with students in it, students will identify with it more. Is the health issue of concern to students? Are the characters students? If so, they will resonate with that message. The connection becomes important. If you don’t identify with the story, that can limit its power.

Q: Why are narratives so effective?

Shen: Even before we had written language, human beings had been telling stories. It’s key to our way of life. It’s our natural way of communication. We are familiar with stories and super comfortable with them. Plus, it affects emotion. We develop empathy, anger and fear from stories. The purpose of narratives is to share a story, not to persuade you so it’s less likely to lead to arguing. We identify with individuals when we hear their stories.

 Q: What do you hope to get out of the Page Center grants?

Shen: I have done research on many different types of narratives, but narratives in corporate communication are just as important and I have not seen a lot of research in that area. We’d like to encourage researchers who study areas within corporate communications — and all public communications, too — to apply. The impact of corporate narratives in changing people’s perceptions on social and political issues, that’s what we want to study. In addition, what are the ethical issues of using narratives? A company can choose to use fictional narratives in their communications — what are the ethical implications of that?

Q: What’s an example of a corporate narrative?

Shen: A good illustration is companies’ social responsibility campaigns. Peet’s Coffee, for example, uses stories to show how they provide assistance to their farmers and help famers’ families with income. They put characters into the story and consumers can buy-in and feel like they’re helping the cause. It’s far more effective than listing the number of people effected.

Q: Is it working?

Shen: Well, corporations think it’s the way to go. We see them using narratives more and more compared to 10 or 20 years ago. A lot of the advertisements we see today are stories. The ones we like tend to be story-based.

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Last Updated October 11, 2018