The Science Behind the Art of Storytelling

By Daniel Fesenmaier, P.H.D. University of Florida

Science has long understood the significant relationships between emotion, sentiment, and the various aspects of persuasion. Our researchers at the Eric Friedheim Tourism Institute at the University of Florida sought an understanding of persuasion models and how website content influences online audiences. We wanted to know if, in the context of web browsing where “snackable” content and instant gratification seem to be the norm, an emotional connection can be created in order to persuade the reader. Further, we wanted to know if the story’s structure, length, or style makes a difference when developing website content.

To conduct this research, our team collaborated with Madden Media, one of the premier content marketing firms in the travel and tourism industry. Madden provided hundreds of stories of various, lengths, styles, and structures that included content from well-known destinations and those who struggle for recognition. This array of material provided us the opportunity to systematically test emotional response, brand recall, and most importantly intent to travel to the destination.

What can we learn from Simba and Rafiki?

First, we wanted to understand what really grabbed a reader’s attention and keep them engaged. To do this, our team at UF looked to best-selling movies and textbooks on story design to gain insights. Emotional maps were applied as part of an analysis of movies such as The Lion King. These story maps demonstrated that the usage and placement of emotion in a story drew readers in—the connection to the characters and emotional investment into what happens to them made an impact on the audience.

We then applied the same tests to the content provided by Madden Media. We then measured reader’s emotional responses from online travel content to see what evokes a desire to travel to a destination. We found that content written in story form performed the best. For example, spiking emotions such as surprise and joy during the falling action and resolution of a story left readers on an emotional high note. Just like movies and novels use a story arc to captivate readers, the most effective content weaved strong emotions—excitement, anticipation, joy, nostalgia—strategically throughout the text making a powerful impact on readers. But how does it work?

Persuasion Process

The goal of content marketing is to persuade the audience to engage with the brand and start their journey toward conversion. Storytelling immerses the audience in the story with elements such as first-person narratives and rich description. From the first paragraph, the reader feels emotions and subconsciously starts the appraisal process. For example, the reader may relate to the characters in the story, become more involved in the story based on detailed description, and overall develop an emotional reaction to the content.

As readers become involved they experience narrative transportation—they start to imagine themselves in the destination. If the story describes slow-smoked barbeque and premium Kentucky bourbon, the reader can almost taste it. When the narrator describes paddle boarding along the Ichetucknee Springs and his family discovering local wildlife together, readers often imagine their own family making memories, fully engaging in the moment, and strengthening their bond.

Engagement then peaks when narrative transportation sets in. Further, readers form attitudes about the story and destination. When the audience develops a positive attitude about the destination, feels good reading the story, and desires to have the same experience, it inspires the reader to consider visiting the destination.

Maximizing the Intent to Travel

Making a strong impact on potential travelers is important. Storytelling starts with inspiration, capturing the attention of audiences and creating brand awareness. When done effectively, the audience develops positive emotions and attitudes about the destination.

To better understand the intent to travel as influenced by content, University of Florida conducted a series of four national surveys, which distributed to hundreds of thousands of travel consumers to analyze the effectiveness of travel content. As part of this study, stories vs. lists were analyzed. The study showed stories outperformed lists in key factors that lead to persuasion. For example, stories resulted in over 10% greater positivity toward the content advertisement as compared to a list. However, shorter content pieces, such as lists, help potential travelers gather activity ideas, gain insight into attractions, and start planning itineraries. These studies also found that reading a list and story together is much better than reading each component individually. Therefore, implementing a marketing drip campaign could be an effective tactic to maximize reader persuasion.

The Perfect Blend

An excellent example of very effective storytelling comes from Visit Tampa Bay. They worked with Madden Media to develop a story where the writer related the sights, smells, and emotions experienced while discovering Ybor City ( The story resulted in 55k+ views and engaged readers on the story page three times longer than the site average.