Tell them a story

Here’s the sixth, and last, post about Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: Why things catch on. Berger describes six reasons that products, ideas and behaviors spread.


If you want people to remember something, don’t just give them facts. Tell them a story.

How many of you remember the story of the Trojan horse? I bet everyone does. And that’s a really old story, written by Virgil in the time of Augustus. Stories are inherently more engrossing than basic facts, Berger says. They have a plot; they’re vivid and engaging.

People create stories even when they don’t have to. Think about online reviews. People often describe more than whether they like the restaurant or hotel. They also describe the occasion and how it fit into their life at that moment. We like telling stories.

Stories are a great way to impart lessons or morals. (Quick: what’s the lesson of the Trojan horse, or the three pigs?)

Stories can also build a brand. We all know about someone who got fabulous service from Nordstrom or REI. I remember when I broke the zipper in a Patagonia jacket. The jacket was old enough to be relegated to gardening. Instead of fixing the zipper, the company gave me a new jacket, one that was too nice to wear gardening.

If you use a story to remind people of a product or idea, make it relevant. When’s the last time you talked about a clever advertisement that you had seen, but couldn’t remember what product it was advertising? Clever ad, wasted ad dollars.

I recently read an article in the New York Times about North Face. The company knows that most of its sales are to people who wear their jackets around town. But it’s conscious that its brand image rests in people pushing the limits, so its ads show people doing extreme skiing, sailing and wilderness running, and it sponsors outdoor athletes such as mountain climbers. The North Face story is about adventure.

Here are Berger’s six principles of contagiousness:

  1. Social currency
  2. Triggers
  3. Emotion
  4. Public
  5. Practical value
  6. Stories

Here are direct links to my posts about practical value, making it public, social currency, triggers and emotion.