How Destination Marketers can Inspire Emotion Through Storytelling; the Science Behind a Good Narrative

Anyone familiar with the podcast and NPR radio series, This American Life, knows that Ira Glass can tell a really good story. There is something about his slow recitation, perfectly timed pauses, and dramatic narration that captivates listeners. How can a Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) utilize storytelling the way that Ira Glass does to enthrall audiences?  Anthropologists, along with Ira Glass himself, offer some insights into what makes storytelling so powerful. These ideas can be effective for DMOs looking to attract visitors to their destinations through emotionally impactful narratives. 

How many times have you been intrigued by a place based purely on a book or a movie? The plot of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil followed me throughout my explorations of Savannah, Georgia, and added an intimate element to my city tour. In 2013, a popular Chinese movie with the English title, Finding Mr. Right moved many viewers to fall in love with Seattle. As one of the best-selling Chinese films of all time, the movie’s love story interwove with the city and established Seattle as a romantic destination.

[Finding Mr. Right] doesn’t do the best job of showing Seattle, but I think what it really does do is sell the idea of what we think Seattle is.

Kristen Meinzer, The Movie Date Podcast

Somehow, the “feeling” of the storylines in these two narratives (and countless others) is transmitted onto the destinations where they take place. The story does not focus on the place so much, it is simply in the background, but the place takes on the emotional sense through proxy. It is the remembered emotion that the viewer is looking to re-enact when they travel to that place. They want to feel a reconnection to the story and ignite the memory of the passion they felt while experiencing the story.

Stories are the framework for how we comprehend the world around us, how we perceive ourselves and others. Anthropologists, similarly, seek to understand what makes us human. The ability to create and tell stories is what makes human beings different than every other animal. Anthropologists are well-known collectors of folktales from various cultures for posterity, comparison, and analysis. But they also study the relational dynamics of the people involved in the act of storytelling. It is this latter research that can provide data-backed suggestions for how a DMO can approach storytelling most effectively.

How odd it is…that a story can sneak up on us on a beautiful autumn day, make us laugh or cry, make us amorous or angry, make our skin shrink around our flesh, alter the way we imagine ourselves and our worlds. How bizarre it is that when we experience a story – whether in a book, a film, or a song – we allow ourselves to be invaded by the teller.

– Jonathan Gottschall, “The Storytelling Animal”

Essential Components of a Narrative

As social creatures, we utilize language over any other means of primal communication to share information. Human’s use of language is unique in the animal world and our thought process is conducted through words and patterns of connection. Because of this, narratives enable our brains to form links that help us better remember things we may want to reference later.

Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts.

Paul Zak, “How Stories Change the Brain”

Researcher Paul Zak at Berkley found that two key qualities are imperative to an effective story. The story must capture and hold the audience’s attention and the story must ‘transport’ them into the characters’ world. DMOs might find that by embracing this premise their stories could tap into travelers’ emotions.

According to Zak, human attention is “metabolically costly,” so the brain focuses it sparingly. The thing that holds attention is what writers call “tension.” A good story continually increases the tension throughout the narrative.

Scholars claim every engaging story has this structure, called the dramatic arc. It starts with something new and surprising, and increases tension with difficulties that the characters must overcome, often because of some failure or crisis in their past, and then leads to a climax where the characters must look deep inside themselves to overcome the looming crisis, and once this transformation occurs, the story resolves itself.

Paul Zak, “How Stories Change the Brain”

This tension produces signs of arousal with an increase in heart and breathing rates and stress hormone levels. If our attention is held this way long enough, we can emotionally resonate with the characters in the story. And it is this emotion and connection that ‘transports’ us into the experience.

Ira Glass, in a series of four short videos, also deconstructs a good, captivating story into two essential building blocks. First, the story must be an anecdote that follows a sequence of events. A captivating story is a narrative, where something happens that leads to something else happening. This progression raises questions for the curious audience and makes them feel like they are on a train that has momentum and an ultimate destination. The second important component is the moment of reflection, or, in other words, the purpose of the story. There must be a point to the story that is revealed at some moment in the narrative. One might have a great sequence of events but no purpose in the telling or one may have a wonderful point to make, but no momentum. Both are essential for good storytelling.

Techniques for Engaging Narratives

Anthropologist Rodolfo Maggio reflects on the effectiveness of the way facts are disseminated, relating a story from a professional conference where a speaker presented her paper during a session to a rather unengaged audience. During the coffee break afterwards, however, the same speaker relayed the subject of the paper in an informal setting to a smaller group of very engaged listeners. Even with distractions all around, the audience was enthralled, the difference being that the telling was more personal and natural, the speaker presenting the facts in narrative form. The result was that the speaker and the audience shared in the experience together.

Similarly, Uri Hasson studied the brain waves of storytellers and listeners, both connected to fMRI machines. What he found was that the brain waves became synchronized during the telling of personal, unrehearsed stories. The results meant that there was a powerful connection that developed between the storyteller and his or her listeners.

Award-winning writer and director, Robert McKee, explains that all great stories deal with fundamental conflict, where expectation meets cruel reality. By presenting the struggle, the difficulties, and the antagonists, we can show how these were all overcome. Painting purely a positive picture is not the truth and not interesting or engaging. Engaging stories always deal with the struggle to survive, whether emotionally or physically. 

The common theme is that for storytelling to emotionally resonate, the storyteller should be authentic and vulnerable. This vulnerability creates the opportunity for the audience to experience the journey with the storyteller.

The Benefits of Storytelling for DMOs

The obvious goal of destination marketing campaigns is to drive visitation. A good narrative can spread rapidly across the social media world of potential travelers. Storytelling can be a powerful form of persuasion for meeting and event decision-makers as well.  The typical sales approach of an intellectual argument supported by data and testimonials can often lack passion. People are not inspired by reason alone. Persuasion by emotion is much more powerful and storytelling can arouse that sentiment.

Many years ago, as a sales manager with The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, I found stories useful in persuading event planners that the Museum was not just “a bunch of old airplanes”. With an impressive venue like The Museum of Flight, an air and space museum to rival the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, it would be natural to assume that selling the space would be easy. But some planners were concerned that their attendees would not be able to relate if they were not air or space enthusiasts. During site visits, I often became a docent, telling the stories of heroism and conflict behind the exhibits to bring them to life. These stories were vital to making clients realize that the museum is not about the artifacts it houses, but about the interpretation of those collections, in other words, the personal stories. Isn’t this essentially what DMOs are looking to do with their destinations? Our neighborhoods, businesses, and attractions are a collection of stories that can be brought to life through good narration.

Another possible benefit to good storytelling is how it can bring together a community. A rising concern in destination management is how to better engage with the community, how to become a more valuable asset to a destination’s residents. Researchers have found that amongst the hunter-gatherer community of Agta in the Philippines, skilled storytellers are the preferred social partners, more so than good foragers, and had greater reproductive success. People preferred to live in camps with more skilled storytellers not only for the entertainment value, but because there was a group-level advantage. Storytellers “convey messages relevant to coordinating behavior, such as cooperation, sex equality, and egalitarianism” (Smith et al., 2017). Their presence was associated with increased community cooperation. Perhaps the telling of really good stories could contribute to the community development of your own destination, establishing the DMO as the producer, archivist, or bard of the stories that are the foundation of any society.

So How to Start?

Skift, in partnership with Brand USA, recently published a guide to great storytelling for DMOs. A survey of over 400 storytellers and creators and interviews with numerous industry leaders found that 74% of storytellers utilize unique selling points of their destinations as a jumping point for the stories they produce. Other things they looked at were the latest trends in tourism (47%), talking with local businesses, entrepreneurs, and creatives (45%), consumer research (42%), and researching similar destinations campaigns (12%).

When it comes to creating authentic destination stories, desk research is not enough. Go into the community to have deep, thoughtful conversations with people to discover the “lore” and traditions of the place.

Skift, “Destination 2020”

Ira Glass says to remember that you know what a good story is because you love good stories. When you start out, what you create might not meet your high expectations, but it is important to keep telling the stories. Only by taking time to practice storytelling will you get to the point where you create something that is really, really good.

What inspires someone to travel? For some, travel is more than a vacation; it is an opportunity to be in the exact spot where something real happened. It is a chance to stir up a feeling that was once experienced through a story, a story that psychologically connects the person with the characters, events, and places.

Every destination has stories to tell. The trick is finding that story and telling it in a powerful way.

Meagan McGuire, CDME<br>Vice President, Sales and Services – Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority
Meagan McGuire, CDME
Vice President, Sales and Services – Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority

Meagan is the Vice President of Sales and Services for Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority, the official regional destination marketing organization for the cities of Des Moines, SeaTac and Tukwila in Washington State.

With a Master of Arts degree in Anthropology from Washington State University and 15 years’ experience in the tourism industry, Meagan approaches her work through a social science lens. From psychographics to storytelling, tourism marketing is best delivered by studying people and culture. She leads an exceptional team to ensure business growth and expand the organization’s long-term growth strategy through group sales and marketing activities.

In 2019, Meagan was accredited with a CDME (Certified Destination Management Executive) from Destinations International.


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