Narrative Transportation: The Key to Meaningful Engagement

Karen was a simple, country girl.

Growing up in Dighton, a small town in middle-of-nowhere Kansas, her nearest neighbor was almost a mile away.

Living on a farm in Kansas, can be that way.

Her life was a predictable, comforting rhythm. Church, school, cheerleading, summer, repeat. But she was unsatisfied with that rhythm.

She loved her family very much–and her boyfriend Mark even more. But she yearned to be free of what she saw as the limitations of her small-town life. She wanted out but the thought of leaving behind her family, the boy she loved so very much, and everything she’d always known was more than she could handle.

She was afraid of the vast unknown that was the world she wanted to explore.

But deep down, she was even more afraid of not doing anything–of living out that rhythm until the day she died. She’d seen it too many times in her short life. Friends and family; born, raised, and then buried in Dighton Cemetery.

When she turned 19, she couldn’t handle it anymore and finally gave in to her feelings. She nervously bought a bus ticket to Wichita. It was the nearest “big” city and all she could afford. She thought of it as a stepping stone out of Kansas and into…whatever.

She didn’t know but she’d tired of caring.

She was ready to be free.

But first, she had to break the news. Her family was going to be hard enough, but telling Mark was going to be incredibly difficult. She’d tried a few times to share her feelings with him but he always dismissed her saying it would pass, that Dighton was her home, and that she just needed to live her life with him.

The big reveal went about as you’d expect. Tears, yelling, more tears, doors slamming, more yelling, and finally, silence and reluctant acceptance.

Sitting on the bus reflecting on it all, she realized she was sad and, surprisingly, feeling less afraid about anything than she’d ever been.

This felt right.

It was what she was supposed to be doing. Even though she had no concrete plans or even anything lined up in Wichita beyond some job listings she’d found online and some cheap apartment options.

Sitting there, watching the corn fields drift by, she noticed a white, rusted pick-up truck passing the bus and swerving onto the shoulder as it did. She didn’t think too much about it–someone on their phone she thought.

Suddenly, she was thrown forward into the seat in front of her. The bus lurched to the right and she was slammed against the window.

Mark and her parents came to the morgue that night to identify Karen’s body. The police told them the woman driving the truck was intoxicated and walked away from the accident with only a few scratches. It had been her fourth DUI offense, they said.

Mark couldn’t speak through his tears. All her dad could say was he told her not to leave. Her mother was white, stone-faced, in denial.

All Mark could think was that she finally had the freedom she had been seeking for so long.

In a scientific study, published in the The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, authors Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock at Ohio State University proposed that narrative transportation can affect beliefs.

Narrative transportation is the experience of being transported to the world of a story.

Being “transported” means having an emotional reaction, significant mental imagery about the story, and some degree of loss of awareness of your surroundings.

In his book, Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading, professor of cognitive science, Richard Gerrig, summarized narrative transportation in this way:

“Someone (‘the traveler’) is transported, by some means of transportation, as a result of performing certain actions. The traveler goes some distance from his or her world of origin, which makes some aspects of the world of origin inaccessible. The traveler returns to the world of origin, somewhat changed by the journey.”

The Green and Brock study found two interesting and highly relevant storytelling impacts on the study participants.

  1. First, that the “extent of transportation augmented story-consistent beliefs and favorable evaluations of protagonists”
  2. Second, that “highly transported readers found fewer false notes in a story than less-transported readers”
  3. And finally, that “transportation and corresponding beliefs were generally unaffected by labeling a story as fact or as fiction”

In their experiments, study participants were told a similar story to the one about Karen. The specifics of the story used in the experiments were different but just as tragic.

What the authors found was that those who were more transported into the story began to see the world in a more story-consistent way. In other words, they were more likely to believe that–using Karen’s story as the example–drunk drivers cause accidents more frequently than those who did not read the story about Karen. Or that there needed to be tougher DUI laws (since the driver of the truck had committed her fourth offense).

What’s most interesting about the study though, is that regardless of whether the participants were told the story was true or fiction, the likelihood that their worldview was changed was the same.

The bottom line is this, if you are not telling powerful stories–whether they be stories of beneficiary impact to your donors, stories of aspiration to prospective students, or stories of success to the parents of prospective students–you are losing out on a huge opportunity to shape the view of your audience about your institution in a positive way.

Powerful stories that transport your audience into your story will literally change how they see your brand.

Obviously, you cannot represent your organization with fictional stories of impact, aspiration, or success. So gathering and establishing an extensive library of these types of stories is critical but also no small task. It takes time but begins to pay off immediately.

And as your library grows, so too do the opportunities to align stories in increasingly relevant ways to each of your individual audiences–and even the individuals themselves within those audiences–in ways that increase the level of narrative transportation.

This is why we built Mythos. To help you gather, curate, align, and express your stories so that you can change the worldview of your constituents in a story-consistent way.

About the Author

Robb Hoffheins

As the Head of Product, Robb is responsible for the success of Mythos from sales to ongoing customer success with the platform.