In July 2009, journalist Rob Walker and author Josh Glenn conducted a remarkable experiment. They bought 100 ordinary used objects from thrift stores and garage sales – a jar of marbles, a meat thermometer, a wooden mallet, a toy pink horse, etc. Each item cost, on average, $1.29. Then, they asked volunteers to write short fictional stories about each item.
Afterward, they put each item for sale on eBay. Instead of putting a simple description next to the picture of each item, they used the fictional story instead. They made sure it was clear that the story was purely fictional so that nobody thought the items were unique in some way.
Within five months, all 100 items had been sold. They originally paid a total of $128.74 for the items, but the resale price was a total of $3,612.51 – a 2,800-percent increase in value. In the words of Walker and Glenn, their experiment showed that “narrative transforms insignificant objects into significant ones.” In other words, the stories turned cheap objects into valuable ones.
Apparently, people are far more willing to pay good money for something that comes with a good story. That’s not a gimmick, either. Selling something with a good story doesn’t trick people into paying more money for it; it’s actually worth more money to them.
Here’s an example. In May of 2015, my wife and I attended an art fair at Coney Island in Cincinnati, Ohio. We arrived at the booth of Chris Gug, a photographer known for his awe-inspiring images of marine life. His gallery is full of breathtaking underwater shots of anemones, corals, sea turtles and whales. On a mission to find a piece for our boys’ bathroom, Lisa eyed a picture that, to me, looked about as out of place as a pig in the ocean.
That’s because it was a picture of a pig in the ocean. Literally.
She described it as inspired genius – a cute little piglet, up to its nostrils in salt water, snout covered with sand, dog-paddling its way straight into the camera lens.
I thought it was a picture of a pig in the ocean.
I asked the artist what on Earth that pig was doing in the ocean, and that’s when the magic started. Gug explained that the picture was taken in the Bahamas, just off the beach of an uninhabited island officially named Big Major Cay. He told us that years ago, a local entrepreneur brought a drove of pigs to the island to raise for bacon. Gug went on:
“But, as you can see in the picture, there’s not much more than cactus on the island for them to eat. And pigs don’t much like cactus. I guess in typical laid-back Bahamian fashion, the entrepreneur failed to plan that far ahead. So the pigs weren’t doing very well.
“But at some point, a restaurant owner on a nearby island started bringing his kitchen refuse by boat over to Big Major Cay and dumping it a few dozen yards off shore. The hungry pigs eventually learned to swim to get to the food. Each generation of pigs followed suit, and now all the pigs on the island can swim. As a result, today, the island is more commonly known as Pig Island.”
Gug went on to describe how the pigs learned that approaching boats meant food, so they eagerly swim up to anyone arriving by boat. That’s what allowed him to more easily take the close-up shot of the cute little sandy-nosed, dog-paddling piglet.
I handed him my credit card and said, “We’ll take it!”
Why my change of heart? The moment before he shared his story, the photo was just a picture of a pig in the ocean, worth little more than the paper it was printed on (to me, at least). Two minutes later, it was no longer just a picture. It was a story – a story I would be reminded of every time I looked at it, and that I could tell every time someone came into my house. I love telling that story. It turned the picture into a conversation piece – a unique combination of geography lesson, history lesson and animal psychology lesson all in one.
In the two minutes it took Gug to tell us that story, my interest in and willingness to pay good money for that photo increased exponentially.
Stories sell. And the people who can tell a good sales story will sell more than people who can’t.