An open book

Storytelling is the key to a persuasive consumer review

30 September 2019
Narratologist develops formula behind useful TripAdvisor reviews
Bestselling novels, Hollywood blockbusters and Facebook posts all have common elements arranged according to winning formula, according to a storytelling expert at the University of Sydney Business School.

Research Highlights with Tom van Laer

The formula for success has now been scientifically decoded using data gathered from more than 200,000 TripAdvisor reviews posted by visitors to Las Vegas.

The analysis is included in a research paper titled 'What Happens in Vegas Stays on TripAdvisor? A Theory and Technique to Understand Narrativity in Consumer Reviews', which was recently published in the field-leading Journal of Consumer Research.

Associate Professor Tom van Laer and fellow researchers said that TripAdvisor was able to provide an enormous amount of material and an opportunity to examine the storytelling skills of ordinary consumers.

"We were able to show that good stories came not only from the talent or the magic of successful authors, but are something that ordinary consumers can do as well," Dr van Laer said.

People write reviews, other people read these reviews, and the ones that tell stories are the most useful.
Dr Tom van Laer

Working with Dr van Laer on the project were Professor Jennifer Edson Escalas, Vanderbilt University, Tennessee; Associate Professor Stephan Ludwig, University of Melbourne; and Assistant Professor Ellis A. van den Hende, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands.

According to their research, the first element in a good story is characters who must have thoughts and feelings. The second is events which need to happen in a particular place and a particular time. "The more we know about these elements, the more engaging the story," said Dr van Laer.

"The third element is an emotional curve - does a story go up and down? Does it go down and up? Where is the dramatic climax?"

Explaining the structure of these elements, or the recipe, Dr van Laer said that a character must go through an event, reflect on the experience, and then take action. "The action has to happen in a place which is well described. Is it beautiful, is it sunny, what is the weather, what does it look like?" he said.

Aerial view of Las Vegas

Dr van Laer and his colleagues examined 200,000 TripAdvisor reviews of Las Vegas.

"The most engaging stories that we found were the ones that started off with a climax," he continued. "They start with the murder, with police then trying to unpack it and figure out who done it."

"Think of the TV series Chernobyl. In the first seconds, it starts with the actual disaster and then continues with an investigation into how all this happened. It starts off with a bang."

Dr van Laer concluded with a tip for story (and review) consumers. "There is a power to a story," he said. "You can lose yourself in a story and the same thing can happen when we read a review. Yes, they may be trying to help, but they are also trying to get you involved, so read critically, be careful and think about what the author is really trying to tell you there."

Declaration: researchers engaged in this study received no support of any kind from individuals or organisations outside of their tertiary institutions.

Meet the researcher

Tom van Laer
Dr Tom van Laer
Academic profile

How to write a useful review

According to Dr van Laer's research, a compelling story includes the following elements:

Characters who have thoughts and feelings.


Events which happen in a well-described place and time.


An emotional curve. Where is the dramatic climax?


What is the recipe we use to tell a persuasive story? Dr Tom van Laer examined hundreds of thousands of TripAdvisor reviews to find out.

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Trevor Watson

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