Good stories don’t just happen. Great storytellers have always used the same approach to create compelling stories that they know people will not only understand, but will also love.
When you hear the names, George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg, what comes to mind? Most people would answer ‘movie director’, but with movies like Star Wars, Raiders of The Lost Ark, The Color Purple, and E.T under their belts these directors are also master storytellers.
How did they get so good at telling stories? While both Spielberg and Lucas are fans of Joseph Campbell and comparative mythology you don’t have to become an expert in mythology before telling your story.
The most significant lesson we can take from these two directors is that stories aren’t just a string of events mashed together. The result of using elements like mythic structure, character, throughlines, and setting is a story that the audience can connect with on a deep subconscious level.
Let the audience draw inspiration and insight from their experiences
You can use plot, characters, and other elements to create a unified narrative that engages your audience. In this way, they fundamentally understand your underlying message. Aristotle introduced the idea of “unification” in the Poetics. In it, Aristotle says that a good story is unified and focuses on an extended action with a beginning, middle and end.
This basic definition has evolved over the centuries. Some stories are character driven (the character moves the story forward because of their choices). Some stories are plot driven (the action moves the story forward, and the characters react). Regardless of the type of story, they all have central characters (“heroes”, “villains”, “mentors”, etc.) and some action (“Mission”, “journey” or “challenge”) that the must complete. Why? Because it still works. Audiences are drawn to and connect with story structures they know.
A good business story has good flow and makes a point
How many times have you watched a movie only to say to yourself, “What was the point of that?” That shouldn’t happen. Great stories don’t stall, sputter or leave the audience wondering what happened. The sequence of events should make sense and assist with the development and movement of the story. You keep stories moving with what Victoria Lynn Schmidt calls a dramatic through line. A through line helps answers “what’s the point?”. There are five essential throughlines that you can use.
- The main character succeeds (through courage, ingenuity, special skill, special weapon)
- The main character fails (through circumstances, weakness, obsession)
- The main character abandons the goal
- The main character’s goal is undefined
- The audience creates the goal
Notice that I said that the through line helps answer the question. Your story still needs structure to make the journey toward that answer seamless.
A good business story uses a familiar structure to capture attention
The structure you choose helps ties the pieces of your story together seamlessly. Whether you realize it or not, stories that succeed do so because they evolve according to the audience’s expectation of unity (beginning, middle and end). There are lots of story structures that you could use, but I recommend the ones that are commonly understood archetypes across all cultures and can be applied quickly in a business setting (e.g. they present universally known ideas).
- Traditional – The traditional 3 act structure has a beginning, middle and end. The key to using this structure in a business setting is a well defined inciting event, protagonist, and climax. Those elements will drive your story.
- The Hero’s Quest – The quest is probably the most commonly understood structure. A hero faces a challenge and sets out to overcome the problem. The driving force in this structure is the pursuit of the goal whether it is tangible or intangible.
- The Search – The search is about man’s search for meaning. It differs from the hero’s quest in that the goal in these stories is always a character’s search for the discovery of something fundamental about who they are or who they will become.
- Stranger In A Strange Land – This is a story of change. It’s a new environment that the hero must learn how to navigate. Maybe they don’t know the local ‘rules’ or customs. Everything seems unfamiliar. The character spends the majority of the story getting accustomed to their new surroundings or circumstances. In most cases, the hero learns in the end that the ‘strange land’ wasn’t that strange after all.
- Boy Meets Girl (Romance) – This one is simple – boy meets girl, boys fall in love, but then what? Since stories need tension to move forward the “, but then what…” part is what drives this type of story. What roadblocks, conflicts or obstacles stand in the way of the two lovers in the story? The key to remember in constructing these stories is love is hard to find, and if you do find it, it’s hard to keep.
- Coming Of Age (Transformation) – A coming of age story is ultimately about the change, transformation or maturation of the character. In this type of story, the character has to re-learn comfort as they near maturity. The character may change significantly during the story or simply figure out they knew the answers all along. The experiences they gain drive the story.
Good stories connect to the audience with good character development
You always want your audience to be emotionally engaged in any story you present. The best way to make sure that happens is by creating well-rounded characters. The audience needs to be able to identify with the characters because it is through them that the audience relates to the story. Look at the following example from the first post in this series:
When I graduated from college I thought I was on top of the world. I had been in the top 10% of my high school class, done well in college, and was one of only a few college students that had been hired by the consulting firm I was working for. I hadn’t experienced a lot of work failure at that point in my life, so I felt pretty good about how I was progressing.
In this segment, I was the character and the storyteller. My goal was to give enough detail about who I was at the time to allow the audience to identify with the ‘character’ in the story. Be careful with your detail. You only need as much detail as necessary to communicate your message.
Good stories use a vivid setting to their advantage
A story must have a “place” that orients the audience. It sets the place, time and circumstances of the story, and helps the audience gain the context needed to understand the point of your message. As with creating your characters, don’t spare the detail when defining the location. Again, using stories takes practice. At the end of the day if you want them to work you have to think about what people care about. Instead of asking “what do I want to present?” ask yourself “what can I do to help them relate to the message I have?” In every case focusing on our need for connection will be more successful.