In a recent client roundtable we held, “becoming better storytellers” emerged as just about everyone’s top aspiration. These were clients from totally different industries and roles: marketing, corporate communication, HR, learning and development and event/video production. Truth be told, even our employees who tell stories for a living share this same aspiration.
Why? Because we all want to bring greater meaning and resonance to our messages, no matter how corporate the topic, and storytelling feels like the way to get there. The way to make people care.
This mission is often inspiring on paper yet vaguely elusive in practice, however. As many a writer will lament, it’s easy to go through the motions of storytelling – “this happened then this happened” – without actually resonating with audiences.
Don’t give up, we say, because there really is a solution for those who believe it’s worth it: by becoming students of story structure, the timeless building blocks that drive every great story, often invisibly.
We believe any message, however you choose to execute it – as a presentation, multiple day event, video series, etc. – can benefit greatly from the purposeful application of story structure. And once you learn how to run your communication initiatives through a story structure framework (with the same rigor you run your words through a spell checker), something almost magical happens: the content starts to feel a lot less corporate and a lot more human.
View the following as our modest attempt to apply just a few eternal story structure insights to the world of corporate communication, as a conversation starter:
1. Start with questions, not answers.
Great stories hook you, and here’s how they do it every time: they raise at least one compelling question in your mind right at the beginning and don’t answer it right away. Why are the characters making those choices? Will they ever overcome their faults? Will they achieve their goals? Will they fall in love?
Here in corporate America, we break this basic rule constantly but choosing zero suspense messaging. We write overly long introductions based on archaic PowerPoint conventions: “tell them what you’re gonna tell them, tell it to them then tell them what you just told them.”
That approach never hooks people. Try instead to make people curious about a mystery, by planting interesting questions in the minds of your audience.
Imagine you had to introduce a new training series. The traditional approach would be to say, “We have a new training series in which you’re going to learn x, y and z!” No mystery there, because there’s no hook. A story structure-driven approach would wrap the content in a question:
What if we sent our training department on the road for a year with nothing more than a camera and a mic to answer one question: “Can strong values lead to strong business results?”
Your audience will do what every movie audience in history has done: suddenly want to know the answer to the questions you yourself have posed, which keeps them listening or watching. You’ve hooked them.
One tried-and-true approach storytellers use to raise questions: open in medias res, or the middle of things. From Wikipedia: “A tale beginning ‘in medias res’ opens in the midst of action, without preamble. Exposition is bypassed or filled in gradually, either through dialogue, flashbacks or description of past events.” In corporate America, we love our exposition, which is boring in movies.
Starting in the middle of your story before working your way back inherently raises questions in viewers’ minds. They’ll instinctively want to figure out what’s happening and why.
2. Connect your story to a higher emotional purpose: human values.
Regardless of the plot or genre, every story at its heart is an emotional journey toward a higher human value … one that happens to be hard to reach, hence all the conflict and obstacles! That value could be honor, integrity, empathy, justice, perseverance, self-respect, loyalty, inclusion, passion, forgiveness, healing, selflessness, sacrifice, whatever. This Safelite video we produced was essentially a story about respect and empathy. So are these Scotts Miracle-Gro stories, but they’re also about nature’s role in human healing.
As you review your communication plans for the coming year, ask yourself not just what business goals you need to achieve but what essential human values you could illuminate. You’ll give your messages far more emotional power that way. These values become your story’s theme, elevating your messaging to more purpose-driven heights.
3. Be as character-centered as you are content-centered.
As Blake Snyder wrote in his landmark screenwriting book Save The Cat, “liking the person we go on the journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.” Without exception, great stories always introduce compelling characters with interesting goals.
So why do we corporate communicators often fail at this basic building block straight out of the gate? Because the first question we tend to ask is “Who are the most authoritative institutional messengers who can deliver our script?” The better approach requires the courage of zero institutional voice: “Which compelling characters could give this story emotion and make people care?”
Put another way, it’s not enough to be an authority figure or content expert to make people care. Instead seek these qualities:
Personal goals and motivations others can identify with deeply
Compelling backstories and worldviews – the reasons why they believe what they do and make the choices they make
Interesting personalities that are memorable
Vulnerabilities: Inner struggles, conflicts and actions that failed before succeeding, ones they’re not afraid to share
Above all, these personal qualities should lead them to make the decisions that set your story in motion, which brings us to our next point …
4. Find an inciting incident that presents a goal.
Once you have your characters, you need to stick them in an interesting plot of their own making. In a longer version of the Safelite story above, we reveal how Kanyon set his particular story into motion because of his own Native American heritage, one that taught him to respect the “native tongues” of others.
Corporations tend to introduce business messages abstractly from on-high wrapped in logic and data, an argumentative approach straight out of debate club. Instead take us through a more human journey with the same ending: characters facing incidents that led to actions. Corporate inciting incidents could be the smallest thing – a customer walking through the door with a unique need, a research learning that forced a turn in direction, decaying margins, a single death from a stubborn illness, a humbling failure in the marketplace, a demand from leadership that sent people through hoops, etc.
Give those incidents human faces. Then give those humans a goal.
As P&G Corporate Storyteller Shane Meeker explains in his excellent book Story Mythos, these goals become the treasure being sought in the story.
So at this point in our story, we have characters who faced compelling incidents that clarified their goals.
There’s one thing still missing at this point: all the answers. This is a good thing.
5. Share the blood, sweat and tears on the way to triumph.
This brings us to the core of story structure. Every story at its heart captures a difficult but worth-it transformation, getting from point A to point B however challenging it was.
In corporate America, we are trained to be rosy with our audiences as if every initiative we execute proceeds brilliantly and effortlessly. Here’s the problem: our desire to smile through the pain breaks one of the core tenets of any dramatic arc – to resonate in the end, you must show the struggle getting there.
Show the trying, the failing and ultimately the triumph. Otherwise, the triumph doesn’t feel that, well, triumphant. Relevant beat points to look for:
Obstacles and conflict. These conflicts don’t have to be the low-brow stuff of reality television at all, which is usually people fighting each other. Instead define conflict as any force getting in the way of your characters’ goals once they start down the path of addressing the inciting incident. Those forces could be anything – a time management conundrum, a difficult choice between two good options, the weather, supply constraints, etc. Anything that meaningfully opposes the goal. As Shane Meeker says: “if you have a weak problem, you have a weak story.”
First attempts failing. How do characters in books and movies typically respond to the initial conflicts they face? Rarely by doing the right things at first. First attempts are never enough, generally causing things to get worse. In storytelling parlance, the things that happen are called plot reversals – “but then this happened” – which is a great way to sustain interest. Corporations may not want to talk about big failures, but they don’t need to shy away from any failure on the journey. That’s real life.
Triumph. Show your characters being forced to get to the heart of the matter and finally addressing the things they need to address … the found truths that elevate them and the company from good to great.
Take this simple “transformation test”: compare your opening and closing images. This is a powerful test of how well you captured transformation in your story: your closing images or scenes should be very different than your opening ones. They should capture the transformation that took place in the story itself.
6. Seek character arcs as much as story arcs.
The “arc” in a story is the movement from problem to solution. A story arc is something like this: a business faces a challenge and meets it. Most corporate stories stop at story arcs, but you can make your messages far more resonant by adding parallel character arcs.
The best stories feature people who make bad decisions that they then fix. People who had a lot to learn learning it. People with low self-awareness developing self-awareness. People who didn’t value something learning to value that something.
Characters in about any genre other than comedy tend to learn personal lessons and grow. Even if they don’t themselves change much, we see their personal values in a new light at the end.
Why are character arcs important? Because no matter the content, you’re always trying to take your audience on a journey from Point A to Point B, and you really need them to jump on the Subway at Point A. You do so by making sure your audience sees themselves in your messengers at the beginning: they identify with their hopes, dreams and flaws, so they jump on board for the journey. A journey that leads to growth. Their own.
7. Play with point of view.
Consider an interesting point of view for your story. It doesn’t have to be neutral or standard third-party testimonial. It could be first person the entire time, highly subjective, covering the same content from multiple contradictory POVs or even through the eyes of people with misperceptions about the topic (known as the ‘unreliable narrator’ in literature).
8. Above all, show don’t tell.
The previous points are actually all about this One Supreme Rule to Rule Them All. Everything we talked about above is really an example of ‘show don’t tell’: the need to show your values in action and not just talk about them. Along with your strategies in action, your heroes in action, your failures, your learnings, and ultimately, your triumphs.
LET’S START A CONVERSATION.
We could moderate a story structure workshop or just help you informally brainstorm how to bring these principles to life in the coming year.
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