A GUIDE TO Becoming Better Storytellers

Our clients as a whole really want to become better storytellers. In a recent client roundtable we held, becoming better storytellers emerged as a top client aspiration. Truth be told, even our employees who tell stories for a living feel the same way.

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.

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, whatever way you choose to execute it – as a presentation, multiple day event, video series, etc. – stands to benefit greatly from the strategic application of story structure. And once you learn how to run your content 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 your world, as a conversation starter:

1. Connect people to a higher 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! The value could be honor, integrity, empathy, justice, perseverance, self-respect, loyalty, inclusion, passion, forgiveness, selflessness, sacrifice, whatever. This Safelite video we produced was essentially a story about respect and empathy. So are these Scotts Miracle-Gro stories.

Why is this important? Ask famed filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie (director of Usual Suspects and writer/director of 2018’s excellent Mission Impossible movie):


As you review your communication plans for the coming year, ask yourself what essential human values you could illuminate to increase the emotional power of your messages. The attainment of these values becomes your theme.

2. Pose burning questions.

Great stories hook you. How? By purposefully raising at least one compelling question in your mind right at the beginning and not answering it right away. That’s the key part. Corporate communicators tend to do the opposite by previewing everything and then repeating it. Better to meter information out over time, to keep people wondering what happens next.

Any content can benefit from this simple rule. Imagine you had to introduce a new training series. The traditional approach would be to say, “We have a new training series about x, y and z!” 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 audiences will do what every movie audience has done in history: suddenly want to know the answer to the questions you’ve posed (even if subconsciously) which keeps them listening or watching. You’ve hooked them.

3a. Be as character-centered as you are content-centered.

Good stories always introduce compelling characters with goals, and their motivations are what actually drive the plot, not vice versa. Why not take the same approach in the corporate world?

We believe it’s not enough to just be an authority figure or content expert to be compelling. It’s not the title that makes you compelling, in other words, it’s your other human qualities. The best messengers reveal these qualities about themselves, ones that are often decidedly non-corporate:

  • Goals and motivations others can identify with

  • Compelling backstories and worldviews – the reasons why they believe what they do and make the choices they make

  • Interesting personalities

  • Inner struggles and conflicts they’re not afraid to share

  • Decisions, actions and behaviors that fail before succeeding.

Ideally, your characters’ personal qualities actually cause them to make the very decisions that set your story’s plot into motion. In a longer version of the Safelite story above, we reveal that the technician made the choice he did because of his own Native American background, one that taught him to respect the “native tongues” of others.

3b. Enhance your story arcs with character arcs.

A story arc is something like this: a business faces a challenge and meets it. The “arc” is the movement from problem to solution. Though most corporate stories stop at story arcs, 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 overcome. 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 individualities (even their flawed ones) and jump on board for the journey. A journey that leads to growth. Their own.

4. Don’t be afraid to share the blood, sweat and tears on the way to triumph.

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.

Search for the up-and-down plot in your story, in other words. Show the trying, the failing and ultimately the triumph. Otherwise, the triumph doesn’t feel that, well, triumphant. Relevant beat points to look for:

  • Start with an inciting incident. Think about what originally happened to set the story in motion. Don’t just introduce strategy decisions or abstract business concepts, introduce the actual business plot points you experienced that led to them. A corporate plot point could be the smallest thing  –  a customer walking through the door with a unique need, a failure in the marketplace that forced a rethink, a demand from leadership that sends people through hoops, etc.

  • Embrace 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 opposes the goal.

  • Don’t be afraid to show first attempts failing. What do characters in books and movies typically do in response to the initial conflicts they face? Not necessarily the right things at first. In stories, first attempts are never enough, generally causing things to get worse. 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. In storytelling parlance, these things that happen are called plot reversals – “but then this happened” – which is a great way to sustain interest.

  • Arrive at triumph. Show your characters being forced to get to the heart of the matter and really address the things they need to address. Where they finally face the most difficult challenges or truths and go from good to great.

  • Consider A and B storylines. Most shows and novels switch between two different storylines, a main one and a secondary one, often with different characters. Ideally, these A and B storylines should converge at the end.

5. Start in the middle of things.

From Wikipedia: A tale beginning “in medias res” opens in the midst of action. Exposition is bypassed or filled in gradually, either through dialogue, flashbacks or description of past events.

Here in corporate America, we break this rule constantly. Not only do we not raise interesting questions that hook people, we write overly long introductions based on archaic corporate conventions: “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell it to them then tell them what you just told them.”

That’s not how stories do it, though. There’s certainly wisdom in repeating content you need people to remember, but storytellers carry an additional burden that corporate communicators tend to dismiss: the need to hook people. Start in the middle of your stories and you will. This is a great way to raise compelling questions in viewers’ minds, by the way, because they’ll want to figure out what’s happening and why.

6. 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).

7. 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.



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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