Storytelling In Business: Elements of Story Structure

Kelsey RugerMar 7, 20108 ResponsesCreativity

Now that I have introduced the concept of storytelling in business, and discussed the benefits of using story, the next step is learning how to do it. 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 become 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 biggest lesson we can take from these two directors is that stories shouldn’t be just a string of events mashed together. The result of properly using basic elements like plot, character, throughlines, setting and mythic structure is a story that the audience can connect with on a deep subconscious level.

A good story draws inspiration from the past to engage audiences

Good stories don’t just happen. An audience really connects with your story when the plot, characters and other elements fade together to create a unified narrative. This idea of “unification” was first discuss in Aristotle’s Poetics. In it, Aristotle says that a good story is unified and focuses on an extended action with a beginning, middle and end.

Over the centuries Aristotle’s basic definition of story has evolved and now, some stories are character driven (the character moves the story forward because of their choices) while others are plot driven (the action moves the story forward and the characters react), however all good stories still have a hero (“your main character”) and some type of mission(“journey” or “challenge”) that the hero must complete. Why? Because it still works and audiences are still drawn to story structures they can connect with.

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 5 basic 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 answering that question seamless.

A good business story use 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 the audiences 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 easily in a business setting (e.g. they present universally understood 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 challenge. 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. The hero is put into a new situation. 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 falls in love…but then what? Since stories need tension to move forward the “but then what…” part is really 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. That character may change significantly during the course of the story or simple figure out they somehow 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:

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 from the story I used in the introduction, I was the character. 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. Don’t spare the detail here. Use as much detail as needed to draw your audience in.

Good stories use a vivid setting to their advantage

A story must have a location or setting to orient the audience. It sets the place, time and circumstances of the story, and helps the audience gain the context needed to understand where you are coming from. As with creating your characters, don’t spare the detail when defining the location.

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Again, using stories takes practice. At the end of the day if you want them to work you have to think about what people really 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.

Comments & Opinions

@create20Monday, March 8th 2010

great post! Nice job of connecting narrative structure with business neeeds.

Eloy Zuniga Jr.Saturday, March 20th 2010

Very nice post. I especially like the last paragraph.

    Kelsey RugerSaturday, March 20th 2010

    @Eloy heh, finally I can see your comments!

Eloy Zuniga Jr.Sunday, March 21st 2010

Woohoo, glad to hear it! Now you can deal with all my unhelpful comments, woot!

Marc BinkleySaturday, February 11th 2012

Kelsey, thanks for putting so much thought and work into this post. It a fantastic piece of work and will be a resource I share and visit often.

Regards,

Marc

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