Category Archives for "Storytelling"

Scrooge meets Morley's ghost

Basic Plots 7: Rebirth

One version of the tragic story type is close to the seventh and final common basic plot, Rebirth.  It is where the hero repents at the last minute .  They are too late, nemesis consumes them, all too aware of the mistake they made.

But what happens where it isn’t too late?  What if such a hero lives?


Just like all but one of the seven basic plots, this story develops in five stages.  At first glance you may think the middle sections are very similar.  Although on one level a lot happens, stasis marks this story-type.  Nothing much happens for years or decades.  Frustration is absent until something precipitates a crisis.

  1. The hero falls under a shadow. Sometimes the hero is innocent until something happens that causes this first change of heart.
  2. The poison takes time to take a hold and perhaps things seem to go well at first. Gradually it takes hold and shows its full effect.
  3. With darkness full on, the hero experiences total isolation, imprisonment, a living death.
  4. Something precipitates a nightmare crisis.
  5. The power of love liberates the hero, who experiences a second change of heart.

From Innocence to Egocentric Obsession

There are three variants at the start of this story-type.  They influence the outcome and perhaps our feelings for the hero.

In the first, the hero remains innocent throughout the story.  They labour under a dark power that immobilises them.  This is common in children’s stories, eg Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  Both these heroes are held in stasis until some external influence brings about change.  There are adult versions.  One such is Florestan, the hero of Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio.  He is imprisoned and Leonora, his wife, takes action to free him.  He needs to be released and has no need to repent.  Nevertheless, his release is a rebirth.

The second type is where the dark power springs from within the hero’s personality.  We meet Scrooge at Christmas, well into stage 3 or 4.  We learn during the story the reason why he became a miser.  This is the most realistic of the three variants and one businesses should study.

The third variant is where the dark power takes over the hero and turns the hero into a dark figure.  Peer Gynt is a well-known example, where he discovers late in life he never escaped the magic of the trolls. Kay, from the Snow Queen, is another example.  Neither of these heroes is particularly malevolent, they lead pointless lives.

One constant is the sense of a life lived to no purpose.  The hero often looks back to a time of innocence.  Perhaps a story on the cusp of tragedy and rebirth is Citizen Kane.  He dies with the word “Rosebud” in his lips.  We learn as the film progresses that Rosebud represents the last time he experienced happiness.

Slow Build

The point is the sense of constriction.  The hero is not necessarily a villain, typically he or she shows little malice towards others.  Others may fear or avoid them because they are cold, hard, inured to the feelings of others.  They see the world from a mechanistic perspective, they calculate and measure.  They don’t appreciate or delight in life.

On one level, they may be successful.  Perhaps like Kane, they build a business empire.  They pursue pleasure but see no beauty or purpose in what they accumulate.  From outside, they appear successful.  Within though nothing changes.  They care for no-one, not even themselves.

That one word, Rosebud, is the only clue we have that Kane appreciates he took the wrong road and could not find his way back.

Darkness, Isolation and Nightmare

Typically, we encounter this person without feeling at the height of their power.  It is not that Scrooge hates Bob Cratchit, he simply doesn’t care, he lacks sympathy or compassion.

Some of these heroes are monsters and do terrible things.  But the thing that separates them from the villain in other stories is their lack of malice.  They don’t care.

We baulk at Shahryar’s brutal rule.  He has power and uses it to rape and murder young women.  But we are given his back-story and see what caused darkness to overwhelm him.  Modern people perhaps want to see him punished but the story goes in an unexpected direction.  If we want to see him punished, if we don’t care what happens to him, does that not make us just like him?

In the end it is just a story and it is what it is.  It raises issues for us, it does not tell us what to think.  Scherezade could have run him through with a sword.  But perhaps her strategy was the only one available to her.

Liberation Through Love

Love precipitates rebirth.  Frequently love for a child, a young woman or a dashing young prince.  The hero is incomplete until they feel something for someone outside of the world they created for themselves.  Scrooge falls for Tiny Tim, who does not die.

Of these three the most interesting is the young woman.  A child can make a big difference but is essentially passive.  The hero must choose to take care of the child.  The young prince belongs solely in fairy stories as far as I am aware.  The young woman (who may grow old during the story) is not always passive.  Sometimes she takes action to rescue the hero.  Indeed, perhaps she becomes the hero.  She is the one prepared to love the hero.  Think of Gerda in The Snow Queen or Sonia in Crime and Punishment.


Scherezade is a frame story and so gets lost in 1001 other stories.  Unlike Gerda and Sonia, she does not know Shahryar.  She loves him but cannot possibly feel that way from the start.  What is different about her?

She is a young woman and so are all Shahryar’s other victims.  How is Scherezade different?  She determines not to follow her sisters but to put an end to Shahryar’s reign of terror.  We assume his other victims tried every conceivable seductive charm to no avail.  Scherezade could see this was not about sex.  She was a scholar and so used scholarship to help him rediscover his true self.

She has a plan, assisted by her little sister, who asks for a bedtime story.  Maybe the child’s presence made a difference.  Maybe Shahryar let Scherezade live out of sympathy for the child and found he was gradually drawn into a world of stories and there rediscovered his true self.

Work-Life Balance

The rebirth story is an arrow aimed at the heart of business.  It challenges all business owners to be true to themselves.  To remember who they are, as they contemplate their figures and plan the next sale.

It challenges those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  To ask, what is it that is truly important?

A business person spends 15 years building a successful business, takes early retirement and returns home to a splendid house with a spouse who barely remembers him and a brood of moody Goths.  Yes, he provided for them, made sure they could do anything they wished.  But is that all his family wanted from him?

It is easy in business to lose track of reality.  Seasons come and go and suddenly you are a lot older, wondering what happened to all that time.  Success may have happened but under the surface, everything else has been on hold.  The faithful spouse complains “we had it all planned, we were going to do so much together but he died.”

How many business people die with “Rosebud” on their lips?

Some business owners tell how they realised time was passing and they no longer wanted to work for others.  They longed for freedom to live their lives to the full. Business itself can be a story of rebirth.


These seven common basic plots are not the only story-types but they open up models for stories that work.  There’s no need to force your story to fit one of these plots but if you can, find a story that resonates, a story you like, that has meaning. Your story will benefit from the dialogue.

If the rebirth story-type shows us one thing, it is the technical side of business is not on its own enough to bring satisfaction to us or our customers.  Remember no-one did business with Scrooge because they wanted to.

Man crowning himself

Basic Plots 6: Tragedy

The word tragedy is from the Greek for goat: tragos!  It is rooted in the idea of the scapegoat, the person who dies for the sins of the community.  Frequently the innocent suffer and die in a tragic story.  Even the central character can be innocent.

This is the only story-type that does not have a happy ending.  All other types show the hero somehow prevailing but in these stories the hero fails.  Does this mean this story-type is less applicable to business?  Who would trade with a tragic business?

Actually, this story-type is really important to businesses but to see why we need to understand how the tragic story works.


Just like most story-types, the tragic story passes through 5 stages.  I shall illustrate it with a simplified business story.

  1. Anticipation – an incomplete hero has a desire that focuses his energies. The new business owner decides his priority is to overcome his competition and make more money than anyone else.  He comes up with a “harmless” scam.
  2. Dream – the hero commits to a course of action that initially goes well. The hero finds his scam goes down well with the public and he establishes himself as a leader in his market.
  3. Frustration – things start to go wrong and the hero has to cheat even more to stay ahead. Our hero must add more lies to the ones he already tells from fear of being found a fraud.
  4. Nightmare – things get out of control, mounting threat and despair. A co-ordinated opposition begins to close in.  More people are suspicious and report their suspicions to the authorities.
  5. Destruction or deathwish. A final act of violence, murder or suicide, precipitates the hero’s death.  The hero is unmasked and condemned to bankruptcy or worse.

This is a complex story type and so the summary should be seen as one possible pathway.  There are several routes to the tragic ending and the threat is not always from the hero.

The Tragic Ending

These stories end in ultimate defeat, namely death.  Fortunately business people rarely kill anyone or commit suicide.  The tragic ending as a final defeat with no hope of reconciliation or rebirth.  It does not have to be death in a real life story.  Clearly, if someone does die, it is not them telling the story!

To understand the scope of this story better, let’s look at the hero.  There are several ways the hero works in tragic stories.  There are dark and light heroes.  Where the hero is dark, they are a threat to society.  Where the hero is light, society is a threat to them.

Four Subtypes Illustrate the Scope of Tragic Stories

  1. Here the hero is an out-and-out villain,  for example Richard III.  This play is an overcoming the monster story, from the point of view of the monster!  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”  He does well because determined and few have the courage or convictions to stand up to him.  Out of sight, the opposition grows and in time is strong enough to overthrow the monster.
  2. Here the hero makes a foolish decision. They make a bad decision for the wrong reasons and pay the price for their decision.  Often the outcome arises naturally from the decision, eg Faust condemned to hell or Jekyll overwhelmed by Hyde.  Some of these heroes are also victims of society and common examples are women heroes, such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.
  3. Here our sympathies are completely with the hero. A good person drawn into an external conflict against their own better judgement.  Romeo kills Tybalt because Tybalt kills Mercutio.  He has succumbed to the violence around him and so must pay the price.  He and Juliet are clear examples of the scapegoat, their death brings the warring families to their senses.
  4. Finally, the hero appears monstrous but is actually good. Victor Hugo offers us the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jean Valjean from Les Miserables.  The latter is hunted as a criminal and yet all he does is motivated by love for his daughter and general humanity.

The Deadly Focus

The 5 stages describe a journey from hubris to nemesis.  When we think about tragedies, we tend to focus on nemesis.  But from a business perspective perhaps we should focus on hubris.

Hubris is to step over the mark.  You might find a law irksome.  You decide to break it and at first it’s exhilarating.  But then …

Last time when I wrote about comedy, I suggested a typical business comedy might be where the boss is immortal.  The person who identifies with the business to such an extent that they are a single entity.  I’ve seen this several times in my working life and it is always painful and difficult to move on.  In a comedy, eventually they come to their senses; what happens when they don’t?

What is the nature of hubris?  It can be infectious, whole populations can succumb to it, usually out of fear.  What exactly is it?

Some Examples of Hubris

It is a decision to focus on something that challenges the status quo.  We find this often in modern politics where the so-called liberal establishment is the target of so-called radical challenges from the right, eg Brexit and President Trump.

As far as it goes such challenges may be based on a degree of truth.  There is a lot wrong with the establishment.  However, they don’t understand the problem and reach for the easiest solution to hand.

What is the problem Brexit solves?  Is it immigration, loss of sovereignty, too many regulations, austerity …?  Each of these could be solved in several ways and Brexit is proving not to be one of them.

Hubris is where the wrong solution is found to a poorly understood problem.  The hero is bored or frustrated in some way and an apparent solution presents itself.  It can be very seductive and is sometimes called a temptation.

The hero commits to the wrong path and then because of their immediate success becomes more committed to the path.  We don’t know what story-type Brexit will prove to be but we saw the dream stage for the Brexiteers after the referendum result and now frustration and nightmare are setting in.  The opposition is rallying (perhaps) and we may see a final battle.

The thing to note is how positions on both sides become increasingly entrenched.  Focus has shifted from the problem to a badly formed solution that bewitches political discourse.

We even have a saying: “Jumping to conclusions” which means coming up with an ill-conceived solution, most likely to the wrong problem.  Businesses are familiar with this and so are community and voluntary organisations.  Religious organisations too are not immune.


Take any of the four subtypes I listed above and there is another possible outcome.  The hero repents.  They see clearly what is happening.  Number 4 already will have a good sense of reality, which puts them out of step with everyone else.  For subtype 1, the change is likely to be cataclysmic, for 4 less so or perhaps there’s no need for it.

In a tragic story the change of heart is too little or too late to effect the outcome.  The hero contemplates their folly and the disaster they have brought down on their own heads and for their loved ones.

The truth is folly has implications for not only the hero but for those around them.  Too late they see what has happened to those they love. They repent and the full horror of what they have done comes home to them. They die with regret on their lips.

This is important because to make the wrong decision is likely to cost in terms of turnover, relationships, work-life balance and maybe legal proceedings.  These stories paint the picture in an extreme light but the point they make is highly relevant.  The choices we make matter.

Looking Forwards

Tragedy shows us what happens when repentance is too late.  But what happens when the villain’s repentance allows them time to make amends?  This opens the way to perhaps the deepest, most meaningful story-type: Rebirth.

Basic Plots 5: Comedy

If you think comedy is about humour, you must be joking!  People associate comedy with humour because many situations in comedy provoke laughter.  But many stories that follow the comedy plot are not particularly humourous. And of course not all humour is comedy!


So far, all the plots we’ve explored have a five-fold development.  Comedy is remarkably versatile and one reason is it has fewer steps.  The first two are typically missing; if they are present, you are likely to have another plot with humour!

  1. We are introduced to a small world under a shadow, where everyone is confused, uncertain and frustrated.  Usually the reason is a powerful figure who has taken the wrong path and so everyone has to work around her or him.  The people affected work separately and so all their little schemes confuse one another.
  2. Confusion increases and leads to nightmare consequences, eg someone will be executed or made to marry the wrong person.
  3. New information comes to light that reveals the truth about the dark character who either sees the error of their ways or leaves unreconciled. With shadows dispelled, there is a seemingly miraculous transformation and everyone joins in a joyful union, often around marriage of the right people.

Evolution of Comedy

Most plot types are ancient and their origins lost in the mists of time.  Comedy evolved during recorded history, it is only a few thousand years old.  I’m not going into a lot of detail, you can find an account in Booker but there are a few things worth highlighting.

The key to comedy is the point of recognition, where everyone suddenly sees clearly what has gone on before.  Recognition reveals the key dark character as a hypocrite, who either fesses up or departs never to return.  It is this key revelation that is distinctive to comedy.  This revelation prevents bad things from happening and so results in a happy ending.

Not quite so ancient but from a very early stage, lovers kept apart form comedy’s main preoccupation.  Frequently the resolution revolves around one or both lovers identities.

We naturally find, in these stories, the pompous powerful figure shown up for their hypocrisy, hilarious.  Think of Basil Fawlty, who is manager of a well-run hotel (in his own mind) and spends most of his time covering up the chaos happening behind the scenes.

Four Ingredients

Traditional comedy then has four key ingredients.  You are likely to find vestiges of them in any comic story.

  1. The dark character softens or else is shown up or paid off.
  2. The true identity of at least one character revealed.
  3. Recognition of the true love so that right people pair off by the end.
  4. Division, separation and loss repaired.

There are many traditional comic devices and if they happen you are likely to be enjoying a comedy.  These include disguises, mistaken identities, lost objects found, overheard and misinterpreted conversations.

Three Variations

Three basic variations go back to the earliest forms of comedy.

  1. The dark figure is a third-party and acts as a barrier to the lovers. This figure is often the father of the heroine or may be a rival to either the hero or heroine.
  2. The dark figure is either the hero or the heroine. The other must show constancy and eventually bring them round.
  3. There is no dark figure as such but things are generally confusing. The hidden truth revealed resolves the situation.

Note in the second, the dark hero or heroine must turn around to bring the story to a happy ending.  In the first, the dark figure can be unreconciled and so removed from the story.  This is unlikely where the dark figure is a parent and more likely where it is a dark rival.

Note too that for much of history, women lacked agency.  So, in comedies they are likely to disguise themselves as men.  Many of Shakespeare’s comedies use this device.

Above and Below the Line

Given a powerful person deluded is often the reason for confusion in the story, the question is: from where will they be opposed?  They have power and often the rule of law on their side, so parents decide who their children marry, for example.  The nightmare comprises power misused. The wielders of power do not have all the information and so think they are acting rationally.  The audience sees the full picture and so knows they are mistaken.

Opposition must come from those below the line, those without power.  This may be the dark figure’s wife, children, the lovers and servants.  They may form an alliance to overturn the dark figure.

Below the line is the source of both opposition and insight.  Think of Jeeves, who applies wisdom and helps Bertie out of the tight corners he gets himself and his friends into.  Or Pierre in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”.  Here the dark figure is Napoleon and Pierre learns wisdom from the old man he befriends when taken prisoner by the French.

Is Comedy Artificial?

Perhaps of all the story types, comedy is the most self-conscious and contrived.  It is easily burlesqued and the crucial recognition is often missing or the situation is reset at the end of each episode of a situation comedy.

Why then is it so rooted in modern Western literature?  Perhaps because it is about handing on to the next generation.  These stories are about the powerful older generation coming to terms with the new generation coming up to take their place.

Modern storytelling, often separates the serious love story from the comedy.  We have stories like War and Peace, which is essentially a love story, with two main couples and little humour.  Or else we have comedies like Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, where the lovers take second place to the humour.

Comedy and Business

Is it possible to use comedy in a business environment?  Note this is not the same as use of humour.  Certainly the heavy dependence on lovers and marriage suggests perhaps only for dating agencies!

However, from the earliest times, comedy pivots on a truth hidden from the players in a story revealed.  Anyone who can say they were unable to see clearly and their misunderstanding confused others, may have a real life comedy story.

A Typical Business Comedy

A small business is in a state of confusion.  The business owner is no longer clear about the orders she gives.  She gives contradictory orders to her staff, or else they make no sense or someone else has already completed the task.

She plays the staff off against one another and does not encourage them to collaborate and in their efforts to please the boss, they compete and become more confused.  Eventually a few realise they must confront their boss and tell her why she is no longer able to lead them.

Gradually it emerges the boss faces some life crisis and her attention has been elsewhere.  Now all the staff can rally round and help her sort out her affairs and get the business back on track.

OK this is not a brilliant story but the point is to see the overall shape.  A situation like this is rarely funny.  It can be painful for everyone who lives through it.  Usually businesses resolve such issues because the boss must leave or everyone else will.

Business people telling their life story often recount how something got in the way of their business, eg alcohol or depression.  In telling the story, they often focus on their own experience and rarely on those around them.

Someone going through a personal trauma might say they were going into work wearing a cheerful mask.  People see the mask and perceive the contradictions under the surface.

This story type may be helpful to those who can tell a story of personal pain and the impact it had on their immediate community.

Looking Forwards

The positive ending depends upon that crucial insight that opens everyone’s eyes so they see reality as it is.  But what happens where the revelation never comes or comes too late?  What happens where the dark figure triumphs and precipitates those around into tragedy?

woman facing huge horizon

Basic Plot 4: Voyage and Return

In some respects, Voyage and Return is like The Quest.  Both involve a journey but beyond that they could not be more different.


Let’s start with a summary of the story structure.  Note it has the 5-fold structure of all the story types we’ve explored so far.

  1. Anticipation and fall into another world.  The circumstances of the hero or group of heroes is often relevant.  They lack something and usually they are not aware of what they lack.  And note the journey out is usually not significant, often effectively instantaneous and in any event, little significant happens during the journey.
  2. Initial fascination or dream. They find themselves in a new world and at first they are intrigued maybe excited by it.
  3. The experience feels unreal but because the rules are unknown, the experience becomes more frustrating.  Sometimes they make enemies.
  4. Nightmare or serious threat. Their presence triggers a real threat and things come to a crisis.
  5. Thrilling escape and return. The return is important because it poses the question: what difference has the voyage made?

Story Types

Voyage and Return is a common story type, often haunting and mysterious.  It takes several forms.  There are at least 4 main types:

  1. Marooned somewhere in our own world, eg Robinson Crusoe.
  2. A strange civilisation in an imaginary world, eg Alice, Narnia
  3. Social, where the hero finds themselves in a different social setting, eg Brideshead Revisited
  4. Switched identities or transformation, eg Kafka’s Matamorphosis, Freaky Friday (film and novel).

Three Questions

To understand the nature of this story type, we need to answer three questions.

How Do They Get There?

Unlike The Quest, the hero or group of heroes have no purpose in making the voyage.  The voyage is usually involuntary.  Even where the hero plans the voyage, there is no aim other than to see what’s there.  Usually they stumble upon it; there is rarely significant planning.

However, the hero is often psychologically ready for something to happen.  They may be frustrated by their life or job and ready for a change.

Whereas the journey in The Quest often takes up about half the story, preparing the hero for the challenge to come, the Voyage is often just a means to effect a transition to a different world.

What is The Nature of the Other World?

The hero or heroes are trapped in an unfamiliar world, perhaps where their inability to interpret what’s going on makes it more threatening.  Encounters with the inhabitants gradually lead to a sense of increasing threat.

The early stages are often quite pleasant.  The hero makes contact with the inhabitants.  In many stories this includes bonding with a sympathetic character of the opposite sex.  However, the outcome of this relationship is not the same as it is for The Quest.

What Happens to Them?

This is the crucial question for this story type.  They return transformed or not transformed.  Occasionally, the untransformed are left trapped in the other world.

The transformation often leaves them chastened, repentant or visionary.  They return as a different person, able to deal with the issues they face in their own world.  Consider the five stages from the point of view of such a hero:

  • They begin in a state of unawareness, possibly even as a dark character.
  • Their current state plunges them into a new world
  • Increasing frustration leads to
  • A nightmare that causes something significant to change
  • Meaning they understand their own world better, a victory over their former selves

The untransformed can be neutral or dark.  There are many examples of neutral, where the hero shows no change, perhaps because it was all a dream.  Examples include Alice and Dorothy.

Often a sign of lack of transformation is leaving the friend of the opposite sex behind.  They return with a sense of loss that reinforces their original state.  There is some inadequacy in the relationship that is never rectified.  They are tested and fail.

Whatever the outcome, this story type poses the question: what difference did the voyage make?

Application to Business

Like Overcoming the Monster, this is a popular story type but perhaps one with fewer business applications.

The social voyage and return may be the most helpful here.  Many people have stories to tell about an accident that moved them into a new world and how they returned as a different person.  Examples might be victims of crime, spending time in prison, paralysis.  Any event that knocks a life off-course, raises similar questions.  The interest in the story is how the hero found their way back and the nature of the transformation they undergo.

This story may work for markets of survivors of some life-changing event who seek help in finding their way back.  But it is worth pausing here because we can see in real life it is not possible to return to life as it was before.  Everything changes.  This is not just a personality transformation, return is not possible if by return we mean the same state as at departure.  The world visited creates a new world in the here and now.  The state at the end of the story combines the old and new worlds.

Perhaps the key is in the return journey?  In The Quest, the outward journey is important.  In this story type it is the return journey.  Where the return is precipitate, leaving important elements behind, then transformation is unlikely or unsuccessful.  Where the return is planned and taken seriously, then transformation is likely to be successful.

Case Studies

There are at least two types of case study based on this  story-type:

  • A client stuck in a humdrum or stressful environment, realises they want to see change. A coach might help them, perhaps leaving a job or a marriage and entering a new world.  They might help them navigate the new world they create for themselves until they find they have transformed their lives and feel fully engaged.
  • A traumatic event precipitates someone into a new world, eg prison or hospital and they need to find their way back to autonomy.

Telling this story-type may help coaches find clients who are somewhere in this story.  The threat they must overcome is internal and often they are not clear what they are up against.

Looking Forwards

There is another story type that takes this same concern, of overcoming inner darkness, in a different direction.  What do we do when someone close to us is trapped in their inner darkness?  What if we don’t understand what is happening to them?

Maybe the best solution is to resort to Comedy!

map showing route and x marks the spot

Basic Plots 3: The Quest

This third basic story-type, may be suitable for many businesses, when it is about business origin and development.  However, quest stories are usually very long, eg The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey.

5 Stages of The Quest

As you read the five stages of The Quest, you see parallels with Overcoming the Monster and Rags to Riches.  You see also why quests take a lot of telling.  For this reason, I have adapted a real-life story of a business origin. It shows how to cover a quest in 10 or fewer minutes.  The business story is in red type.

  1. The story begins with a call to action. There is some problem in the world of the hero and she sets out to find the remedy.  Alternatively, the hero hears of lost treasure and sets out to make her fortune.  The hero as a child watched a video about a wedding organiser many times and decided she wanted to be an event organiser.
  2. The next stage is the journey. The hero usually has companions on the journey and encounters obstacles as well as help on the journey.  The hero studied and eventually got a job in New York.  She went there and found an amazing opportunity.
  3. When the hero arrives at their destination, they are frustrated because things are not straightforward. The hero was not doing what she really wanted to do but took advantage of opportunities in New York.  Then she was offered an opportunity to organise a several hundred-dollar event.
  4. The hero and companions have to face a series of final ordeals. These are often three-fold and there are tests only the hero can pass.  The hero was able to create a fantastic event by overcoming many obstacles to create something only she was able to achieve.
  5. Eventually, the hero achieves their goal and returns home with the treasure or the threat resolved. The hero has achieved her childhood ambition and returns home with an assured career as an event organiser.


The Quest often divides into two roughly equal parts, the journey (stage 2) and the final ordeals (4).  This story is a journey with a purpose and so most of the story is about achieving the purpose.  Often the hero and companions have no idea about the final ordeals until they reach the end of the journey.  Here their first goals are usually radically modified.

The business story does not necessarily share the jeopardy of the traditional story.  The hero journeyed to further her second best career.  The final ordeal was really a great opportunity.  The traditional story offers an underlying structure for a story that could become pointless.  We’re on the side of the little girl with a dream, who achieves it in a few years.  The story is more satisfying when presented this way and not as a simple account of what she did in New York.  The person who told this story had already sensed this underlying shape to her story.

The Treasure

Let’s begin with the treasure.  What the hero sets out to do or find is not necessarily what they do or find when they get to their destination.  But their first promise sets their feet on the road and so it is important.  Typically, it is one of these:

  • A treasure of great value. The hero sets out to find it.  It may be treasure in a literal sense of money or precious stones, maybe valuable objects.  Sometimes it is a single priceless object, eg the Holy Grail.  Business stories are often framed as a challenge to make money.  Note though the story I used earlier does not focus on the money the hero earned, just the budget for the event.
  • It can be a journey to meet some threat to the hero’s home. Usually, the prize for the wider community is freedom from the threat.  Many businesses start out with envisioning some change they want to see.
  • The search for a new home or a promised land. Here everyone sets out on the journey.  Examples might be the Exodus or Watership Down.  The story of Brexit might be framed in this way.  The heroes take everyone with them, even though not everyone wants to go there.  An equally challenging story follows the journey towards leaving the EU.  What happens once they get what they want?
  • A secret of great worth. Here a business story may be about seeking out the support of an expert who has knowledge of a secret to business success.  A business owner maxed out her credit cards to raise £20K and then told her husband.  This gamble paid off after a lot of hard work and so she had a story!

The Call

The treasure is a big part of the call and may be sufficient to get the hero and companions moving.  Sometimes they need more.

Clearly, the treasure is left behind, if the home is under threat.  This means the hero and companions are moving towards danger and this may not be at all attractive.  So, there will be some menace at home.  Something that puts them in danger even if they stay.  They may be pursued on their journey.

A different type of pursuit is the race, where a rival group are seeking the same treasure.

Companions and Helpers

The word companion means one with whom you share bread.  You can see the French word for bread in the word if you look closely!  They are the people who go with the hero and help or hinder her progress.  They share the risks and dangers of the journey.  There are four different types of companion.

  1. Undifferentiated masses.  This is where a whole community sets off on a quest.  Think of the Israelites on the Exodus, the Odyssey where several boatloads set out, Watership Down, where a rabbit community seeks a new home.
  2. There is often a companion who exhibits fidelity.  They are extensions of the hero, perhaps a servant and they solely support the hero, think of Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings.
  3. Others provide a foil.  They do not share exactly the same goals as the hero and may at times obstruct the hero.  Alternatively, they may display qualities the hero lacks and so help her through the various challenges.
  4. Finally, there are fully differentiated companions.  They have their own reasons for being on the quest and interact with the hero as equals.  Typically, one of these is likely to become the partner of the hero, usually after much wavering.


Helpers provide respite and guidance.  On the journey, following an ordeal, the helper provides a safe haven and useful advice.  Remember Elrond and Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings.  This type of support is typically provided by an old man and a young woman.

Sometimes, defeat of an enemy leads to them converting into a helper.  Circe in the Odyssey, once defeated helps Ulysses with his quest.

It is always worth asking in any business story: from where did help and support come?  Many business owners see themselves as the hero of their own story.  Heroes accept help and offer it to companions and helpers.  Teamwork is often an essential element in business development.

The Journey

Respite and guidance are one function of the journey.  As the journey progresses, the hero learns more of the problem they face and what’s at stake.  The other thing they face is ordeals.  Sometimes ordeals are stories in their own right.  You can see why quest stories can be very long!  So, what sort of ordeals?  There are four basic types:

  • Monsters, of course. Maybe a mini Overcoming the Monster story.  They are not the main threat and may be agents of the main threat.  Sometimes they injure the hero and companions and so the need for respite.
  • Temptations cause the hero and companions to forget their quest through guile or seduction. The Circe episode in the Odyssey is one of several that deflects the quest, sometimes for years at a time.
  • Deadly opposites are a rarer event. We sometimes talk about steering between Scylla and Charybdis – between rocks and a whirlpool.
  • A journey to the Underworld is a common event with its own hazards and usually returning with some insight. In modern stories this may be where the hero has a close encounter with death.

Business and personal stories have their share of competitors or other obstructive people, distractions, the need to find the right path between two equally bad options and giving up the entire enterprise.

The Final Ordeal

Key to understanding the quest is the final ordeal.  The hero reaches journey’s end with all or some of their companions.  They discover things are not as they expected.  There is some final, apparently insurmountable barrier.

This part of the story can take as long to tell as the journey.  The journey equips the hero and companions with knowledge and experiences they need to overcome this final obstacle.  The reward at this stage is to secure the original goal.

The ordeal is often three-fold and the test is one only the hero can pass.  At the beginning of the journey they had little or no hope and now they can work out how to overcome the ordeal.

The little girl who watched The Wedding Planner many times over, would not have been able to organise the big event on New York.  She needed training and experience as well as to travel a long way!

Life Renewing Goal

The outcome depends on the goal of the quest.  The goal changes because things rarely work out exactly as planned.  However, we recognise the goal is achieved.

There is a sense of renewal in many quest stories.  The typical marriage of the hero and her partner and their benevolent role in their kingdom is likely.  But there is a strong sense of renewal for everyone because some threat is overcome and people can live in peace.

Looking Forwards

This is the third of Booker’s seven plot types.  Remember the aim is not to put your story into a straitjacket but to help structure your marketing story in a way that resonates with your market.

Next time we’ll look at a plot that on the surface is similar to the Quest.  Voyage and Return is the second about journeying and presents some very different challenges.

Basic Plots 2: Rags to Riches

The last time I saw the TV programme Top of the Pops, was in 1975.  It featured the Bay City Rollers and a man in a flat hat singing the Ugly Duckling!  He was Mike Reid and this is his song!

The Ugly Duckling is a Rags to Riches story pared down to its basics.  Rags to Riches is always about growing up and achieving inner potential.  The Ugly Duckling has to experience a lonely winter before he discovers his true nature.

At first glance, the Rags to Riches story seems a perfect fit for business.  It certainly is for some businesses.  But not necessarily the businesses you might think.  Riches do not of themselves bring about maturity.  The story is not complete until the hero or heroine proves worthy.

Relationship with Overcoming the Monster

There are parallels with overcoming the monster but the emphasis is different.  Here the protagonist may overcome several monsters as the story progresses.

Overcoming the Monster focuses on good versus evil.  Rags to Riches focuses on perfection and completeness.  Just as good versus evil is unrealistic, we rarely encounter complete evil or good in real life, so perfection and completeness is incomplete.  The point is to remind us what is important.

The hero in a Rags to Riches story encounters several barriers and increasingly draws on their own resources to overcome them.  This leads to growing maturity.  Perhaps this story-type fits closer to life coaches than to marketers.  But if it is about growing to maturity, perhaps it applies mostly to younger people.

5 Stages of the Rags to Riches Story

Just as overcoming the monster typically has five stages, so does Rags to Riches:

  1. Initial wretchedness and the call. Note the threat this time is local.  The hero leaves home in the overcoming the monster story to find the monster, in rags to riches they leave home to escape a monster.
  2. Out into the world and initial success. Sometimes this is significant, the hero, with significant help, has good fortune and grows in wealth.
  3. The hero’s hubris precipitates the central crisis. Their initial success goes to their head. At this stage despair sets in.  If the hero does not overcome despair, there is no story!
  4. Independence and the final ordeal – this time around they have to rely on their own resources.
  5. Final union, completion and fulfilment. The rewards are similar to those from overcoming the monster but there is a strong sense that now the hero deserves her or his riches.   They are proven worthy.

Longer stories naturally move on to all five stages.  The temptation is to break off the story at stage 2.  A moment’s reflection shows why this is a mistake.  There are many stories of people finding a fortune and squandering it in a few years. Or early business success is followed by a disaster that takes everything away.  Illness or falling out with a partner are common reasons.

Promises of a 6 (or 7!) figure business are common and are sometimes described as Rags to Riches.  This basic plot underlines the reasons these promises do not become true.

Hidden Potential

The hero often starts in wretched circumstances.  Cinderella for example, lives as a servant at the beck and call of her ugly sisters.  We compare her generous nature their self-centredness.  The sisters don’t just represent a threat, they are also a contrast.

When transformed, Cinderella’s apparent wealth represents her inner nature.  At the end of the story, the Prince recognises her even though she is dressed in rags.

Whatever the failings of the hero, we see she or he is worthy from the beginning.  They have a lot to learn and if that were not so, we would have no story.

Growth from Childhood to Maturity

We see inner potential manifest through the obstacles the hero overcomes.  Frequently initial wealth is itself a barrier to maturity.  It is as much a test as the various monsters the hero encounters.

Typically, initial wealth is found with help.  Cinderella has her fairy godmother and Aladdin his genies.  At this stage they learn they have inner strength to meet adversity without help.

If we focus solely on making money, the Rags to Riches story does not work.  The hero is tested and found worthy.  The real riches are within the hero, not in whatever material fortune comes her way.

The story is about how people become their true selves.  Everything else, wealth and adversity, is there to help them find out what they are capable of.

Moment of Crisis

The hero proves her maturity when she has to face her biggest threat ever without help. The temptation is to give into despair.  Everything that goes before prepares the hero for her final test, where she has to rely on ingenuity and experience to pass it.

In passing the test she shows she is worthy of the external trappings; her prince, her fortune, a kingdom to rule.  But the real riches are the qualities she discovers as she works through her final ordeal.

Perhaps the right ending for this story is “they lived happily ever after”.  Real life goes on and there are more challenges.  The point is this story is over.  The hero has attained maturity.  There are immature elders, of course.  But they feature in a different story-type.

Looking Forwards

This is the second of Booker’s seven plot types.  The aim is not to put your story into a straitjacket but to help structure a marketing story that resonates with your market.

Next time we’ll look at a plot perhaps more relevant to marketers and businesses that help make money, the Quest.  This plot is the first of two about journeying and business owners may find one or the other a good fit.


Basic Plots 1: Overcoming the Monster


The purpose of choosing a traditional story is to hold a conversation between it and your personal keynote story.  Whether you tell anyone about your traditional story, let alone tell it in public, is your choice but it is not essential.

Just like any conversation, aim to interrogate your own story, experiment with new ideas, and structure your story to emotionally satisfy your audience.  A traditional story that resonates with your story, deepens its impact on your business.

How do you find the right story?  A lot depends on the stories you know. It may take a while to find the right one.  I recommend you seek amongst myths, legends and fairy stories.  Why?  These stories are better known and so offer common ground to your audience. Even where you don’t tell your chosen story, it helps you find a structure that will feel right to your audience.

Another reason to favour traditional stories is they are relatively short.  If you choose a novel, film or TV series, you may find you have far too much material.  Longer works can help and feel free to borrow ideas from them but if you want an overall shape to your story, stay short!

Basic Outline of Any Story

These posts are loosely based on Christopher Booker’s “The Seven Basic Plots”.  This long work is worth reading to learn more about stories.  Booker does not consider business applications for storytelling or discuss combination with real life plots as I recommend.  His focus is on the stories themselves, where mine is on storytelling.

There is, according to Booker, a 5-stage basic structure to most successful stories.  Not all stories follow this pattern and the seven basic plots each have their own take on it.   Remember this is a model and guide, to help you structure your story.  You do not have to follow every detail.

Overcoming the Monster

Here is the basic 5-stage plot for Overcoming the Monster

  1. The call or anticipation stage establishes a threat from some monster. The hero (male or female), sometimes with companions, set out to defeat the monster.  Sometimes they take special weapons.
  2. The dream stage is where things go well at first and they find their way to the monster’s lair.
  3. The confrontation or frustration stage is where they experience a major setback, often involving capture or discovery the monster is more powerful than they thought.
  4. This leads to the final ordeal or nightmare stage, where the monster unleashes its full power on them or the wider community.
  5. Finally, the miraculous escape stage, where usually something seeded earlier in the story turns up and saves the day at the last minute. The benefits of the victory are briefly mentioned.

This is possibly the most common story type.  It is simple, exciting and everyone is familiar with it.  It is found in almost every genre, eg science fiction, westerns, thrillers, war stories.

Business owners should approach this plot with caution.  Opposing good and evil is not always helpful.  The swashbuckling hero seller of lavatory brushes may be able to pull it off.  But the danger of coming over as an idiot or megalomaniac is real.

However, don’t reject this plot out of hand.  You might not have a monster to fight but your customers might.

External Threat

The monster is an external threat.  If you need a story about struggles within your own psyche, eg with depression or stress, this is probably not the best plot.  External threats turn up out of the blue and they are not your fault.  You or your community are under attack.

In these stories, there is polarisation between good and evil.  There is not much room for nuance.  Real life is not like this, evil is not so easy to identify.  Neither is good!

The monster has several characteristics.  In appearance it is hideous.  If human, it is likely to be deformed.  It is dangerous, can’t be left to its own devices because it will harm you or your people.  It is deceitful and so may first appear to be friendly.  It’s true purpose and abilities are likely to be concealed at first.  And it is mysterious.  Who it is and what it wants is not immediately obvious.  The hero often sets out with little idea what it is they are actually fighting.

David Tennant, when he played Dr Who, in an interview claimed they no longer call them monsters but creatures.  He made the point, just because something looks scary, doesn’t mean it is evil.  If there are other worlds with their own sentient beings, they won’t necessarily be enemies.  That’s true but not relevant to this plot.

Who Benefits?

Don’t forget two main groups benefit from defeating the monster.  First, there is the hero and his or her allies.  They hone their skills and grow in experience to defeat the monster.  Usually, they set off ill-equipped for the task.  They are the best person for the job, however ill-equipped they appear to be.  Sometimes they become more mature.  They show themselves worthy of whatever benefits accrue to them for their victory.

The other beneficiary is the wider community who suffer from the monster and despair of ridding themselves from its terror.  It is easy to forget this dimension to the story because usually the focus is on the hero.  However, it is always important because it is about who is worthy to rule, some monster or someone with proven prowess and character.


One aspect easy overlook but relevant to some businesses is equipment.  Think of any James Bond film.  Towards the beginning, Bond receives instructions from M and then meets with Q who provides him with equipment.  Bond often finds some unexpected way to use the devices he is given during the adventure.

Perhaps this is one major application of this plot to business.  Customers often have a problem and need some way to fight it.  You can provide practical help or advice and guidance.

The Monster

The monster often evolves in a specific way.  It starts as a predator, picking off seemingly random people as it follows its plan.  At first this doesn’t make sense but as the monster becomes better-known its activities become easier to understand.

When the hero penetrates the monster’s lair, we see the monster in its second mode, holdfast.  Here we see the monster has accumulated treasure or weapons, as a result of its predatory activities.  This stance is primarily defensive.

Finally, when the heroes have a measure of success, they  provoke the monster into its avenger state.   Here it reveals its true powers and is most dangerous because it is angry.


Its defeat comes about through some blind spot, where the monster overlooks something that makes it vulnerable.

Remember this is the plot where the hero defeats monster.  There are stories where the hero converts the monster.  That’s not a problem but it is not an overcoming the monster story!  If you sell equipment for overcoming some problem, customers want something that works.  They will be less attracted by something that enables them to live with the problem.  It depends what you sell.  Competitors might befriend the problem, you deal with it.


There are three main rewards the hero receives for overcoming the monster.

The love of a princess (or prince) and their hand in marriage.  Consider what this means.  The relationship is usually either a result of rescuing the beloved from the monster’s holdfast or a reward from the community.  Whatever your take on sexuality, don’t lose sight of the point of this.

Marriage at the end of the story stands for maturity.  Male and female coming together balances both people.  You can experiment with this but reflect on how you feel when the hero and heroine get together, there is something deeper here than simply getting the girl (or boy!).

The two together are often deemed worthy to rule over the kingdom, community or household.  This preoccupies most traditional stories.  What makes a good leader?  It is never solely the male hero’s strength and courage but includes characteristics associated with the feminine, such as seeing the whole picture and flexibility.

The point is not whether some characteristics are male and others female, both sexes exhibit both.  Both are needed to rule a kingdom.  Marriage puts both in charge. Problems start when we over-associate with one or the other.

Finally, they inherit treasure taken from the monster’s holdfast or as a reward for defeating the monster.  They become wealthy and much the same applies to wealth as to political power.  I’ll explore this in more detail next time when I consider rags to riches stories.

From a business perspective, these outcomes may be important as the promise you make to your customers.  Note all are awards for those proved worthy through defeating the monster.  This helps us think about our offers on a deeper level.

Looking Forwards

This is the first of Booker’s seven plot types.  Remember the aim is to help you structure your marketing story in a way that resonates with your market.

Next time we’ll look at a plot that on first glance seems much more relevant to business, the Rags to Riches story.  This is an interesting plot that is a good fit for some businesses but possibly not the ones you might think.  If you think your business is about creating wealth, read the next post to find out whether it is!

woman at desk surrounded by images from stories

Telling Your Traditional Story

You tell a better story if you understanding traditional stories.  Therefore this bottom layer of the storytelling cake is something different.  Many businesses offer help with storytelling to businesses but few use traditional stories.

What is a Traditional Story?

Traditional stories are rooted in oral traditions.  They may be published and so you find them in print.  They are myths and legends, fairy stories, sagas and other accounts of adventure and tragedy.  Some are presented as for children but most assume an adult audience.  They can be bawdy, cruel, violent and devastating but almost always resolve in a positive ending.

Jokes and Anecdotes

Jokes can be stories.  Consider the shaggy dog story.  A long meandering story, often invoking the rule of three to the point of tedium.  Eventually we get to a punch line, which elicits a laugh or a groan.  The punch line is the point of telling this story.

An anecdote is in some ways similar.   Maybe less likely to depend on the rule of three but it has a punch line.  There is a reason for telling it and it results in recognition.  Ah, yes now I see!  If you remember the anecdote, it might remind you of the main point.  The anecdote does not converse with the main point, it serves to illustrate it.  You choose or create it for that purpose.  If it challenges the main point in some way, it is more likely you change the anecdote, not the main point.

Imagination and Fantasy

A traditional story is an imagined story with certain structural and functional attributes.  Imagination is important.  There is a difference between imagination and fantasy.

An imagined narrative comes from within what the psychologist Jung called the collective unconscious.  It is collective in the sense we all have access to it.  People recognise traditional stories as somehow satisfactory.  It makes sense at a deep level.  I shall return to this in future posts.

A fantasy aims to satisfy egotistical desire.  Whether the desire is for money, sex, food, violence; the fantasy attempts to articulate and fulfil them.  Fantasies generally fail because they are not the thing they depict.  Frequently mistaken for reality, they confuse and mislead.

The story of Ignatius of Loyola illustrates this distinction.  He was a knight wounded in battle and convalesced in a castle with a limited library.  He had two books to read, an account of the daring escapades of knights and the lives of the saints.  Ignatius decided to make up stories based on those books.  On the one hand, winning in battle great treasures and the hand in marriage of a beautiful woman.  On the other a life of contemplation.  He found the latter was far more satisfying and so was born Ignatian spirituality.

Structure and Function

A traditional story has a specific structure, basically a beginning, middle and end.  Let’s focus on the end for now.  By the end, things are put right and nothing is out-of-place.  “They married, inherited the kingdom and everyone lived happily ever after” is important.  It ties up the loose ends.  Of course there are other possible endings but after all the vicissitudes the hero and heroine pass through it is a relief to get there.  Tragedies are an exception.  Here the endings are negative but still make sense as a story.

The beginning middle and end tell us something about how the story evolves through time.  Another aspect of the story’s structure is its geography.  Where it takes place and the people and objects the protagonists encounter.  Without these the story is somehow incomplete.  Many personal stories focus solely on the protagonists, and exclude others.

What is traditional storytelling’s function?  First, it is to grasp and hold attention.  This is something all business people need to do.  A well-crafted story can do that.

It tells us something about the storyteller.  Through their choice of story and the way they tell it, they help their audience know, like and trust them.

Finally, it helps the audience understand something of themselves.  Usually, they lack something and need a remedy.  The aim is to move the audience and so bring about a wider transformation of relationships within or between businesses or with the wider world.

Finding Your Traditional Story

We all swim in a sea of stories.  The challenge we have is to find our signature or keynote story.  One step towards this is to find a traditional story that resonates with our personal story and our market’s story.

Oral Tradition

Most of the stories we encounter are published.  You find them in books, magazines, comics and games; on TV, radio and the cinema.  These are all good places to look for your story but remember these are stories set in stone.

Even traditional stories are published.  You might occasionally hear a storyteller or remember stories told many years ago.  Chances are you take recourse to a published version to check your memory.

The challenge is to return to the oral tradition.  Even if you plan to publish, you need to make the story your own before you do.

Orientation for Businesses

Overcome your prejudice.  “This has nothing to do with business”, may be your first thought.  I’ve shown there are real potential benefits and here’s one more.  Choosing the right story helps you understand your business.  Your offer, market and brand all become clearer as you work with the right story.

“There are far too many stories.  How can I choose the right one?”  You don’t need to study every story.  Find a story that resonates, study and understand it.  How do you know you’re chosen the right one?  You don’t.  Do your best with the one you have and be aware other stories might help.

“Aren’t these stories for children?”  Adults told traditional stories for adults.  Children’s stories may be just as useful.  Watch the ending because the outcome is often they find their way home to mother, not something we want our markets to do!

There is no app or technique to help you find your traditional story.  The temptation may be to buy a book of stories and read them all.  Life is too short.

Finding Your Story

Finding the right story is intuitive and so trust your intuition.  Focus on your personal story and market’s stories and ask whether they remind you of a traditional story.

Whatever comes up is likely to evoke a response like, “Oh no, that can’t be it”.  Ignore that and spend time with the story that has come up.  Is it a traditional story?  If it isn’t, why did it come up, can it work as an inspiration or is it a dead-end?

Find a published version and read it, taking note of everything you had forgotten.  Then stand up and retell the story from memory.  Do this several times and note how you begin to change and inhabit the story.

Telling Your Traditional Story

You have chosen a traditional story and now you tell it.  You have four options to consider.

On the Book

You could stand up and read the story as published.  Read it well and hold the audience’s attention as an actor would.  You put some of yourself into the story this way but does this work in a business environment?

This is reading a story in public, it is not telling the story.  The place where this happens regularly is in church.  Every week lessons are read and then the preacher interprets them.  The preacher rarely tells them or retells them.  This is a pity.  The reading is for reassurance, the foundational writings are still there.  Now we hear the preacher’s interpretation for this place and time.

It is difficult to imagine a business context where this has utility.

Telling Your Version

Better and more fun is to tell your version of the story.  This is in the oral storytelling tradition.  You tell the story here and now, for these people in this place.

Emphasise what you believe is important in the story.  Add or subtract incidents, characters and tweak them to convey the message you want to communicate.  As you become adept, you draw elements of your story and your market’s story into it.

This is worth experimenting with for marketing.  You are on a spectrum and as more elements from your story move into your traditional story, you see greater success with this approach.  It leads on to the next possibility.

Structuring Your Story

Perhaps the most helpful approach is to use the traditional story to structure your story.  Think of the two stories in conversation.  Your story asks the traditional story for help.  How can I tell this story better?  What is missing from it?  What does it mean?

Your personal story need not ape your traditional story.  It need not have the same meaning.  Your traditional story helps you find meaning in your own story.  For example, many traditional stories have a communal dimension; the success of the hero or heroine benefits everyone.  Personal stories often show the protagonist overcoming some problem.  The communal dimension can be overlooked.  It does not follow the communal benefits of your personal story are the same as those in the traditional story.

Key is understanding how elements in traditional stories stand in for things in real life.  If there is a magic sword in the story, what role does it play?  Does something in my story play a parallel role?

This is an intuitive exercise.  Work on your own storytelling, no-one else can tell you how to do it.  However, storytelling is a conversation between you and your audience.  The more you tell it, the more you find images and ideas from your subconscious.  Not all are helpful, test everything.  Finding and testing your story is never complete until the grave closes the final chapter!

Telling Fragments

Another approach to your traditional story is to use fragments in your marketing.  Two or three words that evoke a well-known image from a tale saves a lot of words.

This associates your business with a vivid image.  But make sure you are familiar with the traditional story, so the image you use is congruent with your business.  If you choose the wrong image to associate with your business, you can mislead your market.

Looking Forwards

I’ve walked you through the three layer cake, including icing and decorations.  Your marketing story is the icing, then your market’s story, your personal story and finally your foundational traditional story.

This last is perhaps least familiar as a business approach and so the next posts look at the structure and function of seven common plot types.  Most stories follow one or more of these common types.  Knowing them helps you see them in the stories businesses tell, intentionally or unintentionally.

So, next time we’ll look at one of the simplest plots, Overcoming the Monster.  This lays the groundwork for more complex plot types.  If you think your business is about overcoming monsters, read my next post and find out whether it is!

Desk with books, painting, lamp, radio ...

Why Tell Your Keynote Story?

Now we reach the middle layer of the storytelling cake.  In business you take on the role of leader for your market.  If you want people to follow you, they need to know you and why you are in business.  Telling your personal or keynote story is the best way to establish leadership in your field.

I’ve already covered the different types of personal story you might tell.  Your story must engage your market’s interest, be structured for emotional impact and resonate with your market’s values.

In this post, I focus on why storytelling is essential and how to get your message across.  Every story is different and you must find your personal approach to telling your story.  What do you need to bear in mind as you build your story?

Building Your Story

Trial and Error

It’s tempting to think of your story as something to polish off over an hour’s work at your desk.  You may come up with an outline but it is a starting point for a lifetime’s work.  The telling of the story to audiences is important.  Each time you tell your story, you tell it different.  You can write down the story but the story’s essence is in its telling; telling stories implies a relationship with your audience.

So, think of storytelling as trial and error.  Each time you tell it, you get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, what is superfluous and what is necessary.  There is no final perfect version of the story you tell.

Your Story is Not Yours

Don’t confuse your story with your life.  Your story is not the same as the story you tell.  Is your story a lifetime’s task because you need to live your life to have a complete story to tell?  Think of the story you tell as drawing inspiration from your life.  No-one can live through what you have been through but they can be inspired by it!

Your story is not yours.  It is a gift to your listeners and it is your responsibility to tell the story they want to hear, that in some way makes them better people.  It doesn’t matter whether you are talking a big or a small change, your story is for them and for their benefit.

And yes there are always some for whom this is not their story.  They might enjoy it but they reject your message.  And that’s fine.  They are not your market.  They are free agents and have no obligation to you.

But it’s Embarrassing!

If it’s not embarrassing, why is it worth telling?  Your embarrassment shows you emotionally engage with your story.  Many people have hang-ups like yours.  They need to hear whatever it is, is OK.  If you offer services as a coach, as a guide for your market, what does it mean if you cannot tell your story?

Only you know your full story, you control what you tell.  The more realistic your story is, the more it builds trust and interest.  You don’t have to say everything, if some aspect is too hard to speak, maybe you’re not ready to speak it.  Say what you can now and leave the rest for later.

So Much to Remember!

Yes, these posts taken together are a lot to remember.  How can you possibly pull something together that meets all these criteria?  You can’t and you don’t have to.

Find a story that might work and start to tell it.  Each time you tell it, review it.  From time to time, read these posts and ask yourself where your story meets these suggestions.  Maybe there are aspects you don’t need to meet.  Maybe at this stage you can’t see how to include something you want.

Remember telling a better story is not incremental.  You are more likely to make big changes when inspiration strikes.  Reviewing your story helps you work out where you need inspiration.  Remember, inspiration strikes in unexpected ways.

Keep it Simple

Your aim is to tell a simple, compelling story.  Adding bits on to meet some aspect of good storytelling is unlikely to work.  You may find it helps to take aspects away!  Does the story work without this incident?  The less material, the more chance you have of sensing the shape of your story.  As you become clearer about what the story is about, you can add material for longer versions of the story.

Don’t lose material you cut from the story.  You need several stories apart from your keynote.  So long as they support the keynote story, use them when the keynote is not appropriate.

Your Personal Story

In telling your personal story, you seek to establish yourself as a leader in your field. Your story is more important than your business message.  When people appreciate your story, they want to hear your message.

To do this, focus on two aspects of your story: authenticity and inspiration.

Show people what you are really like.  If you are honest telling your story, you are likely to be trusted in business.  Sometimes people find it difficult to be at the mercy of strangers (friends might be worse!).  It is daunting and even embarrassing (worse in retrospect!) but at the same time effective.  You seek people with a problem.  To hear someone speak about a problem that is rarely spoken about is very effective.

And inspiration is important because if you inspire your audience to take up the battle you took up, you have keen potential customers.  With inspiration, your market can identify with a story about you.  Your story of triumph over adversity becomes their story.  If they identify with you, they become the hero of your story.  You need time and experience to work out how to do this but it is worth the effort.

Your Story / Their Story

Here are some things to consider when telling your story in the hope it becomes their story:

  • Are they able to join you on your journey and make it theirs? Too many businesses sell a product or service as a given, sometimes people want to journey with us, for a short or long period,
  • You have had successes and these may be achievements your market likes to share,
  • Your failures help you prove authenticity. If your market experiences similar issues, they know you understand their problem,
  • In recounting the lessons you learned, you share real value with your audience,
  • Can you show how your philosophy changed? How did your understanding of life or business, change as your story progressed?
  • Show how your values changed. What didn’t?  Not everyone shares your values but those who do engage as a result,
  • Perhaps share goals and vision. This is not something I would put up front but as an outcome from a story.  Just don’t ram them down peoples’ throats, especially near the beginning!

Telling Your Business Story

Your personal and business stories might be the same or distinct.  Decide which is your keynote, if they are different.  If you major on the personal, there may be aspects of your business story you can include.

Your Why and Your Values

Your business story should be more than an account of what you do and how you got started.  Explain why you do it through your story.  I’m in business because I believe business has a role building community.  I want to work with people in sympathy with my why.

Also share your values.  Together with your why, they help draw your potential market’s attention.

Values in What You Do

Values make sense where they contribute to what you do and the way you do it.  In the first of this sequence of posts, I wrote about the need for consistency between all aspects of marketing.  This must extend to how you deliver your business obligations.

To what extent do you look after your customers?  Do you exceed expectations?  Can you see the values you claim expressed throughout your business?  If they are, you will find in your business itself means to extend your marketing.

Your customers commit to similar values and so help promote your business.  If they know your story, they pass on recommendations with reliability and conviction.

You are Your Business Culture

Larger businesses develop their own culture and once developed it is hard to shift.  Habits shared by large groups, are incredibly hard to change.

You see this even in small businesses.  You employ 3 people to work 8 hours a day, while you do important stuff for 3 hours a day.  Your staff takes their cue not from their contract of employment but from you.  You set the culture of your business.

Seek congruence between how you behave and the stories you tell.  But if you are self-employed with no staff, you have a degree of flexibility.  You can set the tone through the stories you tell.


Here are three questions to ask of your personal or business story.

  • Who are you and why do you do what you do?
  • What does your business stand for and what difference does it make?
  • What is going on for your customer and where does your business fit into their story?

Tell your story and then compare it with these questions.  Can you make changes to improve the story and move it closer to your marketing needs?

Looking Forwards

My next post reaches the bottom layer of the cake, where we access the power of traditional storytelling. It opens up seven more posts that explores traditional stories.  Your traditional story – how do you structure a story to resonate with your audience’s emotions and values?

Bookshop, internal

Telling Your Market’s Story

Why consider your market’s story before we move onto your own story?  This sequence is about storytelling in marketing and so your market imposes constraints on the story you tell.  This is not storytelling as entertainment, your purpose in telling your story is to tell your market’s story.

You aim to move people to take action in their own interest.  Stories have done this for millennia.  They guide their hearers through life and show them how to flourish as mature human beings.  Your market’s story must do the same.

The hero sets out incomplete.  The story equips the hero to deal with their problem.

Your Market in Your Story?

In storytelling, characters and other things stand in for things in real life.  You need not refer to your market directly but understand with whom they identify in your story.

If they identify as the hero, they emotionally engage in the story and see they need the attributes the hero develops to tackle their problem.

Don’t identify yourself with the hero. If you market a solution to the problem, your market does not need to know you are searching for the same thing they are.  They need to know you have found it!  You are better positioned in the story as helper or guide; someone with a solution to the market’s problem.

However, bear in mind it can be inviting to offer participation in a journey.  Here you present yourself not as someone with a complete solution but someone who invites their market to join in a journey.  A good example in marketing terms is Jeff Walker’s seed launch.  Customers pay to be part of an exploratory project and receive the results of the work, usually some online product.

The challenging question is: how do I make my market the hero of my story?  Perhaps you experienced some life-changing event? Your market cannot feel what it was like to be there.  This is a challenge all storytellers face.  Helping your market engage fully is not always easy.  They never experience exactly what you experienced but can experience emotional involvement in your story.

Using Your Market’s Story

One possibility is to use your market’s story directly through a case study.  Use a single case or combine several to make a typical case.  Remember confidentiality constraints; changing names is not always sufficient to hide an identity.

Case studies help you showcase your role with the customer.  You tell their story and show how you helped them.  Sometimes this works better than shoehorning your market into your personal story.

What’s Their Problem?

Your market has a problem you can solve.  Does your story accurately describe their problem and explain why they should try your solution ?  If not, why tell that story?  If you tell an apparently unrelated story, know why you tell it and how it helps your business.  For example, your story might help your market know like and trust you.

The further your story is from your market’s problem, the greater your difficulty getting them to commit to further contact.  A lot depends on context.  For example, if you have a story that builds trust, use it with other material about the problem you solve.

Many successful business people have a keynote story that does not relate specifically to what they offer.  It is branding, creating a memorable public image that helps people understand their business.  This works where a business has a range of offers for various markets and needs a coherent overall message.  If the market’s problem is absent from the keynote story, feature it somewhere else in your marketing materials.

What Stage are They At?

There are other things to consider as you build your story, eg how aware are your audience?  Take a look at this post about the Awareness Ladder.

Here are the types of audience, from the bottom of the ladder upwards. They:

  • are not aware they have the problem. They may be overweight but do not see it as a problem or possibly may become overweight in the future.
  • do not believe there is a solution. They know they are overweight, they’ve tried dieting and exercise and it hasn’t worked.  They’ve given up looking because they believe there is nothing to find.
  • actively seek solutions but are not aware of yours.
  • are aware of your solution and want to know more.

Whilst your audience may include people on every rung of the ladder, chances are one rung predominates.  You move your audience only one rung at a time.  The further down the ladder you are, the harder it is to move to the next rung.  Be clear what change you seek in your audience.

What if You Don’t Know Their Stage?

Sometimes you have no idea which stage your audience is at.  You make enquiries and educated guesses but perhaps all you know is it could be all four.  What’s the best approach, where you don’t know?

It depends how much time you have.  Use time to assess the audience, work out where most of them are and then tell your story.

The last two types of audience are most likely to result in enquiries.  So, it may be best to gamble on this to get results.  Does it mean you alienate the rest of the audience?  Does it matter?

What Do You Offer?

Consider the nature of your offer.  How closely does it fit your story?  Maybe you have:

  • experienced a major life crisis. You want people to buy your book or support an associated cause.
  • an offer for people experiencing something similar. Or life coaching to anyone either in crisis or for resilience.
  • developed a skill or product and use your story to show how you got into business.

Each implies a different market with different needs.  How you tell your story depends on your offer.

Call to Action (CTA)

Finally, your call to action is crucial. It must acknowledge all these factors and dovetail with your story.

Sometimes you can sell from the stage, especially with a low-cost product, such as a book.  Selling your book is easy, especially if you design the story you tell to whet appetites for the rest of the book.

Otherwise, explain your offer and show people what to do if they are interested.

One possibility is start with your CTA and build your stories around it.  If you sell a book, a cliff hanger might work, so long as your audience doesn’t feel manipulated.  To sell a coaching service, your story needs to show the consequences of not taking action and the value of working with you to solve the problem.

Looking Forwards

In my next two posts, I work further down through the layer cake.  When we get to layer one, this opens up seven more posts as we explore traditional stories.

So, next time I describe the second layer down – your personal or keynote story – how to tell a compelling story that establishes your position in the marketplace.