Netflix will soon air a new show, “The Tale of the Murderous Wife.” A man, obsessed with having a baby boy, tells his pregnant wife that if she gives birth to a girl, the baby will be killed. When she gives birth to a girl, the mother convinces an impoverished friend to raise the daughter in ignorance of her origins. Eventually, after many complications, the daughter learns her true identity, right before she is to be married.

OK, I confess: This story isn’t coming to Netflix anytime soon. “The Tale of the Murderous Wife” is actually two thousand years old and from The Golden Ass, a book of stories that have endured since Apuleius wrote them at the height of the Roman Empire. 

Why bring up “The Tale of the Murderous Wife”? To emphasize storytelling is far from new. Aristotle, born in 384 B.C., said that a good story must include plot, character, theme, diction, melody, decor, and spectacle. He also said that a story must have three elements to be effective: pity, fear, and catharsis.

Our world is filled with stories—not just to entertain but also to explain, persuade, and help build connections among people. Companies use stories to communicate with employees and stockholders as well as customers and prospects. 

In his book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz discussed how a narrative was critical to turning his company around. He called a Starbucks store “the third place”—where one goes in the morning between home and work. Reinforcing this message helped create habitual behavior that has served the company well. There are about thirty thousand locations worldwide, and the company’s revenue in 2018 was more than $24 billion.

Let’s look at another example. Remember the IBM campaign “Think”? That was in the 1980s, right? Wrong. It started in 1911, with company founder Thomas Watson. At a sales meeting, a frustrated Watson said, “The trouble with every one of us is that we don't think enough. We don't get paid for working with our feet—we get paid for working with our heads.” To emphasize the point, he then wrote “think” on the easel at the front of the room.

Over the years, IBM has used “think” in various ways. It’s been at the heart of many advertising campaigns. It was used to name the ThinkPad in 1992. In 2018, IBM’s annual conference was called Think.

In fact, Apple’s slogan “Think Different,” introduced in 1997, was a subtle poke at IBM, to play up the differences between the two companies. Before the iconic slogan was officially introduced, Steve Jobs used a story at MacWorld in 1997 to illustrate the slogan: “You had to think differently when a first computer arrived at a school where there had never been one before, and it was an Apple II. I think you had to really think differently when you bought a Mac. It was a totally different computer, worked in a totally different way, used a totally different part of your brain. And it opened up a computer world for a lot of people who thought differently. . . . And I think you still have to think differently to buy an Apple computer.”

Companies have tapped in to the long history of storytelling and narratives to communicate more powerfully what they stand for. Let's look at several different frameworks you can use for creating narrative content.

1. The hero’s journey

The hero departs the familiar world for an adventure, faces a crisis and wins a victory, and then returns home changed by the experience. This classic story structure, the hero’s journey, has been used for thousands of years. The hero’s journey was first studied in 1871 by Edward Burnett Tylor, the founder of cultural anthropology, who identified it as a story template for great myths and folklore of cultures all over the world. It was popularized by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he described the hero’s journey this way: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Campbell subdivided the hero’s journey into seventeen stages, which can be organized in multiple ways and need not all be included in every story. Campbell broadly grouped the stages into three essential categories: departure, initiation, and return. These are the seventeen stages of the hero’s journey, according to Campbell: 

I. Departure

  1. The call to adventure
  2. Refusal of the call
  3. Supernatural aid
  4. Crossing the threshold
  5. Belly of the whale

II. Initiation

  1. The road of trials
  2. The meeting with the goddess
  3. Woman as temptress
  4. Atonement with the father
  5. Apotheosis
  6. The ultimate boon

III. Return

  1. Refusal of the return
  2. The magic flight
  3. Rescue from without
  4. The crossing of the return threshold
  5. Master of two worlds
  6. Freedom to live

It’s no coincidence that Star Wars follows Campbell’s seventeen stages so closely. In 1975, George Lucas rediscovered Campbell’s book, which provided the structure Lucas needed to finish the Star Wars script. After the movie’s release, in 1977, Campbell and Lucas became friends. Lucas jokingly referred to Campbell as “my Yoda.”

2. The hero’s journey, modernized

Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler is the one who coined the term “hero’s journey,” even though it had been studied well before his time. In the 1970s, he used Campbell's work to create a seven-page company memo for screenwriters called “A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Vogler turned his memo into a book, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, in 1992.

Vogler said that “stories are devices that we use to raise awareness of ourselves about other people and our relationship to the world.” He went on to say, “They can open up a door to a new way of understanding things or ourselves.” His twelve-stage framework, condensed from Campbell’s seventeen stages, allows us to consider important questions like: Who are we? What’s our responsibility? How do we deal with change in the world around us?

Here’s what Vogler’s hero’s-journey framework looks like:

I. Departure

  1. Ordinary world
  2. Call to adventure
  3. Refusal of the call
  4. Meeting with the mentor
  5. Crossing the first threshold

II. Initiation

  1. Tests, allies and enemies
  2. Approach to the inmost cave
  3. The ordeal
  4. Reward

III. Return

  1. The road back
  2. The resurrection
  3. Return with the elixir

Even though Vogler puts forth a clear order, he doesn’t believe you need to follow all the steps perfectly and in sequence. He actually encourages storytellers not to, because sometimes altering one of the steps is enough to create tension and make the story unique.

3. Freytag’s Pyramid

Nineteenth-century German novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag analyzed the stories of Greek storytellers and Shakespeare and found that many of the stories used a similar structure.

He defined a five-act dramatic structure, which is called Freytag’s pyramid, and is well known in the theater world:

  1. Exposition: This sets the scene and provides the background information the audience needs to know about the characters and their challenges. 
  2. Inciting incident: This is a major event in the story that compels the main character to take some type of action
  3. Climax (the apex of the pyramid): This is when the tension or conflict established in the first two steps is at its greatest. 
  4. Resolution: The problem or conflict is solved. You may think the story is over, but often there’s more to it. Sometimes a twist appears to reveal something new about the characters. 
  5. Dénouement: The loose ends are tied up and the main character, or characters, returns to a somewhat normal life.

What’s nice about Freytag’s model is that it’s simple. The visual nature of a pyramid to structure a story is crystal clear.

4. The Golden Circle

Perhaps you’ve seen the video of Simon Sinek’s TEDxPuget Sound talk in 2009, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” in which he shared a simple framework for marketers to communicate effectively. In summary, Sinek said, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.” 

In the talk, Sinek outlines his framework, called the Golden Circle. It consists of three concentric circles that represent the three parts of the framework—Why, How, and What:

  1. The innermost circle is Why. Why does a company exist? Sinek says this is where every company needs to start thinking about messaging and storytelling. It’s not about what you do, it’s about why you do it.
  2. The next circle is How. How do you do what you do? This tells the story of how a company differs from the competition. This is also called a unique selling proposition. 
  3. The outermost circle is What. The last thing to talk about is what you do. What industry are you in? What do you sell?

Naturally, most companies start with “what,” since it’s easier to talk about what they do. Of course, you can’t create a “why” without a “what,” so you actually need to know what you do before being able to create your “why.”

Starting with Why is a reminder of the importance of making sure you create an emotional connection with your audience first. You need to earn the right to talk about your product and services, because people are not going to care immediately.

The strength of Sinek’s Golden Circle is that when you first read about it, it really hits you over the head like a ton of bricks. Great brands use it all the time, for good reason. The shortcoming is that the communication model isn’t really a story-telling framework. In my experience, it’s useful to incorporate the Golden Circle into some of the other frameworks discussed here.

5. The V Formula

Even without star power behind it, Dave Lieber’s V formula is still worth sharing. Dave Lieber is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. He has used a simple formula to tell unique stories twice a week for the past thirty-eight years. That’s 104 stories a year! Here’s his framework for writing his column twice a week: 

  1. Meet the character.
  2. Hero gets knocked down by a villain.
  3. The hero uses special powers to overcome the villain.
  4. Dénouement. (The loose ends of the story are tied up.)

According to Lieber, the usefulness of his framework isn’t limited to writing columns. “It works in a memo, a paragraph, a page, or a speech,” he said. “Take the data of your life, and turn it in to real people doing real things, and you will move mountains. You will change the world.”

6. The Story Spine (a.k.a. The Pixar Formula)

How has Pixar Animation Studios created so many blockbusters, like Toy Story, Wall-E, and Monsters, Inc.? Is it the company’s amazing animation technology? Great distribution connections? Celebrity voice-overs?

Of course, all of these elements factor into Pixar’s success. But did you know the company also has a story-telling formula that’s used in most of its movies? It’s called the Story Spine, an eight-line structure created by playwright Kenn Adams, the author of How to Improvise a Full-Length Play: The Art of Spontaneous Theater, in 1991 as an improvisation tool and for teaching storytelling and creative writing to kids. 

The Story Spine formula is simple: 

  • Once upon a time _____. 
  • Every day, _____. 
  • But, one day, _____. 
  • Because of that, _____.
  • Because of that, _____. 
  • Because of that, _____. 
  • Until finally _____. 
  • And, ever since then _____.

Adams called the Story Spine “a practice technique for learning how to tell a well-constructed story as well as an outlining tool to help construct a story.”

7. The six-stage plot structure

Another Hollywood storyteller worth mentioning is Michael Hauge. He’s a consultant, lecturer, and author who works with writers on their novels and movies and TV scripts. He’s on the board of directors of the American Screenwriters Association and has worked on projects with Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, and Charlize Theron. Hauge has worked with virtually every studio to help them tell better stories. 

Much like Vogler, Hauge has documented the various stages used for most stories. Here’s what his story structure looks like:

  1. Setup (fully in identity)
  2. New situation (glimpses essence)
  3. Progress (vacillates between identity and essence)
  4. Complications and higher stakes (moves steadily into essence)
  5. Final push (retreats to identity, then returns fully to essence)
  6. Aftermath (transformed existence)

Hauge emphasizes the power of empathy in storytelling. “It’s not an audience’s or a reader’s job to feel something. That’s simply something you have to elicit.”

Hauge has acknowledged that his structure is something he has observed more than created and that other frameworks out there can also work. In fact, he has said that everyone is looking at the same thing; they’re just looking through different windows.

8. The StoryBrand Framework

In his book Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen. Donald Miller has used many aspects of the Hero’s Journey to construct a framework for how businesses should tell stories.

The StoryBrand structure is simple: A character with a problem meets a guide who understands the character’s fear, and gives the character a plan that calls the character to action, which results in success or failure. 

Let’s break that down into the seven basic elements of a story:

  1. A character
  2. A problem
  3. A guide
  4. A plan
  5. Action
  6. Success [or]
  7. Failure.

According to Miller, by using these seven plot points as filters for your messaging, “You’ll be amazed at how each of these plot points help you clarify your messaging to customers. When there is clarity, customers are compelled and pay attention.”

This emphasis on clarity helps to ensure that people understand what the business does. According to Miller, if a company doesn’t have a clear and compelling message, people won’t understand what it does. And if what a company does isn’t 100 percent clear to people, they are unlikely to do business with the company.

Like many of the other frameworks discussed in this chapter, this one is grounded in the premise that the story shouldn’t be about one’s company. The customer doesn’t care about the company; customers care about themselves. To make an audience care about your company, you need to tell a story that is about the audience. Once you have customers’ attention via a strong story, then you have earned your seat at the table to talk about how you can help them.

With the existence of all of these frameworks and formulas for telling stories, why aren’t companies using them more often? How come only Hollywood and book publishers seem to live and die by them?

Here’s the reason: Companies love talking about themselves. There’s just something inside us that wants to position our company as the hero. While this desire is understandable, storytelling doesn’t work that way. It’s rare that a customer falls in love with a company that talks only about itself. 

Sure, you could argue that some of the bigger brands do it. Apple, for example, loves talking about itself. They do it in cool and creative ways and spend a bunch of money, but ultimately Apple’s success is the result of its products. If you set your company up as the hero of your story, the story is unlikely to resonate with customers. It will instead be perceived as a commercial. After all, most of the advertising and marketing from the 1950s to 1990 positioned a company as a hero. Although this was apparently effective at the time, with the dramatic shift in the media landscape, it no longer has the same effect. Put another way, we have become effective at tuning out traditional advertising and don’t believe that the role of the modern company is to be a hero.

You are not the hero in your customer’s story. As Sean Callahan from LinkedIn put it, “You’re the sword that the customer uses.” 

I can’t tell you which of the eight story-telling frameworks discussed in this chapter is right for the specific purposes of your company. Each framework has its strengths and weaknesses. Experiment with them to see which ones work best for you.

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