The business of story
Stories are how people make sense of the world – they are the common mythology that links all of us. Story naturally connects with our emotions, fire the neurons in our brains and help us focus on the things that matter to us. Even the phrase ‘once upon a time’ triggers our storytelling mode.
Why does story work?
Story engages the brain in a different way to that of simple fact reproduction. We have an inherent need to sort facts into a narrative structure, this is how the human brain is hardwired. Jonathan Gotschell’s book ‘The Storytelling Animal’ looks at this in some detail. The brain creates strong memory through emotional reaction: we crave the hormone dopamine which is released in the body when we connect to certain powerful emotions. These ‘crave’ elements create links for memory. Dopamine is produced when the brain finds things easy and familiar, and stories when told well are easy and familiar.
Stories are effective in business communication because we think in narrative. We respond to stories in business – brands are stories, and businesses are people. These two things combine to provide a compelling reason to use storytelling in your business writing and communication. A good story already hooks the reader with interesting information and plays to the heart.
Elements of story
When creating a story brand guru Klaus Fog says there are four key elements that create an exciting narrative:
- Message (are you getting that your core message is important yet?) The core reason for your story – what is it you are trying to get the other party to do as a result of your communication? Ask yourself: Am I clear about the intent of my story? Do I know the impact it will have? Is my message clear and simple?
- Plot This is the simple chronological sequence of events that make up your story. Ask yourself: What happens in my story? What is the timeline of events? When are the key moments?
- Conflict These are the moments of drama in your story that propel your narrative forward. Ask yourself: Where are the moments of conflict? Are their points where my characters have to make decisions? Does my story have drama?
- Characters The people in your story that are recognisable to the reader/audience – they are the reader/audience’s access point into the world of the story. This is the humanity we empathise with. Ask yourself: Who are the characters? What archetypes do they fulfill? What are their attributes – are they accessible to my audience?
We now have the ingredients that we can combine to create our story. It’s here that we add a dash of emotion and a pinch of drama to the dish! The story we tell will depend on the situation we find ourselves in or the needs of our document. The length, the tone, and the style of story will vary depending on the needs of our audience.
One structure we can follow is the three-act structure (beginning, middle and end) and all include that key ingredient: emotion. Gripping stories have events that incite change, where characters struggle and their challenges are resolved. This structure elicits an emotional response in the listener/reader.
- Act One: beginning – establish the current reality of the characters and introduce a challenge or problem
- Inciting event – this is where the central character answers the challenge and is pushed or pulls themselves over into the middle of the story.
- Act Two: middle – where the central character has to struggle with the challenge presented. The struggle can be as simple as how they reached the conclusion of some research or as dramatic as battling monsters! This section adds drama to the tale; the stakes are raised.
- Climatic event – this is the moment where the struggle reaches its conclusion, often where a decision is reached or a battle is won.
- Act Three: end – this is the resolution of our story, where the results of the struggle and the final battle offer the reader a conclusion and the initial challenge is finally answered.
Remember this is storytelling in a business context. You’re not writing ‘War and Peace’, but using this simple structure and paying attention to the four elements can really help create a compelling and ‘sticky’ message. Use stories when you want to provide examples or paint a picture of the future.