Image source: | | (Joseph Campbell left, Robert McKee middle, Christopher Booker right)

Having spent my professional life navigating between hard process and soft creative, I long ago came to the conclusion that the stories that companies tell and share are equal to if not more so than the actual product.

People need stories to make sense of and give shape to their lives. Indeed, one could make the argument that dreams demonstrate storytelling to be a kind of physiological necessity. In recent years, the business world has seen an interesting shift in relation to storytelling. It’s no longer enough for businesses to tout a great product or service, a new trend or cool innovation. Consumers want to know what kind of company they’re purchasing from, how its employees work and play, and the inspiration behind the brand. More and more, consumers want to experience brands through human interest stories, and businesses are learning to shape and share their stories through that lens.

Fortunately, the fundamentals of storytelling haven’t changed much through history. As described in classics of the form such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Robert McKee’s Story, and Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, the archetypal stories the world over—the great myths and fables, from the Greek gods and goddesses The Matrix—all adhere to the same basic structure.

First, you start with a protagonist who has a goal he wants to achieve that sets him out on a journey. But “boy meets girl and they live happily ever after” isn’t much of a story, right? Stories need to generate suspense in the form of conflict. So, the protagonist needs to be faced with an obstacle that will test his abilities and which he will need to overcome. (It’s worth noting here that from a business storytelling perspective the obstacle, or the antagonist, doesn’t need to be a person, Darth Vader, or Voldemort, rather, an unmet need in the marketplace.) Finally, comes the resolution, during which the hero is tested and will either achieve or fail to reach his goal.

Stories matter. Especially in an age of information overload, honest and emotive storytelling can make all the difference. My “red paper” Brand Loyalty Reloaded, describes research done by an economist and neurobiologist at Claremont Graduate University who identified that when people love brands more than a person, the reaction is always triggered by a “story button.”

Here’s a chart to pin to your wall as a reminder of the differences between information and story. It comes from my 2005 book Sisomo: the future on screen. Use it the next time you’re hoping to transform that boring brief, uninspired press release, dry data analysis, or moribund memo into an emotive piece of storytelling, ask yourself which column is the more vital and engaging:

Information Story
Fills you up Moves you on
Facts Acts
Citing Exciting
Reams Dreams
Promotional Emotional
Static Dramatic
Check lists Casts of characters
Compiling Compelling
Annotated Animated
Feeding the brain Touching the heart
Tables Fables
Expires Inspires

Stories have been with us from the beginning and will continue to resonate as long as people gather round screens. In a brave new digital age, we have more storytelling tools at our fingertips than ever before. But when it comes to storytelling fundamentals—the journey of the hero and crisis-conflict-resolution structure—the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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