Every human interprets situations, instances, and occurrences around us through the lens of story. Stories help us frame the world we experience, giving us a handle on reality. We are wired for stories.
And we consume lots of them. Think about how many hours a year you spend reading stories in magazines or books and watching television or movies. In 2019, Cindy Holland, VP of Original Content at Netflix said the average Netflix subscriber watched the service’s offerings upwards of 700 hours a year. Simply put, our brains are soaked in stories.
This is why, as business communicators, it’s important for us to tell stories. Stories help bring facts to life and give our audiences a chance to see how the ideas we are persuading play out in real life. Most of us though, aren’t naturally good at telling inspiring and grounding stories in a business setting.
Some of the most skilled—and sought after—storytellers in the modern era are screenwriters. Highly regarded screenwriters are skilled at taking story ideas and turning them into full-fledged, 100+ page screenplays for motion pictures. The most skilled of these craftsmen write scripts which draw viewers in by making them feel what the characters on the screen feel—causing viewers to be invested in the story and committed to seeing how it unfolds.
We can learn a lot from screenwriters. From structuring a story to conform to the way most listeners experience them, to tips and tricks on how to open a story or end it well—screenwriters can help us better understand what makes a good story and how to help it inspire our listeners.
On his Shadowscript blog, screenwriting consultant and guru Carson Reeves wrote about three ingredients every screenplay must have: goals, stakes, and urgency. He contends great movies like Back to the Future, Inception, and Up all prominently feature clear goals, high stakes, and a strong sense of urgency.
As business communicators, we’d do well to take Reeves’ advice and apply these concepts to the stories we use in professional settings. As you begin to craft your next business story, consider these questions…
What does the hero of the story want?
Reeves writes, “The character goal is the heart of your story.” In Back to the Future, Marty needs to get back to 1985. In Inception, Cobb wants to plant an idea in someone’s mind. In Up, Carl wants to get to Paradise Falls.
When telling a business story, you need to make very clear to your listeners what the main character in your story (the Hero) wants. If they don’t want anything, you really don’t have a story.
Say you’re sharing a customer story with a potential buyer. Think about the Hero of the story—that customer. What did the customer want to accomplish? Was their goal increased revenue? Higher web traffic? A more secure online buying experience?
Imagine you’re running a meeting where you need to inspire your team to face a challenge, so you tell decide to tell them a story about a time when they faced and overcame another challenge. What was the team’s goal in the story? Finish a project on time? Reach a sales number? Create a new product or service?
What if you want to get your boss to adopt a system and you decide to tell them a story about how another organization adopted the same system successfully. What did the other organization (the Hero of the story you’re telling) set out to do? Beat the competition? Expand to a new market? Increase employee morale?
When telling a story, spend some time identifying the subject of your story’s goal and write it out. Be as specific as possible, too. If there’s a number associated with the goal (e.g., “12% revenue increase,” “cut costs by $20K,” “create five new products,” “expand to three new markets”), make it a part of the goal as you draft your story.
Every story is built around a Hero with a goal. What does the Hero of your story want?
What happens if the Hero doesn’t get it?
Reeves contends you can establish the stakes of a story by answering the questions: “What does my character gain if they achieve their goal?” and “’What does my character lose if they fail to achieve this goal?”
Stakes are why a story matters. If a story doesn’t have stakes, it means the goal was arbitrary or hollow. Stakes communicate to the viewer (or listener) the Hero either had something great to gain or was at risk of the damaging effects of failure (or, frequently, both).
If Marty doesn’t achieve his goal, he’ll no longer exist. If Cobb doesn’t plant the idea, he’ll never seen his children again. If Carl makes it to Paradise Falls, he’ll complete a lifelong dream.
What’s at stake for the Hero of the story you’re telling?
In that customer case study, what happens if the customer achieves their goal? More than likely, it’s something bigger and profound than, “Well, they get the revenue they wanted.” What can they do with that increased revenue? What does that unlock for them? If it’s a higher level of security, why does it matter?
Looking at it from the opposite direction, what happens if they don’t reach the goal? If they miss a revenue goal, will they have layoffs? With botched security, will customers leave in droves? What would happen if the competition bested them?
Thinking of the team meeting situation, why does it matter if your team finishes on time, creates a new product, or overhauls their messaging? What do they stand to gain from reaching their goal? What would happen if the goal is missed?
In the instance of telling your boss about the other organization’s successful adoption of a system you want to implement, what would successful adoption look like? What would happen if the system failed?
Stories are meant to make the listener feel something. When you articulate the stakes of the story—what the Hero stands to gain or what terrible thing will befall them if they fail—you lean into the listener’s natural empathy and help them feel why the story matters.
How soon does this action need to happen?
The most effective stories use limited time to move them forward. They create urgency.
In Back to the Future, Marty has one chance to harness the power of lighting and get back to 1985. In Inception, Cobb must plant the idea by the time a van falls into a river (it’s a wild, complicated movie). In Up, not only are bad guys hot on the heels of Carl and his floating house, but the helium in the balloons is slowly depleting.
Time moves Heroes forward. It moves them from thinking about their goals toward achieving them. Heroes are driven to take action before something bad happens.
What time frame is the Hero in your story working within? Does the revenue goal have to be reached by the end of Q2? Do they need a stronger online security presence before a new product launches and web traffic increases tenfold? Does the system need overhauling before another dozen employees leave? Is the competition creating a similar product and your Hero wants to be first to market?
Adding urgency to the story you’re telling is like putting jet fuel in the story’s gas tank. It increases the listener’s heart rate (relatively) as they identify with the Hero’s need to reach their goal in a timely fashion.
As any great salesperson knows, urgency is a great motivator for closing sales. Putting off a purchase for an unknown period means a customer less likely to buy. When there’s a ticking clock like, “We can only offer this discount for a week”, customers are more likely to act.
Now that you’re familiar with these storytelling principles, consider: Will the story you’re crafting engage your listeners and drive them to action?
Double check to ensure you’re taking these actions when sharing your story:
- Clearly articulate the main character’s goals: define what they want and why it matters
- Define the stakes to your listeners. Tell them the good which comes from achieving their goal and the bad that will come if they miss it
- Use urgency to drive action. When does the goal need to be reached by? What happens if they miss the deadline?
By taking some tips from professional story crafters, you can improve your business storytelling skills and more effectively persuade and move your audiences and listeners.
Illustrated by Ryan Muta