Business Storytelling 101

Sharing here what makes a good story for business: building a successful brand requires to resonate with the mind and to create a connection with people.

I’m covering here what I’ve learned on Storytelling and how to apply it on a business context, also applying it to examples pick through the web.

“People have forgotten how to tell a story.” Steven Spielberg

Pixar has long theorized how they’re building their story - they’ve released their 22 rules for storytelling. I’ll refer to them along.

What’s a good story?

Let’s get break down to the element of any basic good story: these are the elements that make any story to potentially connect with an human being. A successful/efficient story needs to touch the emotional level.

In order to achieve this, a few elements need to be present - elements that create this connection and can make your story resonate with people.

It’s a human being

One of the most simple condition, but too often skipped. That’s because by creating a story for business, we look for facts and figures, thinking that speaking to rational minds would do the trick. First mistake: a good story features a human being, not figures or statistics.

Look at all the TEDx : they’re reaching a massive audience because we always have a human being telling his story, first and foremost. We’re connecting with the human being, before understanding what he’s trying to tell us.

After watching this, your brain will not be the same / TEDx

She could have only stated hard facts about how our brain works - but that’s not the case. After 3 seconds of speech, she introduces herself and her work - and the audience is cheering right away. Then she covers a few misconceptions. Then she again connects with human beings (the audience) by referring human beings as “You” and “Our” and to common experiences (learning piano, etc.). She could have instead only covered how brain works at a scientific level. She does that, but by always referring to people, which make the speech much more relatable.

Same thing here, on a video by Greenpeace, about palm oil. They’re not talking directly about palm oil or impact statistics, but are featuring humans (this little girl) right away, to create this connection with our mind. The statistics come at the end.

Dove Onslaught(er)

One trick here - by human beings, I mean someone/something people can refer to. It could be human beings indeed, but also animals or stuff, as long as they’re lively. One piece of advice : set up strong characters.

I’ve spent a few years being involved in theater plays creation, and I’ve always seen the same thing during the creative process: you add and add details about the characters, even if they’re not explicitly said during the play. Imagine and write down specifics: where is s•he from? How was s•he at 6? Does s•he have an accent? How does s•he walk? What/How does s•he eat? How does s•he introduce her/himself to a stranger? What’s his current state of mind?

Pixar rule #6 What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Pixar rule #13 Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
Pixar rule #15 If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
Pixar rule #21 You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

These are great questions to answer to help define a character, even if they’re not explicit in the story: it helps shape a character and give him strength.

It’s a change

A good story has to resonate with some of our emotions: the easiest way to connect through emotion is by using a change within a story. It’s easier to affect people with a trajectory - that’s the trick in any movie. We love to see the change happening, because it allows us to imagine ourselves in this situation.

We need to see two strong reactions - for instance: anger, surprise, joy, laugh, sadness, jealousy. Moving from one reaction to another is a great way to connect with the audience.

For instance, I’m taking improv classes since a few years now. That’s one of the first basics teached: always look for the emotional shift in order to have a story running on stage. People LOVE to see that. One of most-know improvisation exercise is called the Emotions Square (or Emotional Fruit Salad) game: the stage is divided in four squares and to each square is assigned an emotion. As the players move through the stage, they need to adapt their emotions to the square they’re in. This is the best way to build any resonating story.

What’s interesting here is how people shift. Depending on your goal, you could go from a negative to a positive emotion or a positive to a negative one (but on a business context, you usually go with the first one).

Pixal rule #1 You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

A story is a journey from point A to point B. Usually, point A has a question/problem. Point B has an answer. And you get there through scenes.

It’s a purpose

A story is meant to drive - to write or to tell a successful story, you need to control the message you want to go out.

Always have in mind what the story is supposed to serve and be sure to control the messaging.

Especially in a business context, that’s to be kept all along - don’t lose yourself in the details. Like any storyteller, you only have a few seconds to catch your audience attention and they’re ready to be loose at any moment.

You don’t want to lose people on something that doesn’t serve your purpose.

Pixar rule #2 You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
Pixar rule #3 Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
Pixar rule #7 Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Good stories

You could classify any story within one of these 3 categories:

  • Purpose: These are stories about a goal, and how to attain it. It’s about you. In a job interview, you’re telling at first a purpose story.
  • Relationships: These are not stories about relationships, but about building relationships. How it’s created and managed. In a job interview, you’re forced to tell a relationship story so people can imagine working with you.
  • Possibility: These are stories that show a journey and a process, usually with a change involved.

And oh - in any story, there are troubles. Because we’re human beings. Because we have emotions. Here’s a list of great examples to illustrate this first part.

Pixar rule #4 Once upon a time there was __. Every day, __. One day __. Because of that, __. Because of that, __. Until finally __.

Shooting an Elephant - Georges Orwell

Shooting an Elephant–George Orwell (1903-1950)

  • Human beings → The English policeman AND the Elephant
  • Change → The call of the policeman and then his anguish
  • Purpose → Criticism of the imperialism with the angst of the officer while watching the Elephant dying

Business is a context

Now, storytelling for businesses has a lot in common with fiction storytelling. However, always be aware of the context you’re writing in.

For instance, keep in mind what your brand is about - because that’s part of the story. It could be seen as an another character, or the author. But being in this business context has an impact on how the audience sees the story.

Therefore, it should have an impact on how you’re writing and putting the story together.

Your purpose

To create an efficient story, keep in mind your goal and be sure to be in control of your story all along - in order to fulfill your goal.

Pixar rule #22 What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Let’s be specific - your goal could be the meaning of your story, or the point you’re trying to make. From the previous examples, Orwell purpose was the criticism of imperialism and Apple purpose was to be seen as a genuises tool.

In a business world, you want to ensure your audience gets the point you’re making and control how your story is making this point.

For instance, brands usually finds a catchphrase to make sure that the story is summed up in less than 10 words. For Apple, that was “Think different”. For Steve Jobs purpose story, that was “Stay hungry, stay foolish”.

Steve Jobs Stay Hungry Stay Foolish

The two are heavily related: Stay Hungry stands for “never be satisfied”, because you’re in a world that’s always moving. Stay Foolish stands for “always be trying”, always challenge the status quo. Think different.

Here, you have two stories with the same goal - one is a purpose story (the speech) and one is a possibility story (the ad).

Pixar rule #14 Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
Pixar rule #16 What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

The two of them have actually a very defined purpose, summed up in a few words - finding a catchphrase is not always easy, but it’s usually 1/ succint, 2/ memorable, 3/ clear and 4/ is a call to action, with a verbal form.

There’s a narrative and there are details

Always move towards two levels in your story: the narrative and the details.

Narrative: What’s your stake?

The narrative is where your purpose needs to be explicit, it’s written through the logic of the stories and the scenes. You need to get from A to B, right? What’s the path? What are the steps?

Pixar rule #19 Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Details: master your scenery

The details are where the audience can connect and the characters express their specifics: it allows the audience to recognize themselves within the stories. That’s where the emotional changes happen.

Pixar rule #10 Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

Less is more: Storytelling is a fighting sport

A story is a construction featuring informations. These informations are based on a narrative, aim for a purpose and feature details. This construction gives a large place to imagination - so too much details are not a good option.

Setting up details is a great way to come with new ideas and to enrich your stories: but if you tell too much, you risk to lose your audience.

Pixar rule #5 Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
Pixar rule #8 Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
Pixar rule #9 When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
Pixar rule #12 Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th - get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

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