September 7, 2018 / Esther Choy

Overcoming the monster storyline

In late 2017, the New York Times reported that about one-third of all the food grown in the world gets sent to landfills. This represents a serious financial loss and an environmental mess. Industrialized countries throw out about $680 billion worth of food each year, and this trashed food releases the greenhouse gas methane while it rots. Food waste is clearly a huge “monster” to be overcome, and many organizations are working together to do just that.

Unilever is one such organization. When this consumer goods company learned that nearly 400 million pounds of pumpkins go to landfills after every Halloween, they saw a chance to fight one big battle against the “monster” of food waste. They partnered with the food charity Hubbub to educate consumers about how to use their Halloween pumpkins for food. They even raised awareness through a #PumpkinRescue hashtag.

Many organizations have stories of how they are helping to overcome other crises. Still others have powerful examples of how their founders, employees or clients have looked at a difficult personal situation in the eye and overcome it. These organizations have stories to share that will inspire and motivate their customers, investors or donors.

A Template For “Overcoming The Monster” Stories

After the hard work of battling a significant problem has begun, it should come as good news that there is a tried-and-true story arc to easily communicate this story with maximum impact.

This story arc is the “overcoming the monster” plot, one of five classic plots that work especially well for business contexts. (For a template for one of the other classic plots, see “Leadership Is Hard; Crafting Origin Stories Shouldn’t Be–Here’s How.” My book, Let The Story Do The Work, July 2017 HarperCollins, covers all five.)

To tell your “overcoming the monster” story, follow this simple template:

  • Set the scene and narrate a normal day in the life.
  • Introduce the day everything changed and you were faced with an overwhelming challenge.
  • Recount your initial reactions (lost, hurt, confused, did not want to deal with this challenge)
  • Explain what (or who) convinced you to tackle this problem. Describe the moment you decided to embrace the challenge.
  • Narrate the beginning of your journey.
  • Describe your setbacks and rebounds, leading up to the final moment of confronting the monster once and for all.
  • Reflect on what you learned from your battle with the monster.
  • Connect to why this matters to your audience today.

An Important Consideration

While it is important to introduce the scariness of the “monster,” keep in mind that it’s a tactic that can backfire. If the “monster” makes the audience contemplate their own mortality, they may cling all the more strongly to their current beliefs or find even stronger motivation to do things that bolster their self-esteem–even when those are the very things that feed the monster! For instance, social psychologist Jochim Hansen and his colleagues found that when smokers whose self-image is especially tied to smoking see death-related messages about smoking, they actually think even more positively about smoking! The thought of death makes them look for a way to feel good about themselves, and smoking provides just that.

So the moral of the story is that although it’s important to bring out the scary monster so people are aware and alert, you can’t leave people contemplating terror or death. If you’ve battled the monster but haven’t won the war, you may want to consider one of the other four plot options.

An Overcoming the Monster Example

In his public speaking, interviews and recent book, Eyes Wide Open, entrepreneur Isaac Lidsky frames his life story as a powerful “overcoming the monster” narrative.

Set the scene and narrate a normal day in the life: “Normal” life for young Isaac Lidsky was a day on a TV set. When he was six months old, he was in a diaper commercial, followed by 150 other commercials, and when he was 13 he started playing Weasel on the sitcom Saved by the Bell: The New Class. He was well known, getting interviewed and giving autographs.

Introduce the day everything changed and you were faced with an overwhelming challenge: At 13, Lidsky was diagnosed with a disease that would make him blind by the time he was 25. As he puts it in his 2016 TED talk: “My sight became an increasingly bizarre carnival funhouse hall of mirrors and illusions.”

Recount your initial reactions: At first, he felt that blindness was “a death sentence for my independence… the end of achievement.” Knowing his sight would get progressively worse, he felt “desperate” to pack in as many accomplishments as he could before it was too late. He graduated from Harvard at 19, founded a tech business, returned to Harvard for law school, and eventually served as a law clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But with all that, he still hadn’t faced the big challenge–overcoming his fear.

Describe the moment you decided to embrace the challenge: Eventually, Lidsky came to a crossroads where two ways of understanding reality converged. He realized he could either “persist in the reality of my fear or choose to create a better one for myself.”
Narrate the beginning of your journey: Blindness led Lidsky to think about how sight is not actually reality itself but something the brain constructs for us. By pondering and challenging his own view of reality, he saw that his fears were not always realistic and did not have to define him.

Describe your setbacks and rebounds, leading up to the final moment of confronting the monster once and for all: It took years for Lidsky to confront the lies that “disability is weakness… dependance is insecurity… struggle is embarrassment.” Finally, he was able to accept, embrace and even find strength in his blindness. Embracing and finding strength led him to “escape” his life as a successful attorney and take a chance on buying a construction company and turning it around. Facing his fears paid off: ODC construction, now one of the largest construction firms in Orlando, is known for “excellence and innovation,” says Lidsky.

Reflect on what you learned from your battle with the monster: “For me,” says Lidsky, “going blind was a profound blessing, because blindness gave me vision.”

Connect to why this matters to your audience today: When it comes to seeing our fears for what they usually are–fictions–Lidsky tells his TED audience, “I hope you can see what I see.”

Why This Story Form Works

How does an “overcoming the monster” story connect with audiences? The answer lies within how people relate best to a problem. If the problem is framed within the sense of big numbers, it’s hard for people feel anything. However, if they hear a story of an individual who’s facing the problem, then all of a sudden they can relate, and once they relate, they have a higher likelihood of acting on what you say.

Alan Weiss, author of Million Dollar Consulting, said it best: “Logic makes you think. Emotion makes you act.” The point of using the “overcoming the monster” plot is to inspire your audience to act and to work together with you. Together, you will be able to continue to fight the battles and change the world for the better.


Related Articles

Leadership Is Hard; Crafting Origin Stories Shouldn’t Be — Here’s How

Been An Underdog? Tell That Story In Your Next Presentation

If you want to learn more about choosing the right plot for the business story you need to tell, contact us for business storytelling training! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help. Schedule a complimentary session with us today!

Esther’s new book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

This article first appeared on as part two in my series “5 Basic Plots for Leadership Storytelling.” Read parts one and three.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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