February 6, 2020 / Esther Choy

3 basic storylines

Part 4 in our Leadership Storytelling 101 series. Read Part 3 here and part 5 here.

Every person’s life is rich with material for stories. When it comes time to share some of these stories, it is helpful for listeners if we structure our stories in a well-organized manner. We can do this using the five basic storylines that work best in business contexts. Whenever you choose one of these five storylines, you elevate your presentation in three specific ways.

1. Guiding the audience’s emotional response.

Each of the storylines evokes a different kind of emotion:

  • Origin stories inspire curiosity about a brand, organization or leader’s origins. A well-told origin story satisfies the audience’s desire to connect the dots between past and present in an inspiring way.
  • Overcoming the monster stories provoke righteous indignation.
  • Rags to riches stories promote empathy.
  • Quest stories instill a sense of restlessness as the audience wishes for quests of their own.
  • Rebirth stories evoke optimism. They’re all about second chances.

When you know what emotions each plot is likely to inspire, you don’t have to wonder, “How will my audience feel after my presentation?” You can guide and predict their emotions with greater accuracy.

2. Improving your presentation’s structure. Has this ever happened to you? You sit down to narrate your story, and it just starts to feel chaotic as all of your memories begin to swirl around in your head? Life is complex. But if you can figure out how this story fits into one of the five basic storylines, you can turn that complexity into a tale that is much easier to communicate.

3. Eliminating superfluous details. Part of what makes storytelling difficult is that the more we reflect on our stories, the more details we find. Plot can keep your story on a straight path instead of entangled in the weeds of extraneous details. Convinced you should use one of the five basic plots? I’ll walk you through three of them here, and the other two can be found in my book Let the Story Do the Work.

Origin Stories

Your “about us” section on your website, your pitchbooks, your networking conversations… all are opportunities to tell an origin story. People are naturally curious about how movements, causes or companies got started.

It’s vital to learn how to tell these stories better. To get started, all you need is a simple template:

  • Begin with the moment it all started.
  • Narrate the moment the leader realized this idea was big enough to be a business (or beloved enough to be a life’s work).
  • Mention the people who helped the leader launch their business or career.
  • Introduce conflict: the initial problems and solutions (optional).
  • Reflect on how the past has influenced the present. For instance, what has changed since the beginning, and what core values or visions have stayed the same?

Here, I analyzed how two different origin stories work: one of these examples will be useful if you need to tell your company’s origin story, and the other will be helpful if you need to narrate your own career story.

Rags to Riches / Underdog Storylines

Honestly, not every leader should be telling a rags-to-riches story because not every leader had a rough start in life. When the top dogs characterize themselves as the underdogs, audiences will spot this lack of authenticity from a mile away.

However, many leaders have had times when they’ve been underdogs. (Just think of Steve Jobs getting fired by Apple–the company he created! Suddenly, he’s the underdog.) To tell your rags-to-riches / underdog story, follow this simple template:

  • Describe your current level of success
  • Narrate where you were when your career/company/idea started, or go back to your childhood to give your audience examples of the adversity you experienced.
  • Explore and explain the personal qualities that existed “back then” that carried you through, or people who intervened, or the lessons that guided you.
  • Say how you got the chance that led to the riches or opportunity
  • Narrate the setbacks and your response to them
  • Explain when you started to feel like you had “made it.”
  • Reflect on how the “rags” give you perspective on the “riches.”

Here, I analyzed one of the most moving rags-to-riches stories I have heard lately: the story of Hazim Avdal. Be sure to read this if you need an example to inspire your own underdog story.

Overcoming the Monster Storylines

Stories Many organizations have stories about helping to overcome seemingly intractable social problems. Still others have powerful examples of how their employees, founders or clients have looked a difficult personal situation in the eye and overcome it. These organizations are sitting on a goldmine! Their stories will inspire and motivate their customers, investors or donors.

Here’s how organizations–maybe even yours–can craft their “overcoming the monster” stories:

  • 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.

Here, I looked at how entrepreneur Isaac Lidsky tells his own “overcoming the monster” story–and what we can learn from the way he structures it.

Hopefully these three templates will get you started on crafting the right leadership story to guide your audience’s emotions, solidify the story’s structure and eliminate extraneous detail.


Related Articles

Why Is Leadership Storytelling So Powerful

Don’t Overlook These Key Leadership Storytelling Moments


Need some individualized input on crafting your story? 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 book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available! Our free Story Club Guide, a supplement to Let the Story Do the Work, will help you workshop your business storytelling in a group of friends or colleagues. Download it here!

Photo credits: Alligator eye, Samuel Scrimshaw via Unsplash; Sunrise, Rebecca Talbot; Rock climbing, Andreas Fidler via Unsplash.

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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