December 1, 2021 / Esther Choy

Follow IRS to build a brief and brilliant business story.

A business story with impact can be as short as one sentence, a three-minute speech, or a thirty-minute product demonstration. But no matter what, it should have an:

Intriguing beginning

Riveting middle

Satisfying end

Here are five facts about story structure that will help you develop endless brief and brilliant stories for business settings.

1. The beginning of your story is all about your audience and what will capture their attention.

The way the investment research firm Morningstar tells its founder’s story is a good example. Rather than beginning at the very beginning, they take a different approach

“In 1984, Joe Mansueto left his job as a stock analyst, inspired by an idea.”

Since the task is to tell the company’s story, this intro starts in exactly the right place. It starts with when the company was founded (not everything that led up to the founding—like what Mansueto learned from his father and grandfather, or his initial entrepreneurial ventures with crickets and Christmas trees).

Do you feel situated? I do. I can see Mansueto leaving his job as a stock analyst and starting something new.

Of course, other occasions might call for different starting points. If we want to situate the audience well, we have to analyze what they know and don’t know.

Lastly, did you feel hooked? I, for one, want to know what that idea was. I want to read the next sentence. And I already feel like the next sentence will give me something else that will hook me so that I will keep reading.

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(Read more about hooking your audience from the beginning.)

2. Learning the main parts of a story lets you tap into the science of storytelling. 

There’s a science to storytelling. Good storytellers transport their audiences, making them feel what the characters feel. 

For audiences to bond with characters in this way, there has to be “some sort of stressor, some sort of arousal response in the brain,” says Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. To save the intense resources this neurological arousal response requires from us, our brain will only “give attention to something when it matters,” Zak explains in The Atlantic.

Zak says the stories that grip us most are stories in which tension increases incrementally as the hero faces a stressful challenge that demands the audience’s total attention.

This means that when you hook the audience’s attention with an intriguing beginning, and then increase tension through a riveting middle, you absorb the audience in the story’s conflict and increase the bonds they feel for the characters. 

(Learn more about the science behind storytelling.)

3. A good story structure makes it easy to quickly put together an effective story.

Sometimes you don’t have months or weeks to prepare a story. But if you know the basic structure, it’s much easier to put a story together, even if you have to do so at the last minute.

Tell your story in the logical order of beginning, middle and end. But you don’t have to write it that way! It is often much easier to start with the beginning, write the ending and then go back to the middle. Once you write the end, you’ll be clear on what you want the audience to take from the story. And once you have this in mind, it’s easier to figure out how to get the audience from point A, at the beginning of your story, to point C, the takeaway.

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4. If you’re rambling instead of telling a cohesive story, define your theme. Structure the story based on the theme

Once your story has a clear theme, all of a sudden it is a lot easier to pull the different structural elements together to support that theme. Not only that, it’s a lot easier for your audience to remember the story. It makes a strong impression on them. 

On The Dots Podcast, host Kathleen Buczko asked me, “What do you think stops people from clearly articulating a great narrative about themselves?”

I told her what I’ve seen again and again: “They don’t really know what their story’s about. There isn’t a clear thread, or a clear spine of their story, so they ramble.”

How do you find the right theme for your story? Here are some common business story themes:

  • Understanding co-workers’ strengths
  • Changing your mind
  • Redefining your goals
  • Finding work-life balance
  • Understanding stakeholders
  • Values under pressure
  • Empowering problem-solvers in your organization
  • Overcoming adversity

Note that chronology is never a theme. Go beyond recounting events! Say what the events mean.

(Hear more of my tips about story structure.)

5. Don’t forget the takeaway.

Here’s what distinguishes business storytelling from classical storytelling. Business storytelling has a clearly stated point. Classical stories are enriched by multi-layered interpretations, but in business storytelling, there should be no doubt in the listeners’ minds about what they should do in response to your story.

So often, business and nonprofit leaders forget to make the ask! I’ve seen major gift officers tell an inspiring, well-crafted story at a gala, and then walk away from the podium without telling the audience exactly how they can help. It doesn’t matter if you’ve moved the audience to tears unless they know how they can make a difference.

When it comes to business stories, don’t just wing it and ramble. Know the structure that will be easiest for your audience to follow. And then they will not only follow the story, they’ll follow you as a leader.

 


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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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