Follow the arc: How to structure your business story
On the first day of most of my residencies for my master’s degree at Syracuse University, my small class of 10 people go around the room introducing ourselves to the professors for that semester. This usually consists of our names, our positions, our companies and what we do in those positions for those companies. In one particular class, though, the professor wanted to mix it up. I guess he was just as bored with the routine as we were. Instead of name, position, company, job responsibilities, he wanted to know our names and one thing about us the rest of the class didn’t already know. Now, up until this point, I had been hiding my inner nerd. In a professional situation, admitting your secret dream to dress up like a Confessor and attend Comic-Con can be risky. After being in classes for a year with these same people, though, I felt the trust was there to take such a risk. So, as my turn came up and the butterflies fluttered, I revealed my love of all things fantasy, especially novels like the Sword of Truth, Harry Potter and The Hobbit series. To my great relief, my class was supportive of the revelation and more shocked that I actually found time for leisure reading with our busy school and work schedules.
Fantasy authors like Terry Goodkind, J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien are masters at drawing audiences into a story that is remembered years later. Is it a secret formula? Ingenious creativity? Or, are they just using tried-and-true storytelling techniques?
The journey of a business story
All good stories have a similar structure known as the hero’s journey or monomyth, created by the American scholar Joseph Campbell. Using Goodkind’s first Sword of Truth series book, Wizard’s First Rule, as an example, let’s walk through the steps of this journey and see how it can apply to your own business stories.
The first part in the three-part journey is about how the hero or main character departs from his comfort zone.
The Ordinary World
In the beginning of the series, the main character, Richard Cypher, is a simple woods guide. Growing up in the woods and getting lost many times, Richard has now learned trails and helps direct travelers through the expansive woodlands of Westland. He believes his parents were of humble beginnings and has no knowledge of his extraordinary heritage.
Everyone starts off somewhere. All business leaders were once inexperienced and naive. By sharing this part of your hero’s journey, you show you understand those who are just beginning. Your stories of that overly-critical supervisor or the rookie mistakes that led to that loss of the big account resonate with the junior employees and students who are just trying to make it out for the first time.
Call to Adventure
When Richard meets Kahlan Amnell in the woods one day, she pulls him into her search for the only wizard that can save the Midlands from the evil Darken Rahl. Upon meeting the wizard, Richard’s magical heritage is unveiled and he is offered the Sword of Truth to defeat the enemy.
Pivotal moments exit in everyone’s careers, that specific opportunity that propelled you into your status as a business leader today. Recognizing and retelling these moments throughout your career helps build awareness for others facing the same opportunities.
Refuse the Call
Unsure of this quest and his own abilities, Richard initially grapples with the responsibility of being the Seeker.
Sharing your uncertainties and fears at the time you were called upon in your career builds trust with your audience, which may be experiencing the same insecurities.
Unbeknownst to him, Richard’s long-time friend, Zed, is actually the powerful wizard, Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander. As Richard wavers in his decision to accept the Sword of Truth and the mission, Zed helps Richard realize his potential.
There has been someone, in most cases many, who has influenced you toward or away from certain paths throughout your career. When you tell the story of your mentors, how you met them, what you thought of them, you humanize yourself to your audience. By accepting advice and learning from others, your humility bonds with the audience as someone like them, reaching out for help.
Crossing the Threshold
Living his entire life in Westland, Richard has never been to the Midlands where Kahlan and Zed have fled from or D’Hara where Darken Rahl reigns. Making his way across the first boundary that separates the lands, Richard is taking the first steps on his mission.
Retelling your own account of what and how you faced your first steps toward seizing your opportunity helps others with their own journeys. By sharing advice and tips, you become the trusted go-to expert for your business.
As Richard crosses the boundary into the Midlands, he now has fully accepted his mission. His simple woodsguide image dies away and he emerges on the other side as the true Seeker. At this point, he is changed forever, and there is no turning back.
After plunging in, the opportunity you undertake will forever change you and the future of your career. By sharing this critical juncture in your own career path, you reveal how those changes shaped you, giving insight into your management style.
In the second phase of the hero’s journey, the character faces trials and tribulations on his way to gaining knowledge.
Allies and Enemies
As Richard joins with Kahlan and Zed in crossing through the boundary, he meets other allies that help him along his quest, such as Addie the Bone Woman and the Mud People. He learns from them lessons and receives amulets that help him later in his journey. He also faces enemies that are determined to stop him, such as the hearthounds, a magical creature found in the boundary.
In your career, you have found those who support you and your ideas, making your work more engaging. And, on the flip side, you have faced the detractors who have put obstacles in your way. Revealing how your partnered with your supporters to overcome your detractors, what worked and didn’t work, helps build rapport with the audience.
Throughout the journey, Kahlan’s and Richard’s feelings for each other deepen and grow. By the end, they have fallen in love, and Richard discovers his own strength and expertise in wielding the Sword of Truth.
Your business story will most likely not contain an element of falling in love with a person but with a concept. As Richard found his sword-fighting skills, through your own opportunity, you may find an area of business that you didn’t know you had a special skill for before. This is also the time you may find a particular sector that you have no love for and decide to concentrate in other areas.
Richard and Kahlan must alter their course to consult with the witch woman Shota to find a magical box. Though Shota is beautiful and warns Richard that Kahlan will betray him, Richard is able to fight Shota’s charms and continue with his mission.
Every career faces ethical dilemmas. At the time, the easy way out may seem appealing, but in the long run, protecting your credibility and reputation provides the most value. Sharing stories of how you overcame temptation or came back from falling for temptation are powerful means of portraying your true character.
After being tortured by Darken Rahl’s subjects, Richard withstands the beatings and learns how to finally defeat his enemy. Upon confronting the evil Darken Rahl, Richard tricks him into creating his own demise.
Be it counseling an employee for misbehavior, winning a new client over the competition or some other significant event in your career, the action takes place here. All the context before leads to this defining moment. By sharing this particular event, you are sharing trust with your audience.
After Richard defeats Rahl, he is able to finally be with Kahlan without fear due to his newly-gained knowledge. By using the skills and knowledge he has gained during his entire journey, there is a happy ending.
The reward from your own ordeal is typically know-how, being able to do business more effectively.
In the third and final stage of the hero’s journey, the hero faces challenges in returning to his normal world, maintaining the knowledge he gained on his quest, and sharing that knowledge with others.
The Road Back
Spilling over into the second book, Stone of Tears, Richard and Kahlan begin to make their way back to the Mud People for their wedding. They face new challenges that threaten to separate them.
After defining career moments, professionals find themselves returning to their position with new knowledge trying to make sense of it all. They face new challenges as the have been exposed to better ways of operating, making old ways obsolete. As they try to implement this new knowledge, others who are attached to the old ways may present roadblocks.
Richard and Kahlan must again part ways so that Richard can be helped by a magical order. This time, though, they are both armed with knowledge on how to defeat the powers of the underworld.
In your former position and with new knowledge, sharing your story of how you now better direct your business shows your ability to apply new concepts. You also apply new knowledge to overcome previous obstacles.
Bringing back the magic elixir
When Richard and Kahlan arrive at the Mud Village, they share with the Mud People their plans to be married. As Richard has maintained his true self, something no other Confessor’s husband has ever been able to do, the Mud People don’t understand how this is possible until he shares the knowledge he gained during his journey.
When you share career advice in effectively handling various situations, you solidify your position as a business leader with the expertise and experience to not only get the job done but done well.
How do you structure your business story?
Not all business stories follow every step of the hero’s journey, and you can pick and choose stories that meet just certain steps. You can apply the steps in a series of stories. Depending on where your audience is on their own hero’s journey, find the part of your business story that will most resonate with them. What magic elixir are you bringing back?