Choosing the Right Story for Business Storytelling

  • Harry Hayes

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For business storytelling, there are seven basic plots.

For Business Storytelling, There Are Supposedly Only Seven Basic Stories to Choose From.

Sometimes, the hardest part of business storytelling is coming up with new stories to tell. Luckily, I ran across a new source of inspiration.

It’s a book called “The Seven Basic Plots.” According to author Christopher Booker, every story known to man can be boiled down to SEVEN basic storylines.

Just seven.

Business Storytelling

This kind of makes sense. Have you ever gone to a movie and thought halfway through the story seemed familiar? Or started reading a book and felt like you had read it before?

Well, maybe that’s because we keep telling the same stories again and again.

While the characters and settings and details may change, the succession of plot points fall into one of seven categories.

Here’s the list. See if these basic plots give you any new ideas for business storytelling.

The first storyline to consider for business storytelling is called "Overcoming the Monster."

Plot #1: Overcoming the Monster

In this plot, the hero overcomes an overwhelming antagonist of some kind.

This antagonist can take many different forms. For example, an evil creature like Michael Myers in the Halloween movies, or the monsters in Frankenstein, Dracula, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. It can also be a dangerous weapon, like the death star in Star Wars, or the Nazi anti-ship weapons in The Guns of Navarone.

Overcoming the Monster also includes foiling an evil plot of some kind—so you can add the Harry Potter movies to the list, along with all of the Die Hard movies, and anything involving James Bond.

So how does this plot translate to business storytelling?

Well, imagine the antagonist is inefficiency, or bad morale, or something outside of the business like hunger, or homelessness. Could you tell a story about fighting one of those things?

The second story to consider for business storytelling is called "Rags to Riches."

Plot #2: Rags to Riches

In a Rags to Riches story, the protagonist starts out penniless, but through hard work, determination, and maybe a little luck, manages to acquire power and wealth.

In most cases, they also end up with someone to share it all with.

Classic examples include Cinderella, The Prince and the Pauper, Aladdin, and The Count of Monte Cristo.​

Modern twists include The Beverly Hillbillies (where down-home values and common sense are more important than wealth) and Brewster’s Millions (where the hero has to spend a fortune in order to inherit one).

In business storytelling, this could be the story of how a successful business was built. The better approach, however, is about other forms of riches—the customers we’ve served, the charities we’ve contributed to, the employee relationships we’ve formed along the way.

The next of the seven basic plots is called "The Quest."

Plot #3: The Quest

In the third of the basic plots, the protagonist assembles a team of brave companions, and they set off on a great adventure, facing threats and temptations along the way.

Usually in Quest stories, the heroes are searching for a valuable object—think the golden fleece in Jason and the Argonauts, or the holy grail in King Arthur.

Other examples include The Odyssey, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, and Apocalypse Now. In an interesting twist, Bilbo Baggins already has the ring in The Lord of the Rings. His purpose is to destroy it.

Business storytelling using this plot probably won’t include the holy grail or fighting armies of orcs. But it can be about your company’s journey—maybe you’re searching for a CEO, or developing a new product, or perfecting some new manufacturing technique.

Another storyline to consider for business storytelling is called "Voyage and Return."

Plot #4: Voyage and Return

The fourth basic plot is called “Voyage and Return.”

In this storyline, the protagonist travels to a strange land, experiences wonders and adventures, and returns home.

It isn’t about finding a valuable object—the journey itself is the story. It’s about the experience.

Examples include Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.”

In business storytelling, this could be about traveling to another country, or touring a manufacturing facility. But don’t just include the experience—what did you learn along the way? How did the experience improve your products or service?

Another of the seven basic storylines to consider is "Comedy."

Plot #5: Comedy

In a classical sense, a “comedy” isn’t just about humor. It’s a dramatic work where the central character triumphs over adverse circumstances, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.

One of my favorite examples is My Cousin Vinny. Joe Pesci plays an attorney wannabe from New Jersey who saves a nephew charged with murder in the Deep South.

Shakespeare’s comedies include Much Ado About Nothing, Twelth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Other examples include pretty much any romantic comedy—Bridget Jones Diary, Love Actually, Music and Lyrics, and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

So how does this translate to business storytelling? Think about ways you and your business might overcome adversity. Maybe the wrong part was delivered, or the wrong food order, and you still managed to come through for your customers.

The next of the seven basic plots is "Tragedy."

Plot #6: Tragedy

In the sixth of the basic plots, the protagonist has a character flaw or makes a mistake of some kind, which ends up ultimately causing their demise.

There are plenty of tragedies in classic literature. For example, MacBeth, Julius Caesar, and Romeo & Juliet.

More modern examples include The Untouchables (the story of Chicago mob boss Al Capone), Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger.

As for business storytelling, I doubt many examples would incorporate a tragic story, but it is possible. For example, a security company manages to prevent a tragic occurrence, or a Ring Doorbell scares away the bad guys.

The last of the seven basic storylines is "Rebirth."

Plot #7: Rebirth

The last of the basic plots is “Rebirth.” In these stories, the main character becomes a better person. This usually involves a clarifying moment or event that causes them to learn the error of their ways.

My favorite example is A Christmas Carol—Dickens’ story of a miser named Ebenezer Scrooge. Other examples include Groundhog Day, The Secret Garden, and Beauty and the Beast.

So how could this work in business storytelling? It could be very effective—a “Rebirth” story is a great way to announce change. Let’s say you transform your pushy sales force with a new “no haggle” sales policy. That would make a great “Rebirth” story.

Or maybe your company dramatically improves its customer service, or you upgrade to better quality parts, or improve the ingredients in your pizza recipe. These are all “Rebirth” stories waiting to happen.

Which Story Is Right For You?

So those are the basic plots—which would work best to promote your business? Of course, the details will make a difference. There may be only seven basic plots, but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of variations.

Ready to get started? Give Content Puppy a call—we’d love to talk with you about storytelling possibilities for your business.


About the Author: 

Harry Hayes is the owner and executive producer at Content Puppy Productions, a corporate video production agency based in Charlotte. Before starting Content Puppy, he spent 20+ years as an advertising writer and creative director.

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