• Elana Duffy

What's In a Story?


All great stories share the same components and follow the same guiding principles that allow us to communicate. This makes the story – regardless of language, purpose, or topic – one of the best methods of communication.

You can hardly make it through a workday without someone encouraging you to “tell a story” or “become a better storyteller”, even if those aren’t their exact words. They are asking for clarification, to understand the topic at hand, and you have to be able to communicate ideas with them. As such, the story has long been a popular business model in advertising, marketing, and persuasion. It can even be a useful negotiation technique, as it lines up parties to reach consensus.

The merits of storytelling also have scientific basis. One study published in Psychology Science determined that the effectiveness of a story format on the psyche is multi-fold. This holds true whether that story is told through picture, film, writing, or orally.

The benefits of storytelling are clear, but you still need to craft and tell your great story correctly.

But what does “correctly” mean? What makes your story succinct, readable, digestible, and effective? Practice and professionalism can help, but only to a degree. The fundamental element for any story is a baseline, a hook, and a way to immerse your audience in your world. The best stories are understood because they evoke pictures, mental images that help an outsider glimpse the same image that you possess, and feel the same way about it. So before you head out and hire a writer or editor, or take a stab at writing the story yourself, you need to clear your own mental picture. You can use the basics of storytelling to complete this task.

Like every novel and movie, every parable and tale, all good business stories share the same components:

  • Beginning. What were your beginnings? What sparked your initial concept, or the concept of your founders? Is this explicit in your mission statement, or has your statement changed? If it has changed, do you need a new beginning, and with it a new set of terms and ideas, as you change your direction?

  • Middle. This is the bulk of the story. Undoubtedly, it is where your story is now because you are still moving forward, still developing your idea or business. But how are you developing? Think of your business plans and your current decisions as part of a plotline. What outcomes do you expect? Who are your main characters? Do your readers, your customers, know this? The hardest part here is to make them care, to involve them in your story and make them an active part of it.

  • Conclusion. As hard as it is, every story needs a conclusion. This is what pushes you and your business forward and allows you to adapt to a changing environment. As you write your story, each new chapter needs a preparation for an ending. Let’s not misinterpret: you are writing a series here. You are looking at an idea as a story, and eventually that idea may be surpassed for another brilliant notion. As stories are written, individual doors close and new ones open. There are stories upon stories, and each conclusion alludes to the next as a cliffhanger, to set up the new beginning and restart the cycle of idea generation. Don’t be afraid of the conclusion for your idea: it’s your indication to keep innovating.

And one last thing, one element all great stories have: they aren’t written alone. While many talented writers come up with the initial concept on their own, just as entrepreneurs do, success and greatness is all about the team. Involve people you trust. Let them hear your ideas and help develop your story. Whether you ask an outside party to provide a fresh look or call only your most trusted confidantes to understand your thought process, you need support to build your story with the knowledge that it’s understood. Your clarifying points, your plot twists and holes, they are found through the telling and the retelling and the rewriting.

So sometime this week you will hear the word “story” at work, or understand you are being asked to tell one. When you do, start with the absolute basics before you start swimming in the deep details. Where is the beginning? What’s in the middle? How does the story end? Formulate your story, come up with your plan, and let someone hear it. You will find that as you start to phrase your ideas as a story, communication will become easier.

We, your consumers, need your great ideas and your great stories. We look forward to hearing them.

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