Six plots to make your messaging memorable and audiences take action

Simon Weatherby, CEO of TechnoCorp cracks his knuckles with staccato pops. The big data analytics company he runs can handle real-time processing for some of the most demanding applications – ecommerce, telecom, finservs, you name it. But no-one cares, sales are slower than anticipated, and the burn rate is above plan this month – again. To top it all, DataCrunch, their main rival just launched its new AI-powered analysis engine, something TechnoCorp has been working on for months. It’s vaporware but that’s their style. Simon needs to find a way to get ahead. He’s probably got three months before the board acts, six if he’s lucky.

Flicking through the Harvard Business Review, Simon stumbles across an article about the power of storytelling. He almost turns the page, stories are for kids and he has a business to run. But skimming through the piece he learns about developments in neuroscience showing how stories shape emotions, and emotions shape actions. That’s what he needs – action. DataCrunch might be winning the product ground war, but TechnoCorp has a far better story to tell. Perhaps this could get his prospects to bite?

Next month, TechnoCorp launches its ‘Analytics for All’ program, sharing customer stories at a personal level; talking about the way the company was founded, including the time when Simon had to sell his car to make payroll; about the way their TechnoCorp for Good program is being used to model the Zika outbreak; even that story about the kid using their free version to predict the best pokestops for Pokemon Go.

The staff feel good about their direction, the media has been receptive and best of all the story is resonating with prospects and customers. In fact, they’re ahead of target for the first time since, well… ever. DataCrunch is still there, but they seem to have faded. Flicking through a magazine, Simon smiles wryly – just think if he’d skipped that page, it would have been a different story.

People have been using stories to pass along knowledge, learnings and experiences for millennia. Our survival as social creatures depends on this spread of information and our brains are geared to receive information in story form. Human brains are structured to recognize patterns and so when we hear a story, we recognize its structural pattern which makes it more familiar and more memorable. The identifiable pattern enables us to make associations with our own experiences of challenge, triumph, joy, and loss, making the story more engaging.

So if TechnoCorp’s story feels familiar – that’s because it is. It uses Feytag’s pyramid which is the dramatic structure of many classic stories.

There are five main elements:

  • Exposition – setting up the scene and characters – Simon Weatherby, TechnoCorp running out of money
  • Rising Action – a series of events which builds interest – DataCrunch launching its product first, the looming involvement of the board
  • Climax – the point where the protagonist’s luck changes and a solution is found – learning about the impact of stories on emotions and action
  • Falling Action – the conflict unravels – TechnoCorp launches its successful campaign
  • Denouement – resolution of the conflict and return to normalcy – things are better than ever at TechnoCorp and for Simon

But this is just one type of story structure (overcoming a challenge) – just how many there are has been the topic of much debate since the time of Aristotle. In 1965, author Kurt Vonnegut suggested we could draw the shape of stories based on the good fortune or ill fortune of the protagonists over time. There’s a great 5-minute video of his theory below – he even presupposed that due to the simplicity of these shapes, computers could be used to write stories in future. Given the debate about robots taking over journalism and their use in PR today, that was prescient for ’65.

In his book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker suggests these are the most common story arcs: a journey taken and the return, overcoming a monster / challenge, rags to riches, a quest, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth.

Just recently researchers at the University of Vermont, analyzed the emotional sentiment (valence) of 1,700 popular novels using data-mining techniques and discovered six main story archetypes:

“A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll. A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet. A fall then a rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story, discussed by Vonnegut. A rise then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus. Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella. Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.”

The most popular structures are the last two – fall-rise-fall, and rise-fall-rise – or other complex variants thereof, as you can probably tell just by going to the movies.

Businesses want their audiences to take action. Action is often driven by emotion, which can be influenced by storytelling. If we want to take storytelling seriously, the first step is to package our message in a recognizable pattern so the audience can use its attention to relate to the meaning, rather than deciphering the plot.

Brands are often keen to position themselves within a rags-to-riches narrative framework – never putting a foot wrong, always bound to succeed. But this form lacks tension and might seem over-simplistic to a modern critical audience. As you are thinking about your corporate narrative or founding myth, try to map it into one of these classic story plots. Doing so will help your audience understand your message more easily and make it more memorable.

Conversely, if you are having trouble developing the narrative, look to the plots for inspiration – lay out the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement. Where are you on that journey? Could one of the other plotlines fit the facts and give a richer understanding?

The word ‘story’ may sound frivolous in modern business parlance, but if you are serious about connecting with your audience, and encouraging them to take action, you need to wrap your message in an accessible framework. And that means understanding the narratives people have used for millennia to communicate.