Harnessing the Power of Myth in Corporate Narratives: The Persuasive Storytelling Model
By: Joshua Reynolds
Persuasive Storytelling—Tapping into Universal Mythic Models Persuasive messaging is a tricky science. The first challenge, as we’ve laid out in a previous post, is building a persuasive strategy--prioritizing your target audience, deciding what impact you want to have, and sequencing your messages in the right order.
To persuade people, you need more than just a good message. You need an irresistible story. And it needs to be an authentic story—one that you believe in. It needs to be a story that is meaningful on both an emotional and intellectual level. And it needs to be a story that’s not just informative, but inspiring. It’s a tall order, and hard to get right.
Fortunately, when it comes to crafting great narratives, there are several templates to help you get started. The one we follow at Rob Roy Consulting is our Persuasive Storytelling Model. This universal storytelling framework is grounded in Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, in which he broke every human narrative into 12 component stages. Campbell’s breakthrough work identified universal themes in nearly every major world religion, myth and cultural tradition. These mythic models are hard-wired into the human psyche, and when you understand how they work, they can unlock incredible potential in both your professional and personal life.
Several years ago, after reading every Joseph Campbell book I could find and listening to his original lectures from the 1960s and 1970s, I developed my Five-Chapter variation of the 12-step Hero’s Journey. It’s had a transformational effect on our work. Over the years, the Persuasive Storytelling Model has helped more than 100 clients around the world, including ABB, Activision Blizzard, Deloitte, Dolby, Etisalat, Facebook, Hyundai, Jabil, LinkedIn, Nissan, Oracle, Surescripts, and many others. We even teach this model to senior executives in collaboration with the Stockholm School of Economics. George Lucas has openly credited Campbell as his own personal “Yoda”, guiding him through the creation of the Star Wars sage. And Rob Roy Consulting owes the same debt of gratitude to Campbell and his visionary work.
(By the way, if you’re not already familiar with Joseph Campbell or the Hero’s Journey, then go check out this video from Matthew Winkler to get caught up. It’s brilliantly produced, and conveys an amazing amount of material in just four minutes.)
Because it’s founded on the universal principles of the Hero’s Journey, our Five-Chapter Model has worked well in multiple cultures across multiple sectors. I was extremely honored to be named a Top 25 Innovator by the Holmes Report back in 2014 because of our work with this model and how it’s become the de facto standard at many companies.
At a high level, the five components of any effective corporate narrative are: 1. The world has changed 2. Change creates challenge 3. A shift in thinking 4. Enter the hero (or heroic principle) 5. The viral question
Let’s walk through this model together—along with some famous examples from popular culture to illustrate how it works.
Chapter 1: The World Has Changed Every narrative that matters starts off with something changing. Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle get fried by Stormtroopers, motivating him to run off with Ben Kenobi on a crazy mission with two droids. Katniss Everdeen’s sister is chosen for the hunger games, and Katniss lovingly volunteers herself to spare her sister. Frodo Baggins inherits a strange ring from his eccentric uncle, only to learn he must take it as far away from the Shire as he can.
In the realm of corporate storytelling, here are a few tips for writing your first chapter:
Pick a lens. It’s often helpful to think of change happening in multiple lenses—technological, business, cultural, regulatory, or other trends that are specific to a particular sector. This gives you multiple angles from which to start your story, and broadens your relevance to multiple venues, events, social media circles and media opportunities.
Be topical and timely. Pick the changes that are already top of mind for your audience—the things that are already keeping them up at night. Starting your story on the topics they’re already paying attention to makes you immediately relevant. And it saves time and money since you don’t have to waste budget trying to compete with other top-of-mind issues.
But being relevant isn’t enough. You need to resonate on an emotional level, as well, which brings us to the next chapter …
Chapter 2: Change Creates Challenges The changes that kick-start our narrative quickly give rise to challenges—the things that hurt. And in almost every situation, that challenge comes down to some hardship we’re facing, and the choices we have to make about how to deal with that hardship.
Luke Skywalker’s path pits him against his own father, whom he’ll have to kill if he is to save the galaxy. Katniss is ultimately forced to choose between killing her beloved partner, Peta, or dying in the cruelty of the Hunger Games. Frodo is forced to choose between watching Elves, Dwarves and Humans bicker amongst themselves and fall prey to the evil of the One Ring, or to choose to sacrifice himself in a hopeless quest to destroy the ring himself.
And in corporate storytelling, the second chapter should be about the pain our target audience is feeling, expressed the way they would express it. As Cicero, one of the most formative minds when it comes to persuasion, once wrote, “If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings and speak my words.” He was writing about empathy being the root of all persuasion … more than 2,000 years ago.
And so in this chapter, there are a few principles to bear in mind.
Get real.Avoid jargon and get into the human impact of all this change. It’s about more than complexity, reliability, agility, or any of the other classic “ilities” that litter the landscape of corporate storytelling. It’s about people feeling stuck, conflicted, limited, scared, or frustrated. It’s about what people can and can’t do, not about what products or solutions can and can’t do.
Get personal. It’s also important to break down the pain points by persona. The more specific and personal you can get with your challenges, the more persuasive you’ll be.
Find the dilemma.From a storytelling perspective, one of the most useful things to do in this chapter is to find some dilemma or catch-22 that your audience feels stuck in. Because in the next chapter, a shift in mindset will reveal that there’s a better way forward …
Chapter 3: A Shift in Thinking In this chapter, our heroes undergo some change in perspective and realize there’s another way forward. They look at their challenge in a new way, and either through great sacrifice—or even by letting go of an old idea or approach—they find a new solution.
Luke decides to win his father back over to the good side instead of trying to kill him—a decision that results in his own father overthrowing the Evil Emperor. Katniss decides the real enemy to beat in the Hunger Games are the games themselves, and she and Peta threaten to kill themselves rather than abide by its rules—sparking a rebellion that takes on a life of its own. Frodo decides to spare the life of his enemy, Gollum, because he chooses to see the good in him, not just the bad—an act of compassion that ultimately results in the destruction of the very evil Frodo ultimately succumbs to at the end.
In this part of the narrative, we reframe the dilemma and open our audience to new possibilities. Here are some practical tips for getting that done:
Change the way the audience sees themselves.One of the most powerful pivots of all is to reveal to somebody who feels powerless that they in fact have all the power they need. Challenge myths of scarcity and reveal the hidden abundance. Challenge myths of weakness and vulnerability and reveal the hidden courage and resilience. Show somebody who feels stuck between a rock and a hard place that they don’t have to choose between one of two lousy options—reveal a whole new approach that transforms the way they see themselves. Show them the hidden hero within them.
Trigger curiosity. Curiosity is such an important thing to evoke, because all too often the biggest obstacle we’re facing as persuasive communicators is “confirmation bias”. Our audience is often already convinced of something that gets in the way of them hearing or believing our story. And when people already think something is true, it’s really hard to disabuse them of that belief. But when we can trigger their curiosity and entice them to explore new possibilities, we can overcome that confirmation bias and get them to rethink their conclusions.
Ask “what if” questions. One of the most effective ways to trigger that curiosity is with provocative, perspective-shifting questions that reframe their challenge. We can pose “what if” questions that convince them that it’s worth it to try something new. What’s more, our recent study of 625 B2B tech decision-makers reveals that one of the most effective ways to generate positive word of mouth and get people to share content is when it helps them reframe their challenges and challenge existing assumptions. This is often best accomplished with a question that starts off with “What if you could …”
So with a powerful pivot midway through your story, now the door is open to talk about your company, your solution, and the new possibilities they bring. And it paves the way for a new hero to emerge in your story … your customers.
Chapter 4: Enter the Hero In Chapter 4, the hero of the story emerges, equipped with this new perspective and shift in thinking. And it’s important that we carefully consider whom we want to emerge as the real hero of the story—and it doesn’t always need to be ourselves. What’s most important is that we identify the heroic element to emphasize.
Luke, one of the most iconic heroes of the Star Wars saga, is most immediately identified by the heroic element of Hope. He never gives up hope that he can turn his father back to the good side. Katniss exemplifies the heroic quality of Loyalty and Compassion. Though she resists being regarded as a hero or being put on some sort of pedestal, she constantly puts herself in danger in order to save those who are less able to protect themselves. And Frodo exemplifies the heroic quality of Sacrifice. He understands very early on in this quest to destroy the One Ring is likely to claim his life, but because he understands what’s at stake, and because of his love for his friends, he’s willing to go through with it.
And what’s critical to notice is that the heroic element emerges as a shift in thinking and a reframing of what’s going on in the world around them. In the midst of very binary “us vs. them” conflict in Star Wars, Luke chooses to break that cycle and embrace hope. In the midst of a game defined by “everyone for themselves,” Katniss bucks that trend and chooses “we” over “me”. In a world dominated by a struggle for power and domination, Frodo chooses to go small instead of going big, and embraces Sacrifice in a world shaped by a struggle for domination.
Here are a few guidelines for this part of your narrative:
Choose your role wisely. This question of what role you play in your own corporate narrative is a critical one to consider. To use the Star Wars parlance, you could choose to be the hero of your own story—the Luke Skywalker, the Jedi Knight who saves the day. Or you could choose to be the lightsaber that Luke uses—the tool, the technology, that the hero wields. Or you could choose something even bigger, more selfless, and more impactful. You could choose to be the Force—the behind-the-scenes magic that empowers an entire generation of Jedis.
Cast your heroes carefully. In the realm of corporate storytelling, then, it’s critical to choose who your hero (or heroes) are going to be. They could be your customers. They could be your employees. They could be the actual people who use your solution or service (if that’s different from the people who pay for it). Or, in certain cases, it could actually be your company and your solution. It just depends on your desired impact.
Make your own mission central to the plot. Chapter 4 is typically the part of the story where your company positioning and/or product and solution messaging comes into play. This is where you talk about who you are, what you do, whom you help, and how you’re differentiated. But remember, you’re not the story. Your mission, your purpose, your team and your solution are participating in a broader shared narrative, and helping to drive it forward.
Because the best way to get people emotionally involved in your narrative is to make it about them, not you. And that brings us to our final chapter …
Chapter 5: The Viral Question The number one way to get people to repeat a story and get some positive word of mouth going is to involve them in a story, and leave them wanting more. At the end of every great narrative—and sometimes in between different chapters of a much longer story—we’re left with something to think about, something to wrestle with, a cliffhanger that keeps us hanging on the edge of our seat, wondering where the story will go next.
Star Wars is perhaps one of the best examples of cliffhanger questions in action, because the end of each movie in the saga leaves the door open to the next installment. At the end of Episode IV, A New Hope, we see Darth Vader spinning off into space … but clearly not dead, and we know he’ll be back. At the end of Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, we’re left wondering if Darth Vader really is Luke’s father, and if so, how will Luke deal with his parentage? We see similar cliffhangers to the end of each installment of The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings. And each one can be captured in the form of a question.
And in the realm of corporate storytelling, these cliffhangers take the form of a provocative open-ended questions that involves your audience and drives discussion. Here are a few guidelines to consider:
Find the MVQ—the most valuable question. Provocative questions, when they hit the right nerve, take on a life of their own. They can shape what people search for online. They can shape what customers ask for in RFPs. They can impact what customers ask competitors. And they can have a huge impact on purchase decisions, as our recent research has shown.
Reframe the discussion. Close your narrative with the question you want your audience to ask themselves. Close with the most valuable, most strategic question you can think of … the one that leads them to rethink their challenge … and the one that leaves them hanging on the edge of their seat and eager to talk with you and your team to learn more.
For Next Time Once you master it, the Persuasive Storytelling Model is a real game-changer for your persuasive power. But there are pitfalls, setbacks and traps that can pop up along the journey to find your authentic narrative. What are they, and how can you avoid them? How can you tap into the universal power of mythic storytelling? And how can you build a narrative that not only persuades your audience, but that your own sales and marketing teams, executives and partners will be self-motivated to tell?
Stay tuned …
For more information about the five-chapter storytelling model and how to apply it to your own organization, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org