The participants in my recent webinar for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) on July 2, 2019, “Delving into the Art of Storytelling in a Business Environment,” asked a lot of important questions. I will answer many of them in this series of blog posts.
Question: Does your story structure work with business stories?
In my recent webinar, “Delving into the Art of Storytelling in the Business Environment,” I offered a simple three-act structure for stories that comes from my work as a playwright:
- Act 1 – set the scene, the world of the story
- Act II – something shakes the world of the story, something goes sideways
- Act III – the world has changed
One of the participants offered a different way of looking at the same idea:
- Act 1 – Current state
- Act 2 – Transition state
- Act 3 – Future state
I think that this simple structure works for most stories, business or otherwise. Here’s the story I mentioned in my previous post, Powerful Vulnerability, divided into this three-act structure:
Act 1: (Set the world of the story; Current state) A colleague of mine was working with a CEO, a “no nonsense” kind of guy who avoided both stories and vulnerability. This leader was trying to make major changes in his organization; it wasn’t going well.
Act 2: (Shake the world; Transition state) After building some trust, my colleague got this CEO to share a few personal stories with him, including the amazing fact that this leader hadn’t walked until he was a teenager due to a congenital disease. “My brothers and sisters made me walk. They told me I could do it, helped me build strength in my legs and even set a date for my first steps. It worked. Now I run every day to keep strong and so I don’t disappoint my siblings.”
Act 3: (The world has changed; Future state) When my colleague tied this story directly to the changes the CEO was asking his company to make, the leader agreed to use the story. The changes worked better and his team felt closer to him.
There is one more step that is crucial for business stories – the epilogue or pivot back to the business relevance of the story. The CEO in this story used an epilogue that might have gone something like this:
The changes we’re making in this organization might feel as hard as learning to walk, and as painful. None of us can do it alone – I’d be in a wheelchair right now if it weren’t for my brothers and sisters. Like my siblings, we need to encourage our people, help them understand the changes and set clear targets so we can all measure our success.
If I was telling the story of the ‘no-nonsense’ CEO to convince a reluctant group of executives to embrace storytelling, I might use an epilogue like this:
For us, the success of this CEO’s storytelling, both in jumpstarting a change initiative and in upgrading his personal brand without loosing his authenticity, points to how powerful a few good stories can be for any executive.
Pro Tip: Be sure to tell your story first, all the way through and without editorial comments, before pivoting to the epilogue.