“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” — Steve Jobs
Why is it that, despite constantly feeling overwhelmed by too much information, we all still find time to binge-watch episode after episode of our new favorite show in one weekend?
Why is it that when no one has time anymore, and there is so much noise out there, we choose stories over information, feelings over facts? It’s the power of Storytelling that keeps us glued to our screens for a whole weekend. Stories can turn indistinct noise into symphonic music — and we are suckers for that.
“We say we want information, but we don’t experience the world through information — we experience the world through story.” — Brian Collins
This is the first in a series of articles in which I will apply storytelling techniques to tackle the biggest challenges faced by digital innovation and transformation leaders. I will show you how storytelling overcomes cynicism and turns it into enthusiasm, how it aligns all stakeholders to a single vision and creates a framework for successful innovation by turning your idea into the hero of your transformation journey. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin…
What makes a good story?
In his work from 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, author Joseph Campbell identified a series of events that appear in multiple stories from numerous cultures — a universal story structure that works with humans of all ages and all cultures. To make it short: The majority of stories we know, whether ancient tales or modern Hollywood blockbuster, almost all follow a specific formula.
The journey is the crucial aspect here. For Campbell, that’s what a hero does. Just like in Digital Transformation, we journey away from safety and towards adventure before coming back home again. It’s hard to ignore how influential his theory became. The discovery that all myths follow the same structure inspired the name Monomyth.
The journey consists of two main parts: the descent and return of the hero. With the risk of oversimplification, the hero myth goes like this: Go out there, confront the dragon, get the gold, return and share it with the community — and live a good life as a transformed person.
There is almost something divine to this duality of descent and return. Our society’s longevity depends on this journey into the unknown and the return with ideas. Our real-world heroes dive into darkness and emerge with something new or forgotten, which is substantial for our survival.
Dan Harmon, an American writer, and famous producer of the sitcom “The Community” knew the theory. However, after being stuck with a screenplay he was working on, he felt that it needed some changes. Harmon was looking to find a way to codify the storytelling process in a simpler way. And after watching a lot of Die Hard and going over Campbell’s theory, again and again, he came up with a formula on his own.
“I was thinking; there must be some symmetry to this. Some simplicity.” — Don Harmon (Article in Wired)
So, he created a distillation of the mono-myth into 8 steps and named it the Story Circle. A symmetric and straightforward algorithm that helps anyone to build a story.
The Story Circle works like this: the top half represents “order,” and the bottom half represents “chaos.” The top, therefore, is the character’s familiar world like life, friends or consciousness. It represents where the journey starts and finishes. On the opposite side, you find death, enemies, and unconsciousness. It represents the world that needs to be traversed in order to grow and change. Think of it like your hero is diving into water. First, our hero is dry and in a familiar place. After diving and emerging back to the surface, the hero is wet, but back in a familiar place.
Harmon believes that this rhythm of descent and return is the beat:
“All life, including the human mind, and the communities we create, marches to the same beat. If the story marches to this beat, it will resonate. It will send and audience’s ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back. The audience has an instinctive taste for that, and they are going to say ‘yum’.” Dan Harmon
His circle not only visualizes the vertical duality; there is also a horizontal duality. From the right half of the loop, our character moves from being ignorant, in denial, illusioned towards a state of enlightenment and disillusion.
The transformation horizontally is focusing on the character’s internal changes from stasis to change. Whereas the vertical transformation is concentrating on the external changes of our hero from order to chaos.
If you put everything together, you can construct the full circle. You will see the most change and narrative focus at the main intersections of the circle. Going clockwise, we can number the four points where the lines cross the circle and we number the four quadrants. Each number has a label, and they take us through the story piece by piece.
Here we go, clockwise:
- You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
- Need (but they want something)
- Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
- Search (adapt to it)
- Find (find what they wanted)
- Take (pay its price)
- Return (and go back to where they started)
- Change (now capable of change)
Harmon calls all story structures following this narrative arc “embryo plots”. Just like with a human embryo, all necessary parts are there. Now it’s up to the storyteller to grow her baby into a blockbuster story. And according to its creator, “if it doesn’t have all the parts, its simply not a story.”
The take away: Almost all famous stories follow this particular journey — from Lord of the Rings, Bourne Identity to Die Hard. And there are simple tools, like the Story Circle, that enables all of us to build our own stories.
What does that mean for your business?
We experience the world through stories, and good stories, by definition, will show little variation in their re-telling. A good story incorporates your purpose and mission. It will enable you to make better business decisions and help you to clarify your message so people will listen (internally and externally). The story is what holds everything together and guides everyone involved — at any time.
Instead of talking about problems and solutions, you should tell stories. At the heart of every good story sits a block of layered problems (external problems, internal problems, and philosophical problems). This is the Need. Overcoming those problems and following the transition of our hero is what keeps us interested and will give your solution a chance that people will care.
Through Pixar and Apple, Steve Jobs did set the “vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” If you want to change the world like Jobs, approach it with the mindset of a screenwriter or journalist and become a storyteller yourself.
In part 2 of this series, I will show you how to make use of the Hero’s Journey to improve your marketing message so your clients will listen (regardless of your industry).
My name is Marc Seefelder, I’m the co-founder & Chief Creative Officer of MING Labs, a digital innovation partner for brands big and large. We have offices in Berlin, Munich, Shanghai, Singapore and Suzhou but you can connect with me on LinkedIn.
Thank you for reading!