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Storytelling Components: The 4 Laws of an Effective Company Story

Editor's Note: This post was updated for relevance and accuracy April 30, 2024.

We spend a lot of time helping our clients choose and tell the stories that will best explain why their organization actually exists.

What we've learned along the way is that memorable stories are born when certain storytelling components are included. When you are trying to create compelling company stories, it's important to stay committed to these elements and not get lost in selling your products or marketing your company.

1. A Relatable Hero

If you've ever read about the "components of a good story" before, this portion is usually called "character." But we're talking about great stories here – which require heroes

So what makes a hero in the eyes of an audience? As Emma Coats – former Story Artist at Pixar – has stated in her "22 Rules of Storytelling," the number one rule is that audiences admire a character more for trying than for their successes

Have you ever noticed that when a politician tells stories about his or her parents, they rarely talk about the successes they had – but rather, the effort they put forth? They say, "my father worked in a coal mine for 30 years," not "my father became really wealthy because he invested his money well."

The reason is because effort is more relatable than success. We all feel like we're trying, but we don't always feel like we're succeeding. Create your story's hero by telling the audience about how much your main character is trying.

2. An Overwhelming Obstacle

We often call this the "conflict," but the word "obstacle" is really a more accurate description of what's required. The effort that your hero is putting forth should be aimed at overcoming an obstacle. Whether it's a bad grade, a broken relationship, or a deadly disease, obstacles are what keep your audience sticking around. They want to see if (and how) the hero addresses the obstacle ahead of them. 

Think about the times you've listened to someone tell a story. When they begin telling it, you (usually subconsciously) ask yourself, "Okay, what problem is going to arise here?"

When someone's story ends without an obstacle, that's when the room gets quiet and you hear crickets.

3. Story-Setting Context

The context of the story is subtle, but very important. Compare the following two stories:

1. "My uncle fought cancer for three years before he finally passed away."

2. "My uncle – the father of three beautiful daughters – fought cancer for three years before he finally passed away last Christmas.

Both stories are extremely sad, of course, but the second story does a better job of answering the question, "Why should I care?" Be sure to include these small details, because they give the audience more of a reason to root for or empathize with the hero.

4. A Palpable Emotion

If you use the three techniques above properly, emotion should be a natural result. It's important to note, though, that you should be able to answer the question "What will the audience feel at the end of the story?" It doesn't matter if the emotions are positive or negative, but there needs to be some feeling that is evoked.

This is especially true when you're trying to be strategic with your communication. If you want your audience to take action upon consuming your story, you have to elicit the right emotions

Why This Matters for Your Company

As consumers, it's easy for us to see companies as a human-less entity, but the successful companies, the great storytellers, are the companies that can show us the human side of their leadership and their customers. 

Check out this classic Apple commercial. They do an amazing job of showing their customers as the heroes of the story and uplifting their brand on an emotional level.

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