Storytelling has forever been a core piece in the way humans communicate. It’s universal and powerful, and as marketers, it’s something that is at the core of our skillset. Still, storytelling in business wasn’t something I really thought about too much when I was starting out. I heard it mentioned a lot, but I never really read anything very practical about how to do it. I figured it was a bit of a wanky buzzword and moved on to other sensible marketing strategies like yellow pages ads.

I did, however, start telling my story naturally. I enjoyed writing about my journey and I got good feedback from others. But I didn’t realize how powerful it was as a way to spread the message. I also didn’t really know exactly how to do it, or more importantly how not to do it.

That was until Kyle, who worked for me at the time, noticed a striking similarity between my income report and the story arc of Cinderella.

This is my wage that I was using to tell my story in my monthly reports at the time.

It got me thinking. What I was doing all along was telling a universal story about my journey (without knowing it). Once I realized, I used this knowledge to tell stories about a bunch of other projects I worked on, with great success.

Universal storylines

In his book ‘The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories’, Christopher Booker contends that any story will only ever consist of one, or a combination of, 7 basic plots: Overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and re-birth. A few of these are particularly powerful for businesses.

  • Overcoming the monster – This is the classic David vs Goliath storyline and is used in business often. Check out Apple’s 1984 ad introducing the Macintosh and directly attacking the bigger company IBM.

Steve Jobs said this, before introducing the ad “It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers initially welcoming IBM with open arms now fear an IBM dominated and controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?”. Dude could sell!

  • Rags to riches – Everyone loves a good rags to riches story. A lot of famous businesses and entrepreneurs draw on this storyline to spread their message (Howard Shultz, Oprah, Richard Branson, or Ray Krok as portrayed in the recent movie The Founder). This story works particularly well if you can show a story of someone who goes from rags to riches, then back to rags, then back to riches. Everyone loves a comeback.
  • The quest – This storyline follows someone who is on a mission to achieve something (i.e. launch a successful business). We’ve seen this in startups with transparent income reports and posts about the things they are learning along the way. The Groove blog is a good example. Gimlet, the best storytellers in the world of podcasting, use this to follow founders as they launch their companies. Their latest seriesfollows former American Apparel founder Dov Charney as he attempts to launch a new company after being fired by American Apparel. Throw in some controversy and you have a very engaging story.
  • Rebirth – During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person. Think Steve Jobs being fired by Apple and triumphantly returning after experiencing a lot of hard years. Elon Musk has a similar story after being fired by PayPal. It’s no wonder these stories are the ones that make the books and movies.

These stories make great podcasts, books and movies but they also make great sales material and great press opportunities. Get your story right and you’ll have access to free attention that marketing dollars can’t buy.