The Ancient (and Profitable) Power of Story

Once upon a time, there was a quirky, unconfident prince whose father, the king, was growing ill and preparing to pass on the responsibilities of the kingdom to his son. 


However, the prince needed to marry a princess in order to legitimize the passing of the crown.

The prince wanted to marry the princess from a neighboring kingdom and make her his queen. She was the most intimidatingly beautiful princess in all the land.


But there was a problem… 


On the day that the prince mustered up the courage to ask her hand in marriage, he was given the terrible news. The previous night she had been captured by a dragon and placed in a high tower on top of a mountain, waiting for somebody brave enough to rescue her.


The prince didn’t even have the beginnings of a plan to rescue the princess. Even if he did, deep inside he didn’t know if he had what it took to fulfill such a daunting mission. He felt trapped. This was a battle between the forces of good and evil, right and wrong, and he felt powerless.


Sulking in his own self-pity by the river shortly after, he met an old sage who was once a valiant knight and had accomplished many missions for the king in his prime. The sage took the prince under his wing and taught him everything he knew. Even more than that, the sage looked him in the eye and told him, “You have what it takes.”


Soon, the prince began to actually believe the sage. His words were empathetic, yes, but more than that, they were authoritative. This sage had done before what the prince was now rising to the occasion to do. He was confident that if he followed what he learned through the sage’s training, he would be able to slay the dragon and rescue the princess.


The prince fought for weeks to climb to the top of the mountain, overcoming many foes and obstacles along the way. But when he reached the top of the mountain, he would face the greatest foe of them all: the dragon himself.


As he began to fight the dragon, the prince was quickly, but the prince was quickly overwhelmed by its fiery breath, the razor-sharp claws, and the stone-hard scales. So much so, that in the heat of battle he started to question whether or not he had what it took to slay this dragon.


But when death was imminent for this prince, he was reminded of the words the sage had spoken to him:


“You have what it takes.”


With a rush of courage, the prince swung his sword with all his might at the dragon’s neck, chopping off his head and defeating him once and for all! The dragon tumbled down the mountain, and the prince raced up the stairs to find his bride to be.


At last, he opened the door to the bed chamber where she was held captive. The princess, with disbelief and wonder in her eyes, ran to the door to wrap her arms around his neck, and they kissed passionately.


The prince mounted himself and the princess onto his noble steed, riding back to his father’s kingdom where he would marry her, make her his queen, and together they’d rule over his father’s kingdom forever and ever.

The end.

Now, you might be wondering, what did that story have to do with how rveal approaches our work?


Well, I’ll tell you with confidence that if you are still reading this article, that random story worked exactly as we had intended it to.

Let me explain.


Our firm builds all of our communication strategies upon the foundation of a strong narrative. And we have three reasons why:

  1. Storytelling has a clear, trusted structure that is easily identifiable and systematically repeatable.

  2. Storytelling is psychologically captivating, serving as a neuro-hack into the mind and heart of the audience.

  3. Storytelling compels people to take action.


Let’s break each of these down further.


The Structure of Storytelling


Great storytelling doesn’t happen by accident.


In fact, most stories are told very formulaically.


There’s a reason why big Hollywood studios aren’t usually interested in funding unique, artsy, independent films. 


Why wouldn’t they? Isn’t Hollywood interested in putting out the newest and most creative ideas? 


Not at all.


Hollywood, as an industry, isn’t interested in doing what’s most creative. As a business model, their only true interest is to make a return on their investment. In other words, they’re interested in assuming as little risk as possible.


And, unfortunately, many independent filmmakers try to do something new and exciting by veering off from the standard structure of storytelling. 


(This is why most indie films end up flopping miserably.)


Hollywood understands that in order to sell more tickets at the box office, they need to create stories that engage their audiences with a juicy promise that is wondrously fulfilled at the end of the film. They ensure this by following a systematic structure for storytelling, swapping out characters, locations, and themes depending on the story, but keeping the skeleton the same.


This isn’t just true for Hollywood. It’s true for the news, political campaigns, advertising, sales scripts, keynotes, church sermons, and every form of communication in between.


In other words, from the moment we were born, we have been trained to consume stories in a very structured way (see the narrative arc below).

We can’t take credit for creating the original narrative arc. Over the course of human history, people have found different ways to communicate what the different segments of a story are called. At rveal, we’ve developed our own definitions for each of those segments, as seen above.


The structure goes something like this:

  1. A person with a desire is introduced.

Think of the prince in the story I shared at the beginning of this article. A strong, relatable person, or main character, helps the audience personally identify with the story on a deeper level (more on that shortly).


After that…

  1. An external problem, that affects the person deeply and violates a universal standard of right and wrong, follows.

In our story, the problem was that the future wife of our main character’s dreams was taken away by a dragon and needed somebody to rescue her. The internal turmoil that this caused in our character was that he felt inadequate and untrained to take on this task. The universal standard of right and wrong that this problem violated was that evil did not deserve to have the final say in this fight, or in any fight for that matter.

But then something remarkable happens.

  1. An empathetic, authoritative expert came along with a strategic plan to help the person get where he/she needs to go.

In our story, this is the old sage. He is the one who cared enough to meet the prince where he was at, but also had the experience to help move him past where he was stuck and toward his final destination. The sage not only provided a practical plan that helped solve the character’s external problem of fighting the dragon, but he also imparted a truth that helped the prince overcome perhaps his greatest battle of all: the internal struggle.


The prince followed the sage’s plan, overcame all obstacles up the mountain, and finally faced the climactic act that he had been preparing for all along. 


And he passed the test. Which leads to…

  1. The promise made to the person is fulfilled. His objections were overcome, his dreams were fulfilled, and his worst nightmares were avoided.

And this, as you could probably already imagine, was where our prince rode off into the sunset with his lady to live happily ever after.


So what does this have to do with rveal communicating our clients’ visions?


Absolutely everything.


We help our clients clarify their vision into a narrative structure, positioning their target audience as the person (maincharacter) of the story.


We help them identify the external, internal, and eternal problems that their audience is facing. 


We then dig deep and find the gold they might not be able to see themselves: their organization, products, and services that make them the credible expert with the plan to help their main character overcome their problem.

Finally, we help them paint the picture of that promise fulfilled for the audience, casting their vision in an irresistible way that inspires the audience to take action.

Note: Most marketers make the mistake of positioning themselves as the main character of the story, but people are most interested in the story where they are the main character. That’s why it’s critical for our clients to not see themselves as the main character of the story, but as the helpful expert with the plan.


As you read about this basic structure of storytelling, it likely just makes sense. Storytelling is universal and innate to us as human beings. Let’s look at the science behind it.


The Science Behind Storytelling

When you were reading the story at the beginning of this article, were you caught off guard? Confused? Maybe even frustrated that the story didn’t seem to have any relevance to why you originally started reading in the first place?


If your answer is “no” and you are a little taken aback that it didn’t throw you off at all, you’re not alone.


There are two psychological reasons why that story is such a captivating form of communication.


Ever heard of the theories of native transportation and character identification?


Narrative transportation is the phenomenon that occurs when somebody is engaged in a story, and everything around them seems to disappear. Their focus isn’t on the conversations that are happening around them, or what they will be having for lunch, or even if the production quality of the content that they are consuming is poor. 


Once the story begins, all they care about is to see the conflict in that story resolved in the end.


Character identification is what happens when you find yourself connecting on such a deeply empathetic level with the main character of the story that whatever happens to them feels like it’s happening to you directly.


Every high point that they experience, you celebrate with them. Every low point, you grieve.


That’s why parents find themselves wiping tears from their eyes when they’re watching Toy Story with their kids.


“Why am I crying?” they ask themselves. “I’m just watching a story about toys!”


No, they’re not.


They’re watching a story about themselves.


And when people feel deeply connected to the main character of a story as if it were themselves, they are inspired to take action. 


I’ll prove it.


How Stories Inspire Action


Riddle me this: which do you think is more effective in inspiring action?


Statistics? Or stories?


Yup. Stories.


This is because of a term called the Identifiable Victim Effect, which simply means that we are more empathetically drawn to a story about a single victim (again, think main character) that we can identify with rather than a grouping of statistics that describes what’s happening to a larger group of people, even if the harm to the larger group of people is quantitatively more devastating.


Just think about the last time you heard about a natural disaster, a war, or a famine happening halfway across the world. Shoot, even think about something like that happened in your own country or state. Think about how it impacted you emotionally. Did it mark you? Did it change you? Did it move you to act in some way?


Now think about the last time you heard a story from that friend of a friend who went through a gut-wrenching divorce, or was overtaken by a deadly disease, or lost a loved one in an unthinkable accident or crime. How did that story impact you emotionally?


Studies show that the latter not only leaves a deeper impression on us, but it is also more effective in moving us to the point of taking action. As Mother Teresa once famously said, “If I look at the mass, I’ll never act. If I look at the one, I will.”


In Closing


I’ve heard it said that “marketing is just ‘business-speak’ for storytelling,” and I couldn’t agree more.


Remember:

  1. Storytelling has a clear, trusted structure.

  2. Storytelling is psychologically captivating.

  3. Storytelling compels people to take action.


For those three reasons, I believe that the executives who are going to seriously change the world are going to be the ones who are serious about taking their vision for their organization, their products, their services, their industry, and the marketplace as a whole and crafting it into a compelling narrative.


When a complex vision is difficult to communicate, the narrative provides a clear structure. Not only that, it’s designed to captivate and retain an audience all the way through the third act. And finally, it might be the single greatest communication method to compel people to award your business, invest in your project, or take action toward your cause.


So, executives, spend some time thinking about your vision. Think about the 4-pillar Vision Narrative™ structure that I laid out for you earlier. Who is your person, and what do they really want? What problem stands in their way? What plan do you have to offer them? And what promise are you making them if they were to take the journey of business with you?


Take a stab at developing that story with your team.


And, as always, if you need any help with it, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of experts at rveal. We’d be glad to serve you.

Written by: Kap Chatfield (CEO of rveal media)

© RVEAL Media, LLC, 2020