You most often see stories used to entertain – Hollywood often uses a narrow selection of story structures that would also be useful for your business stories.
As you become familiar with these three story structures, reflect on how they fit with your professional and personal experiences. These structures, which are dramatic in nature, make for fabulous business stories when they’re tied to a business purpose and include a call to action.
The “I’m better off” structure
The I’m better off story goes like this: The main character gets in trouble, then gets out of trouble, and ends up better off for the experience. As author Kurt Vonnegut says, “People love that story. They never get sick of it!”
Many stories that leaders tell follow this pattern. It’s the story of struggle and redemption — of losing everything and gaining something better in return. A bankruptcy, being let go from a job, losing a home, and making major mistakes and recovering from them — all follow this structure. All make for riveting business stories.
Wally Amos and his Famous Amos cookies are an example. He lost his company and the ability to use his own name. He re-emerged as “Uncle Noname,” which has morphed into the successful Uncle Wally’s muffin company. He says the experiences on the roller coaster of life taught him that there really are no tough times, just opportunities to grow.
Larry King’s life also fits this structure. In 1971 he was a popular Miami radio show host. At 37 he was charged with grand larceny by a former business partner and arrested. All charges were eventually dropped, but his media career hit the skids.
Working in public relations, he kept interviewing athletes and other famous folks. With their help, he rebuilt his career and achieved unparalleled success with his CNN show Larry King Live.
The loss and gain structure
Creating a story using the loss and gain structure goes like this: The main character falls in love with a business or opportunity or is doing work that fulfills their dreams — loses it when something puts those dreams on hold — and then regains it. This also is a very powerful type of story to share.
Steve Jobs’s love and loss tale that he tells in his 2005 Stanford commencement address is both an example of loss and gain and a founding story.
Another example is that of entertainer and television icon Dick Clark. Since 1972, Clark enthusiastically hosted ABC’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve celebration and midnight countdown of the Times Square Ball in New York City. In 2004, he suffered a debilitating stroke. His recovery was painful and arduous.
In 2006, after teaching himself to walk and talk again, he was back on the show where he remained as host until his death in 2012. “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” he said when he rejoined the show in 2006.
Artist Pablo Picasso’s story follows this type of structure too. Early in his career, his friend Carlos Casagemas committed suicide, plunging Picasso into grief, suffering, and despair. For three years these feelings influenced his paintings, causing it to be labeled as his blue period. Eventually they passed.
With the help of friends and fellow artists, he gained new inspiration and entered into his joyful rose period. His blue period and these subsequent art works propelled him into fame and fortune.
You can read more about the stories of Wally Amos, Larry King, Dick Clark, and Pablo Picasso in John A. Sarkett’s Extraordinary Comebacks: 201 Inspiring Stories of Courage, Triumph and Success (Sourcebooks, 2007).
The “down and out” Cinderella structure
The down and out story structure goes like this: The main character is in a bad spot, a special helper provides gifts, but then the character loses their good standing. Eventually that good standing is restored, and the character gains incredible bliss.
Vonnegut says, “This is the most popular story in our western civilization. Every time it’s retold, someone makes another million dollars.” In business, this could be a story of dissatisfying work and living in desperation. Then a mentor comes along and transforms the person’s life, but circumstances still hold them back. These are eventually resolved which leads to the character’s dreams being realized.
Remember the real-life story-turned-movie of Erin Brockovich? As a down-and-out mother struggling to survive, she landed a job doing clerical work in a law firm. Between her own grit and the guidance she receives from others, she perseveres against a utility company and the harm it creates for the town of Hinkley, California.
The case takes its toll on both her love live and her health. Her relationship fades and painful injuries from a previous car accident get in the way. While sharing her story with her chiropractor, who knew actor and producer Danny DeVito, Brockovich came to the attention of Hollywood. Winning the case and having her story brought to the movie screen gave her success beyond her wildest dreams.