In his book Christopher Booker (The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories ) conjectures that, of the millions of stories in existence, they are all composed from the same seven plots (Five if you count Tragedy and Comedy as being themes). The book is a comprehensive, ragged masterpiece that uses a Jungian influenced analysis of stories and their structure.
Very few tales follow a pure plot from start to finish, but they have plots and subplots that play out within the narrative, such that they tell a coherent story, with a beginning, a middle and an ending. The importance of plot for writing and screen is easily recognised, but its’ use in business is frequently overlooked.
Investment decisions, business strategy, economic forecasting, personnel development, business development and political campaigns all rely on telling an easily understandable and coherent story to an audience.
The problem with telling stories with data is that the message gets lost in the detail, and using plotlines helps to frame the uncertainty in complex stories and concepts within a familiar structure. Visualisation is frequently used to assist in reducing complexity, but it can be difficult to get the full story across in a single slide and keep the structure of the message.
In business, calls to action are frequent and easy project wins are often identified early. However, business leaders frequently underestimate the learning needed to realise the true transformational nature of large organisational change. Motivational, engaging storytelling is essential to delivering the message of change and getting people engaged enough to want to participate in the journey.
Indeed, the incoming American head of the NSA has called for a “storyteller-in-chief” to explain complex cybersecurity matters in a way everyone can understand, and the importance of popularising messages to audiences beyond the boundaries of organizations helps to build influence and understanding.
According to Booker, all stories contain a meta-plot or master structure that involve the following elements.
Anticipation: A call to action and introduction to the landscape.
Dream: Initial success that can lead to a feeling of invincibility after first contact with the adversary.
Frustration: Things start to look a bit wobbly, with setbacks and adversity.
Nightmare: It appears that all may be lost and courage or bold action is required.
Resolution: As a result of the actions, the day is won (or lost).
The important part being that it is the actions of the characters in the plot, and their interactions with other characters who help or hinder their path that forges the wisdom that the journey will uncover.
In business, the organisation takes the place of the main character, and the business strategy becomes the way in which the people of the organisation travel together to achieve the goal. All organizations are keen to tell their version of history and rely on the executives to tell a story of what the next chapter holds.
So, what are the best storytelling plots, and examples?
- Overcoming the Monster. The characters set out to defeat a larger, possibly evil, adversary that threatens the peace of the homeland. (Star Wars)
- Rags to Riches. Things at home are wretched, but once out into the world the character finds their fulfilment (after some knockbacks and misunderstandings). The happy ending is realised when the character grows as a person. (Cinderella)
- The Quest. From a quiet home the character sets off on a quest, encountering perils, difficulties and temptations, before returning with the prize, wiser and more experienced. (Indiana Jones)
- Voyage and Return. The adventurer travels abroad, has encounters with various foes and returns wiser for the experience. (The Hobbit)
- Comedy. Humorous characters that the audience can identify with, who find a happy ending in adverse circumstances. Often the plot becomes more and more confused, but is clarified by a single event or understanding. (Bridget Jones)
- Tragedy. Tragic plots have an unhappy ending and serve as a warning (a cautionary tale). Although sad it is made more so because it is irresistible, warnings are ignored and the choices make the ending inevitable. (Macbeth)
- Rebirth. The central character changes their ways, making them a better person. (A Christmas Carol)
Although the subjects described here may seem a little bit of a stretch for some, the idea is to get businesses thinking creatively (and innovatively) about the stories that they are telling to themselves and others about where they are and what they want to achieve.
If we are not able to frame our endeavours within a narrative that is understandable to more than those familiar with part of the organisation, then it is difficult to get the shared effort and commitment that can make transformative change happen.
In the words of John F. Kennedy: “We choose to go to the Moon! …We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win”