Lots of people are writing about the power of story in business today.

But what is a story, and how can you use story to engage customers?

Basically, a story is about a character who wants something important and struggles to get it. In the rest of this post, I’ll break that down into its parts.

Here are six elements that make a story a story:

  1. Character. Story starts with character. And the number-one character is the hero. This is where so many corporate stories fail. They try to make a new program, initiative or project the hero. But programs don’t get up in the morning and change the world. People do. And that’s who we want to read about.
  2. Prize. Okay, we have a character. But we don’t yet have a story. The character has to want something: to solve a problem, to right a wrong, to make things better. Why does the character want to achieve that goal? In other words, what’s his or her motivation? When we discover a personal motivation, we develop empathy for that character. Let’s say we have a character who decides to start a program for street youth. That’s certainly a noble goal. But add that the character spent seven years on the streets before turning her life around. Now we have a reason to be personally invested in that character’s story. We really want to see her succeed.
  3. Stakes. What would happen if the hero didn’t achieve the goal? The more that’s at stake, the more compelling the story.
  4. Conflict. The hero wants something. Do we have a story yet? Not until we have conflict. Janet wants an ice cream cone, goes to the grocery store and buys a Dove bar. Hooray for Janet! But it’s not a story, at least not a good one. What if Janet wants an ice cream bar and she’s in the middle of the Mojave Desert without a car or money? Well, we might just have a story. The struggle for the character to get what she wants is the plot. She tries, fails, tries again, fails, tries again. Each time, the challenge gets bigger, and the prize seems farther away.
  5. Plan. How the heck is the hero going to win against the odds? She has to make a plan.
  6. Success. Not all stories are success stories. Some are tragedies. But in the world of marketing and organizational communications, we want to show how our product, service, company or agency creates change for good. This is the resolution. In traditional stories, it’s the climax, where the hero defeats the antagonist or monster and claims the prize. In your story, it might be where the person who started the homeless youth program sees her first class graduate. Use facts to bolster your claim of success. But bring home the emotional truth – and engage with your audience – by showing how this success made a difference in people’s lives.

Use these six elements of storytelling, and you’ll turn your dry facts into compelling stories that grab people by their hearts and inspire them to take action.

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