What Makes a Good Story

There is a standard story structure identified by scholar Joseph Campbell that he calls the Hero’s Journey, and it can be summarized briefly like this:

  • A protagonist encounters a call to adventure, which he or she initially tries to refuse.
  • The protagonist gets pulled into the fray anyway and must test their mettle against an antagonist and/or difficult circumstances.
  • After overcoming difficulty, the hero succeeds and is forever changed. (Or, in a tragedy, the hero is defeated or left worse off than at the start of the tale.)

Think of most popular tales and you’ll find they fit the upbeat formula—Harry Potter defeats Voldemort and saves the wizarding world; Kristin Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids first nearly ruins then manages to salvage her best friend’s wedding; Frodo walks and fights—and walks and fights some more—but finally causes The Ring to be destroyed in The Lord of the Rings.

Whether the protagonist aspires to be heroic or to avoid tragedy, the formula works because we identify with him or her. This is the power of storytelling. When you can use it effectively, it’s a great way to connect with your customers on a deeper level.

The key to using stories in a business setting is to realize that they must be short, relevant and make a point. Here are some ideas to help you tell a more effective story:

Reveal a Truth
A good story works because it illustrates a greater truth. You should be able to clearly enunciate the point of your story to yourself—i.e., I want to show why a higher deductible makes sense in this case, or I want this customer to understand what could happen if they don’t take out an umbrella policy. When you are clear on the point of your story, it will be easier to tailor your details to support your end goal.

Choose Details That Connect
If you’re trying to make the case to a rancher that she should purchase additional liability coverage on her vehicle policy, it might be effective to tell her a story about another one of your customer’s who got into an accident and found he didn’t have enough coverage. But you probably don’t need to mention that he was driving his two-seater sports car on a busy highway.

It would be easier for her to dismiss his bad fortune as being unique to his circumstance because she can’t relate to that part of his life. If, however, the customer who got into the accident happened to be a business owner who lost his company as a result of his misfortune, that information might compel her to act. The common ground of both customers being business owners is the detail you need to connect.

Cut, Cut, Cut
People are busy. In a sales setting, a few sentences are usually all you’re going to get in a conversation. So get to the point.

Paint a Picture
Well-chosen words and the inclusion of details will flesh out your tale. Compare these two approaches:

OPTION 1:
“I had some clients who were out of their house for four months after their sewer backed up. They had chosen the bare minimum for homeowners coverage, so they had to pay a lot out of pocket.”

OPTION 2:
“I had some clients whose home was unlivable for four months after their sewer backed up. They were devastated because they’d been planning to hold their daughter’s wedding in their backyard that summer but had chosen the bare minimum for coverage and could only afford to rent a VFW hall instead.”

The second option is only 14 words longer, but it includes a lot more emotional impact.

Assume Intelligence
We all like to feel smart. If your story and the details you choose to include are relevant, your audience will be able to draw the appropriate conclusions themselves.

This is the second of a three-part series about storytelling for agents. The first piece—Why Storytelling Works—can be found here.

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