How to create the perfect structure for your business story

Toastmasters International’s Chris Hirsch explains how your small business can make the most of its most powerful tool: storytelling.

Storytelling may seem like an old-fashioned tool – and it is. But that’s exactly what makes it so powerful. A story can go where logic, numbers and analysis cannot: our hearts.

When I ask what makes a good story, the typical response is that the content has to be interesting, exciting or amusing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A compelling story has little to do with the content and everything to do with the structure.

All great stories, whatever the content, follow the same simple structure:

  • You start by setting the scene (“Once upon a time there was…”)
  • You then have a problem (“…at her birth, the wicked witch cursed her…”)
  • Then there is rising tension as the problem can’t be solved (“…on her 16th birthday she pricked her finger on a spinning wheel and the whole castle fell into a deep sleep…”)
  • Then you have the climax or tipping point (“…prince after prince tried to fight their way through the briars surrounding the caste, all failed…”)
  • Then there is the resolution (“…until at last, one prince made his way through and kissed the sleeping beauty…”)
  • And finally, you have a new status quo (“…and they lived happily ever after.”)

Constructing your own business stories

A good starting point is to consider the ‘why’ of your business. In fact, while you are at it, go the whole hog and consider Rudyard Kipling’s piece of wisdom: “I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew): Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

Nearly every business solves a problem and the above questions will help you realise clearly what problem or problems you are solving.

And remember, your story must be authentic and based on truth and reality. Above all, it must not just be a sales pitch.

Always construct the end of the story first – it’s easier to start a journey if you know the destination. Paint a picture of how the client felt after you had helped them (the “and they all lived happily ever after” line).

  • Now go back to the beginning of the story and set the scene
  • Explain how you helped them realise that they had a problem
  • Describe how this problem was affecting them
  • Outline what the long-term consequences of inaction would have been
  • Explain the resolution – how you can help them with the solution
  • Explain how wonderful the client felt at the end of the journey and how much better the new status quo was

There are some important points to remember to make your story really effective:

  • Make the client (or someone like them) the hero of the story
  • If the story is about another client, make sure the person you are telling will think “they are just like me”
  • Never make yourself the hero – it is their story and you are just the guide
  • You must include a pivot point – a moment of tension without which you will not have a story

Case studies are another name for stories. Many of us in business realise that case studies are an excellent way to explain our services – they are stories! I urge you to take a look at your website and rewrite your case studies to reflect the above lessons.

Stories are powerful. They help us make sense of the world, they can elevate our thoughts and make us believe (even if it is only for a moment) that anything is possible, so it is no surprise that we all love stories.  Data can persuade people but it cannot call them to action. Nothing can fire the imagination or awaken the soul like a story.

Christopher Hirsch is from Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organisation’s membership exceeds 345,000 in more than 15,900 clubs in 142 countries.

Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members.

To find your local club:  Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.
For Toastmasters in the UK:

Photo © Austin Kirk (CC BY 2.0). Cropped.