Which story are you telling about your business?

I’ve been influenced by a number of speakers and thought-leaders over the past 5 years, but for me the individual who consistently hits the right tone on the topic of communication skills is Dr Nick Morgan.  A former teacher of public speaking at The University of Virginia and Princeton in the USA, he now works with corporations and individuals to help them truly ‘connect’ with their audience. One thing that really resonated with me is his take on storytelling and its application in business communication.

According to Morgan, there are 5 main types of story:

  1. The quest
  2. Stranger in the strange land
  3. A love story
  4. Rags to riches
  5. Revenge

I’m going to look at these one by one and put my own take on this.

I agree with Dr Nick that a more powerful way to communicate with our audience is to fit our message into one of the above. Can it be done? I think so! Should it be done? Well, if you consider how persuasive movie-makers are who take their audience on a journey and get them emotionally hooked, there are some great parallels with business.

1. The Quest

I’d bring in Simon Sinek at this point. He spoke with great skill and passion at the TEDx conference about the importance of having a ‘why’ – indeed, starting with it. He cites Apple as a company that set out on a mission – to change the status quo (“Think Different”). Although Steve Jobs certainly wanted to derive commercial success from the gadgets that Wozniak and he were creating, his core (‘big picture’) message remained one of fundamentally changing the landscape. The cool gadgets merely supported that bigger purpose.

The importance of having a why

As Dr Nick points out, people find it easier to get behind you if you’re clearly on a mission. They admire your zeal and what you stand for, or at least those who see an alignment with it do.

I really encourage companies and organisations to craft a story around their mission – perhaps to right a wrong in which they’ve got a personal stake. Maybe there’s something broken in your industry that you can fix? If you can establish a personal link to that mission, so much the better. Perhaps you’ve been on the other side of the fence, so you see things from the client’s side.

If you get this right, you adopt hero status!

Relevant movie examples:

Jaws, Lord of the Rings

2. Stranger in a Strange Land

I think it’s nice to bring this in when you describe the time you first entered the marketplace. It’s part of your back-story. Maybe you moved from the corporate world and started working with SME’s, bringing better systems and professionalism to a new arena? It shows a certain humility that you didn’t know it all at first, but you’ve gained from the experience and over the years you’ve adapted and grown. Your current audience now has the opportunity to gain from your own learnings.

Relevant movie examples:

ET, Lost in Translation

3. Love Story

You might bristle at the notion that love plays a role in business, but don’t Apple’s many devotees express their relationship with their gadgets in this way? It’s an emotional connection, and if you can achieve that in business you’re less likely to go down the price-war route (Seth Godin describes this as a race to the bottom – indeed a race you really don’t want to win!).

So one way of incorporating a love story into your business presentation might be explaining how two perfect matches came together – customer and product – perhaps through unlikely circumstances or not in the way you anticipated, and it’s turned into something deeper and longer lasting than a business transaction.

Relevant movie examples:

Pretty Woman, Shawshank Redemption

4. Rags to Riches

We’re a sucker for stories of transformation. In the UK, the TV shows with loyal followings (Grand Designs, Gok Wan, The X-Factor) are really about major change to the protagonist’s situation. I wouldn’t restrict this to a matter of financial wealth being attained. The ‘riches’ might be enlightenment, self-esteem and a new sense of purpose.

In business, this translates to great case studies. I agree with Michael Margolis who prefers the description ‘before-and-after stories’. If you can show how you’ve moved a client from an ‘impoverished’ situation to somewhere significantly better, it’s a great way to demonstrate (show vs tell) the value you bring to people.

And then of course we personalise it. Maybe that could happen for us too?

Relevant movie examples:

The Pursuit of Happiness, The Italian Job (are they still hanging over that cliff?)

The Entrepreneur Syndrome.

As Dr Nick points out, story frameworks like these help audiences make sense of things. They ‘get it’ more readily and are more likely to form an emotional attachment to what you’re trying to achieve.

All the movies listed above truly got the audience behind their key characters. We cared what happened to the main protagonists – we wanted ET to come back to life, that damned shark to be despatched and Maximus the ‘Gladiator’ to avenge the murder of his family.

So have a long, hard look at your core business message and see if you can fit it into one or more of these story formats. It may just help you to win people over to support your cause.


Shawshank is one of my favourite movies, and one that’s developed an extraordinary following over the years. It struck me that it fits into ALL FIVE categories!

Quest = Andy Dufresne to clear his name and get out of prison

Stranger in a Strange Land = a corporate man adapts to a brutal incarceration

Love Story = between him and Red (Morgan Freeman)

Rags to Riches = he siphons off all the money the corrupt warden accumulated

Revenge = the evil warden gets his just desserts

5. Revenge

I think it was Steve Jobs who said that every presentation should feature the fight between good and evil. You’re on dodgy ground if you direct your ire at competitors; it’s better to channel your energies against the system that’s broken and fight the cause of the clients (we’re back to the mission/quest again).

Relevant movie examples:

Unforgiven, Gladiator

Guest post by business speaker and trainer, Andrew Thorp.