A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
That’s the short version of the storytelling pattern known as the Hero’s Journey, as described in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
While a fascinating book for sure, it was not intended as a guide to writing better stories. Campbell simply wanted to show that many myths around the world have a similar structure.
That’s why you’ll probably find yourself using this pattern, even if you’ve never heard of it. To quote master copywriter John Simmons:
Quest, love, conflict. The grand themes of storytelling are powerful simply because they are embedded in all our lives, including our business lives.
(John Simmons, The Invisible Grail: How Brands Can Tell Better Stories. Chatham, Kent: Urbane Publications, 2016 pp. 13f.)
5 powerful ways you can use it in your impact business! (And only 2 of them are about marketing.)
Improve the way you run your business
Shape the UX of your digital product or website
Speed up your storytelling efforts
Make your marketing more effective
Model the change we need to see in the world
Let’s dive in!
1. Improve How You Run Your Business
Business success is impossible without empathy — especially if you work for a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.
Enter the Hero’s Journey: the most fun and effective customer empathy tool you’ll find. Here’s how it works:
Cast your customer as the hero on a quest, and you’ll automatically follow the Hero’s Journey pattern.
Write down the story and then work with it to achieve good outcomes for your hero and your company. For example, you can tweak scenes showing your customer interacting with your company to change the atmosphere. Or you can find ways of turning a dramatic mid-point crisis (oh no! they sent me the wrong size!) into a happy ending.
Let the whole team take part so everyone understands
your customers’ needs,
how your product can help them, and
what gaps in the market your company can address.
As an added bonus, this methodology will also unify your team around a “company campfire” as you all work together towards a shared vision.
I first learned about the approach from startup mentor Andrew Harrison.
If you are looking for more help and want to know how story can be used in your business, Change Creator has a Facebook Group dedicated to helping social impact entrepreneurs harness the power of storytelling for your business (you can find me there too!).
2. Shape the User Experience (UX)
Let’s stay with the empathy theme. As Adam G. Force explains in this Change Creator article,
“Storytelling is a deep understanding of human pain, human behavior, and then the most, most ideal format for communicating that”.
Our world is increasingly shaped by behavior in virtual spaces. If we want those spaces to be safe, enjoyable and nurturing, then we need a deep understanding that storytelling brings. This is what “narrative UX” is all about — a concept I first discovered and applied in 2014 when I was still working in-house at LEGO Group.
Sounds complicated? It’s really simple and fun:
Start by thinking of your users as heroes on a quest through your app or website. Then, take responsibility for guiding them through their choose-your-own-adventure tales.
If you’re in charge of a website or you make a digital product, Jessica Collier’s brilliant Medium article about narrative UX is a must-read.
3. Speed Up Your Storytelling Efforts
Remember how I said that Joseph Campbell didn’t intend his book as a storytelling guide?
And still, it’s turned into a popular source of storytelling templates.
And that’s OK…
… as long as we bear in mind that the Hero’s Journey is just one way to tell a story…
… and as long as the complexity of Campbell’s 17-stage model doesn’t cause writers’ block and anxiety.
If you’re after a Hero’s Journey template that’s simple enough to use and realistic enough to produce a great “story skeleton”, the French playwright Eugène Scribe (1791-1861) is a better guide than Campbell. As John Yorke, creator of the BBC Writers’ Academy, explains in his fascinating book, Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them (pp.42f.):
Scribe’s prolific output (he ‘wrote’ over 400 works collected in no less than seventy-six volumes) is largely explained by his employment of a team of juniors who followed a formula he honed to perfection — much as an author like James Patterson does today. …
Though the topicality of his plays means his work has dated, Scribe is… arguably the first to articulate a template for mass production… his works were incredibly well structured, full of dashing rhetorical devices and — in their time — great fun. …
Without Scribe, then, there would have been no Ibsen or Shaw (at least not quite in the same form).
Not only is a 5-act template much easier to use than Campbell’s 17 stages. The resulting structure also makes for more powerful marketing.
To find out what makes an ad successful, Keith A. Quesenberry and Michael K. Coolsen analyzed 108 Super Bowl commercials over the course of 2 years: “Results demonstrated that average consumer ratings were higher for commercials that followed a five-act dramatic form.”
I’ve adapted Scribe’s 5-act template into a 5-step worksheet to help you plot your stories. You can download it here.
4. Make Your Marketing Messages More Effective
Marketing is the world in which the Hero’s Journey is the most talked about. But how do you use it in real life?
Here are 3 ways you can play with the Hero’s Journey in your marketing:
1. For your Brand Story
Brand Stories are easy to understand and remember, so they will help the entire team integrate all your communications. Essentially, you’re using your favorite story from the Story Model described above — and turn it into the foundation of your marketing.
2. To get more testimonials and make them relatable
Many brand owners struggle to get testimonials and reviews. One major reason for this is that customers can feel overwhelmed with having to write such a piece.
Here’s an easy way to help them — and your business:
Ask your customer some questions.
Following the Hero’s Journey, you could, for example, ask:
What was going on in your life that made you want to try [our product]?
Tell me what it was like to order and receive your product.
Did you have any concerns or issues using it?
How did you overcome those issues?
How have things improved for you since you got the product? What’s the biggest benefit you’ve seen?
As this in-depth article from Help Scout explains, the answers will also help you to “set up the ‘before, after, bridge’ that is so effective in persuasion — start with a vivid description of the pain, end with an enviable, headache-free outcome, and make it obvious how the tool was able to bridge the gap.”
Plus, the questions prompt honest answers that will help you improve your product and customer experience.
3. Storytelling in Advertising.
Not all transformation stories have to be strictly true. If you’re creating an ad, it’s enough to make the story believable.
The following 1927 ad by John Caples has been called “quite possibly the most swiped advertisement ever“. The hero of this story is a man on a quest to prove the snickering people wrong and embarrass them by how well he can play the piano. We’re thrown right into the thick of it:
Note how the story transforms into a sales pitch when the hero explains how he learned to play. We may find this example a bit dated today — but it’s still one of the most effective ways you can tell a story that effortlessly supports your offer.
5. Model the Change We Need to See in the World
One reason why John Caples’ ad seems quaint is that we’re fighting much bigger battles today. Yes, there’s a huge market for personal improvement, and it’s important. But the real power of story in the 21st century is in inspiring social change.
Which is why (contrary to what the critics say) we need a lot more superhero movies.
We need to see more flying, costumed creatures in capes protecting the earth.
And more undercover superheroes quietly doing their thing to save species — thus ultimately saving humanity from extinction.
Good stories have the power to inspire us to take action.
But only if they allow us to identify with the hero who’s changing the world. That experience (Aristotle called it “catharsis”) lets us experience and practice the change before we’re getting our hands dirty.
The thing is, different kinds of people have different kinds of self-images. And at the moment, there’s still a huge gap between people denying climate change and climate change believers.
Summer Harrison’s research found that lack of identification with the cultural community of believers is to blame:
“Attempts to educate the public through the use of scientific facts fails to acknowledge something fundamental about human understanding. Despite its importance, especially given the recent rise of so-called “alternative facts,” access to this knowledge does not account for the role of emotion and identity in the creation of our beliefs.”
Even amongst climate change believers, the attitude-behavior gap is still huge. For example, Renée Shaw Hughner found that 67% of consumers showed a positive attitude towards buying organic food, but only 4% actually bought it.
If “people like us do things like this” — one of Seth Godin’s oft-quoted mantras — then we urgently need to harness stories of diverse eco-warrior heroes.
Only storytelling can fuel the fire of passion inside as many different people as possible. And build their confidence that they can drive the change we need to see before 2030.
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