Hero Formula — How to put your audience at the center of your story.

November 11, 2020
6 min read
“Everybody is a hero in their own story if you just look.”
— Maeve Binchy

If you’re looking for a secret formula to turn yourself into a superhero, you’ve come to the wrong place. This is not about compound V¹, or Captain America’s Super-Soldier serum². Rather, this is about what powers those stories, and all stories. It’s the formula for successful storytelling. More importantly, it’s the key ingredient for successful business storytelling.

Every story needs a Hero. And for every hero, there’s a villain. Day has night. Harry Potter has Voldemort. James Bond has Dr. No. Ellen Ripley has the Alien.

This is the essence of the Hero Formula. It’s a simple device that can power your narrative. It works for your marketing, presentations, and messaging. According to the creator of the Hero Formula, Peter Watts, “stories rely on three central elements that we’ve all been familiar with since we were tiny kids. As soon as you re-access those elements for your business stories, they become memorable, interesting, and above all — viral. The Hero Formula is a quick way to figure this out.”

What is the hero formula?

Here’s the formula:

We bring X to Y to help them deal with Z³.

We — is us. The storyteller, the presenter, the business. X is the product or solution. Y is the audience. The true hero of your story. And Z is their villain — the business issue they are struggling with.

All stories have a version of this, where We is the mentor or guide. X is the tool, weapon, knowledge, or skill — the magic beans. Y is the hero. Z is the villain of the piece.

In Star Wars, for example, the guide is Obi-Wan Kenobi. X is the force. The hero, Y, is Luke Skywalker, and the villain, Z, is Darth Vader. All good stories have heroes and villains, even true-to-life ones. Hidden Figures, the real-life story of female ‘calculators’ at NASA in the ’60s, has the same formula. Katherine Johnson⁴ is the central hero. Her boss, Al Harrison⁵, is the guide, who enables her to use her mathematical skills. The villain is prejudice and systemic inequity.

If you don’t have all the ingredients of the formula, you don’t have a story.

The hero test.

Finding a hero is not a far-fetched idea. The idea of ‘hero’ pervades business. The hero shot⁶. The hero product⁷. The hero brand⁸.

Look at your website. Or your presentation. Or your sales pitch or product narrative. Whatever you are attaching the word ‘story’ to. Is it a story in name only? Does it have the ingredients of a story? Does it tell a story?

There’s a very simple test. Look for the word ‘you’ and a villain.

We’ve applied this test to the home pages of over fifty websites. Your home page is probably your most visited digital asset. It’s also the hook for your business.  

Some themes come out. Companies that speak directly to consumers tend to be better at the hero test. They show consumers in aspirational settings, exotic locations, and using fabulous products.  Business to business brands don’t do as well. They tend to like talking about themselves and struggle to turn the audience into the hero.

Sure signs you’re talking about yourself:

  • Visuals that show your product or brand, rather than it in use.
  • Website menus that run — PRODUCTS, SOLUTIONS, OUR APPROACH, ABOUT US — are a giveaway.
  • Also a dead giveaway — a claim to greatness as your most visible tagline (even if it’s true). Something like, “#1 Product in our Market.”

Most websites we see sit between vanity and storytelling. Here, you will see striking images and headlines that are neither about you, or them, but it. The clue here is the imperative tense of the headline and the type of imagery. There is no ‘we’ (meaning we, the business that runs this website). Nor is there a ‘we’ (meaning ‘we’ the business and you the customer). Nor is there a ‘you.’ There is only a provocative statement.

At the storytelling end of the spectrum are sites that anticipate you as the hero. They will use the word ‘you.’ They may engage you by asking a question that resonates.

A/B testing the hero.

You will see this pattern repeat over and over again. It’s not only websites. It happens in presentations, in sales pitches, in emails, — in any kind of messaging.

Take candidate recruiting, for instance. When the candidate is the Hero, you win. We tested this theory by A/B testing two job ads for our company. The first ad, posted on a selection of job sites, was for an internal sales coordinator. The ad started by describing our company. It then went on to what we offered as an employer. Finally, it ended by describing the desired qualifications for the position. The result? Crickets. A handful of candidates applied for the job. The ‘hero,’ the candidate, came through in the last few lines of copy at the end of the ad. After a few changes, we had our ‘B’ version ready to post. This time, the ad started with what the hero would do for our company, and why we needed them. It ended with a description of us and employee benefits. The result? A flood of inquiries from qualified candidates.

No villain, no story.

Once you understand the hero, you can focus on the villain. This is usually the most interesting character. Without the villain, there is no story. According to Peter Watts, our story sage, “The villain is crucial. Think about 101 Dalmatians. Remove Cruella DeVille, and what do you have left? 90 minutes of cute puppies.”

In business. The villain isn’t a person. Unless you work in Internet Security and you’re talking about black-hat hackers or other bad actors. Instead, it’s something the hero struggles with — for example, bureaucracy, or busywork. Enterprise software is built to deal with these villains.

In our work, we’ve even gone to the stage of personifying the villain. One program built for contact centers centered around improving both employee engagement and customer experience. The call center teams struggled with their customer experience scores. Data analysis of thousands of call records showed four key factors driving down those scores:

  • Policies and procedures that led to lots of hoops for customers.
  • Technical complexity in products and services.
  • High transfer rates from one department to another.
  • And the use of technical language that frustrated customers.

In short, the contact centers and their customers dealt with four villains. Hassle, (the policies and procedures), Complexity, Runaround, and Jargon.

To drive engaging messaging for the customer experience program, these villains were quite literally personified. Their likeness became part of leadership messaging. Games and exercises featuring the villains allowed the call center reps to become familiar with initiatives designed to defeat them. Most importantly, making this a story, and a fun narrative, with the employees as the heroes, made the transformation stick.

Every hero needs some help.

Where we go wrong is the implicit assumption that we are the hero of the story. Worse is that we act on that assumption. The hero is your audience, and like every hero, they have flaws. They need help. That’s where you come in. Not by pointing out their flaws, but by helping them see a better version of themselves. One where they have overcome adversity and frustration. Telling a story where they, the heroes, slay the dragon of inefficiency, or slow growth, or bureaucracy. If only they would take your magic beans.

Your proposition has to match up against the villain. The hero is struggling with something. How does your proposition help? Is it simpler for the hero to keep struggling, or is it worth the effort to walk down the path with you? This is the choice you want your hero to make. To buy, demo, try, or learn more about your product or solution.

Your story has to put the hero in that picture. Not with a unique selling point or a list of features. Not even with a return on investment argument. But with a story — an imagined future, of them using your solution, and slaying their villain with it.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

Peter Watts is a Senior Instructional Designer and Facilitator. He works on both fassforward's Live, Live/online and tailored programs. Peter is fassforward's lead instructional designer for Live/online experiences which deliver mission-critical leadership and communications training, globally, at scale.

¹ “The Boys (TV Series 2019– ) - IMDb.” IMDb.
² “Captain America (Steve Rogers) In Comics Profile | Marvel.” Marvel Entertainment.
³ Geeky side note. There actually is a Hero Formula in maths. Also known as Heron’s formula, it calculates the area of a triangle.
⁴ Played in the movie by Taraji P. Henson.
⁵ Played in the movie by Kevin Costner.
⁶ Unbounce. “Hero Shot - The Unbounce Conversion Marketing Glossary.” Unbounce.
⁷ McEwen, William. “In Search of the ‘Hero’ Product.” Gallup, 13 July 2006.
⁸ Medleythink. “Hero Brand Archetype.” MedleyThink Design Studio, 28 Aug. 2018

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