Story Structures — How to make your messages work.

"I assemble my ideas in pieces on a computer file, then gradually find a place for them on a piece of scaffolding I erect."

— Alain de Botton

Take an A-list film star, a bestselling novel and $44 million, and you have a recipe for…

No this isn’t the start of a joke. These are the ingredients of Battlefield Earth. If you haven’t seen it, Google, “worst movies ever,” and you’ll realize you don’t want to. Critics panned it. The Washington Post said, “A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth.” Roger Ebert called it, “shapeless and senseless, without a plot .

We’ve all seen bad movies with no plot. Or listened to stories that made no sense. Or snoozed through presentations that went on, and on…

Our brains want structure. It helps us make sense of the world, and feel comfortable.

92% of consumers say they prefer brands who turn adverts into a story. Another study, by Forbes, found that messages delivered in a story structure are 22 times more memorable than just facts.

This is true for all forms of business communication. We’re unconsciously familiar with structure. That’s why it works. Without it, we’re thinking, “what the hell’s happening?” or “when’s this going to end?” In business, no structure means no credibility.

Structure is the hidden element that helps your pitch fly or flop.

What’s the best way to put structure in your presentation? Here are some we’ve found useful. They give your story spine. Everything from Aristotle’s three-act structure, to the hero’s journey. Advice from Kurt Vonnegut, to presentation experts Dan Roam and Nancy Duarte.

Aristotle’s Three-Act Structure.

Aristotle left the first guide to the basic structure of story. A beginning, a middle, and an end. So far, so familiar.

He was creating for the theater of Greek tragedy. For him, it was play, not PowerPoint. The ‘presenter’ burst into song instead of talking sales revenue. While there’s no longer an expectation for you to burst into song — the essential guidance remains. ‘Prologue, episode, exodus’ — ‘Beginning, middle, and end’.

Duarte’s Sparkline.

Your story can’t be a straight line from A to B. That would lack the emotional and logical jolt essential for connecting to people. Nancy Duarte uses a sparkline structure to analyze and build presentations.

Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences.

That structure creates power by adding the concept of tension and release.

Duarte suggests switching the audience back and forth between a state of what is, and what could be. Think of it as alternating between challenge and solution, pain and pleasure. For example — ‘competition is becoming more ferocious’…but… ‘we can disrupt that competition with a new product offering’.

Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

American scholar Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

In it, he proposed the hero’s journey. His work influenced the structure behind everything from Star Wars to Shrek.

Every good presenter should ask, who is the hero of my story?

It isn’t you!

Imagine making up a bedtime story for a child. Who do we put at the center of the action? The child. In their imagination, they become princess, warrior or wizard. This puts them at the center of the world you’re describing. Stories for adults are no different.

The hero’s journey starts with an ordinary world. That world contains an ordinary character, going about an ordinary life. Something calls them away from that world — a threat or a quest.

Although reluctant, the hero is compelled to accept the quest. They face hazards and threats. Helpers appear to guide and assist. Through a series of trials, the hero triumphs. They return to their old world and see it through new eyes.

You can be present in the story, but only as that ally or helper. What Campbell prods us to remember is that it’s the audience who play the hero.

Booker’s Seven Basic Plots.

In 2004, journalist Christopher Booker published The Seven Basic Plots. In it, he argued that every myth, movie, novel and TV show follows one of the same seven structures.

In Overcoming the Monster, the hero sets out to defeat an evil threat to the peace and prosperity of his world. Jaws, James Bond, and The Magnificent Seven are all examples.

Classics such as The Wizard of Oz , and Alice in Wonderland, are Voyage and Return stories. They feature a journey to a strange land, fraught with danger. The hero returns better for the experience.

Rags to Riches is a tale of coming of age. The hero acquires (literal or figurative) wealth and fortune, loses it, and grows as a person. Aladdin, Cinderella, and Jane Eyre are all examples.

The Quest is the story of hero(es), who set out to find their holy grail. Along the way they face obstacles, temptations, and dangers. See everything from Lord of the Rings to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

Booker’s other plots are Tragedy, in which a flaw leads the main character on a downward spiral; Comedy, and Rebirth.

Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories.

While a student at the University of Chicago, Kurt Vonnegut pitched a Master’s thesis on the shapes of stories. His professor’s rejected it because it “looked like too much fun.”