I Don’t Believe in Story Formulas & Neither Should You

Look, there are a lot of people running around talking about story and story formulas.

They reference the hero’s journey and promise a formula to make it as easy as filling out a Mad-Libs book.  I see the ads everyday on Facebook or in my inbox: “Follow this 5 step formula and you’ll be an amazing storyteller!”  Sound remotely familiar?

Sorry, but it’s not happening.  I don’t believe in story formulas and neither should you.

A formula – is something that gets a guaranteed result every time.  

And I hate to be the one to say it, but in storytelling there is no such thing as a formula.  No such thing as a “sure thing”.  If there were, do you think Hollywood would ever produce a stinker?

Don’t you think every business would have figured this out, signed up, and automatically be telling amazing stories?

Hollywood never would’ve produced Batman & Robin. They never would’ve produced Battlefield Earth with John Travolta (at least we wish they wouldn’t!). They never would’ve produced Adam Sandler’s Jack & Jill or The Last Airbender. Those movies all had huge budgets, probably great writers, decent directors, full studio backing. They had everything they needed to be successful and they turned out to be considered some of the worst movies of all time.  

Why?  My hypothesis is that the producers of those movies tried to get formulaic.  Typically when movies don’t go well that’s what happens. People are trying to make a hit. There are big budgets, expensive talent, high expectations, and everyone wants it to be a success. With all this pressure the teams become unsure of the story they are trying to tell, and ultimately, try to fill in a formula and copy other stories that have worked well.

When this happens we the audience can always tell. The movie and the story fall flat and nobody cares. No one is interested. And the same thing is going to be true with your business stories.

And I hate to be the one to say it, but in storytelling there is no such thing as a formula.  No such thing as a “sure thing”.

Just like great works of music, art, literature, and theater there are no story formulas.

Now here’s the truth.  Storytelling, like anything that else that has impact,  touches the soul, moves people, and develops legions of raving fans is hard work.  It takes practice, it takes time, and it must be authentic. That is a non-negotiable when it comes to storytelling.  Even in your business. Especially in your business.

Your customers can smell the stank of in-authenticity from a mile a away or the other side of their browser.

None of this is meant to dissuade you from storytelling in your business. Quite the opposite. Storytelling is the most powerful tool and asset in your business. If done correctly.

So if there’s no such thing as a formula, what is there?

As the great Robert McKee likes to say, “Story is about eternal universal forms, not formulas… “

It’s about understanding the form. Understanding structure and understanding those elements that always work when telling a story.  But if you simply just fill in the blanks with characters, content, values, and stakes that aren’t authentic, the story will fall flat on its face.

When it comes to copywriting marketing messages there are some formulas but even the best marketers and copywriters will tell you that when you follow this form it’s not an easy plug and play situation.  Following the copywriters form won’t automatically create compelling and amazing converting copy and the same is true with story.

To get you started, here are some story elements to look out for and to include in your business stories.

Every great story contains:

  1. Conflict
  2. Vulnerability
  3. Empathy
  4. Passion
  5. Authenticity
  6. Human connection
  7. Solutions.  In a business story this may appears as a solution or a complete transformation – some sort of change is mandatory.

These  shared attributes are all considered great stories. But as you can see they are not formulas.

And to those people out there who are buying into the notion that there’s a formulaic way to do this — I caution you against thinking a magic pill will make this easy for you.

You might be putting stories out there but are they great energizing stories that connect and have human emotion?

Are they accomplishing your goal of generating more customers, creating a clear message and path way for your customer to buy?

Are they laying the seeds of trust for a long term relationship that is mutually beneficial to the both of you?

Or are they turning away your prospects and customers?

Are they costing you sales?

Are they preventing you from taking your business to the next level?

What’s the answer?

Like any great form of expression the path to success is…study. Study story form and structure. Learn how to leverage those principles and the story “rules” that we know work.

Storytelling is a muscle.

You need to develop it, flex it, and it will get stronger with use over time.  

Then you’ll be able to innately develop an understanding of those aspects that are unique to humanity and use them to capture the essence of humanity by putting it all together. That’s where the real magic happens.

And that my friends ain’t no formula.

The Power of Your Business Story Can Add More Profit to Your Bottom Line Than Any Other Asset…

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