“What are the best books on storytelling for my business?” OR “I’m discovering how powerful storytelling can be for my business, but I want to learn more. What books should I read?”
I’ve been hearing these questions more and more. The challenge with recommending books always comes back to a question of my own, “What do you want to know about story? The science? The structure? What stories to tell? How to tell a great story? how to use them in your business, etc?” The study and practice of story is a science, art, craft, and passion. Just like if I asked my favorite musician to recommend the best books on music, I’m sure they’d have a list of their own questions and a laundry list of books to recommend. I am approaching this list to include what I think would be a well rounded list of getting anyone up to speed and schooled up to a story pro. This is what I would personally recommend and why — in no particular order:
1. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
It all starts here, with Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. First published in 1949, Campbell was the first to identify the concept of the mono-myth and mythic structure of stories. Anyone that has ever heard of the Hero’s Journey has this book to thank. It’s a foundational text that I consider the modern day “bible” for storytellers. If you’re a story nerd this is a must read. But I warn you – it’s a dry read. After reading I thought to myself “Well, now I can say I read that…but it didn’t change my world.” If you are a Star Wars fan, thank Campbell as George Lucas has cited Campbell’s influence on the Star Wars films. That movie follows Campbell’s Hero’s Journey almost to a T. Campbell’s theories and ideas are much better relayed into modern times in the books by Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson described below. If you’re short on time, read those. If you have to notch the master’s books off your list like I do, start here.
Why do I want to read this?: You are the type of person who needs to know where it all began and appreciates foundational works and insights. You want to be able to brag to your friends while sipping craft beer or kombucha out of a mason jar that you’ve read Joseph Campbell and find him to be the grandfather of modern storytelling. This also will make you feel like you’re back in college taking a semester of Joseph Campbell – which is like having a Delorean time machine in a way.
A deep dive on archetypes is one of the most overlooked areas of “story” study and books. For some reason, most people think archetypes are specific to branding. However, the idea of applying archetypes was popularized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with A Thousand Faces as they apply to stories. Whenever, we start to build out story campaigns we start with archetypes – it’s akin to setting the genre and world of your movie. I want to know, am I going to see a comedy, action-adventure,
romantic comedy, etc? Just by setting the stage I am prepared to accept the format of these genres. Your business audience is looking for the same thing – to know what to expect so they can received your message. The Hero and the Outlaw by Margaret Mark & Carol S Pearson is pretty much THE authority on the topic of using archetypes in modern day messaging. I think Margaret Mark & Carol S. Pearson have crushed it on this topic. Looking to go to level two on archetypes? Also check out Awakening The Heroes Within by Carol S. Pearson.
Why do I want to read this?: You are looking for the definitive source on archetypes, what they mean, and how to apply them to your marketing or branding. This is akin to identifying your genre or world in storytelling. You can’t tell a good story unless you know either of these. If you want to make one immediate, impactful change to your marketing archetypes are the best place to start.
If you’ve been a screenwriter in the last 30 years you know who McKee is – and you probably owe him your career. McKee is known as a screenwriting teacher and guru. He has long taught in person seminars on screenwriting and story structure long before this info was commonly available on the internet. McKee loves to go deep on story structure, breaking it down to the parts of parts. I was lucky enough to study with him in my screenwriting days. And most recently, McKee is applying his screenwriting story techniques to the business world. I was fortunate to spend a day with him a couple of weeks ago in New York City in a class on storytelling for business. Another book that gets geeky on story structure. Great for an overview of understanding the nuances of what drives a story and how a story should turn. A word of caution though – this stuff may become a bit overwhelming. I recently presented on these structure techniques with McKee’s exact charts and I think I left everyone more confused than not. But if you like to go deep, the teachings are pure gold.
Why do I want to read this?: You are movie lover or film buff. Or you’ve always dreamed yourself as a screenwriter. This is not just for screenwriters only howvever. If you want to nerd out on story structure and get an inside look on how Hollywood tells a story read this. I keep a copy of this near my desk at all times and reference it often.
When applying story to our businesses knowing that we connect emotionally is great but we also want to know WHY story is the #1 communication tool in our arsenal. Lisa Cron has written a text that covers this topic without being dry or putting me to sleep. She does a great job of explaining WHY the brain craves story and how to keep readers “hooked” from the very first word. She stresses that while beatiful prose and metaphors are fun, those are not the components of your story that are hooking your audience. Spoiler alert: It all comes down to structure.
Why do I want to read this?: You need to know the science and process behind why story resonates with the brain. You are looking for step by step processes and guidelines to sharpen your storytelling skills.
Another scientific deep dive into the science of story. This book is both fascinating and probably the toughest to read on this list. Caution, do not read before bed and make sure you have a strong cup of coffee at your side. It’s very technical but it’s the information inside that we’re after. Haven goes into intricate detail on the effects stories have on the brain. Once we understand these effects it’s clear how we can apply this to our business and business stories for maximum results (and profits!) Haven’s research validates the importance of story, story reading, and storytelling to the brain development and education of children and adults. Haven goes deep on the topics of neural psychology and brain development and the value of a common definition of story if one is to fully grasp the importance and necessity of story to the development of the human mind. Go get it!
Why do I want to read this?: You love Bill Nye the Science Guy and all things science. If you don’t have every scientific proof point you’re not satisfied. Well this will satsify you and then some. This is a research driven book and if you are all about the data – this is your book.
You may not think you know the name Peter Guber but you know his work. Guber is the mega producer behind such hits as Rain Man, Gorillas In the Mist, Batman, Flashdance, Basic Instinct, A Few Good Men, The Witches of Eastwick. His producing credits are too numerous to list. He’s a co-owner of the Golden State Warriors and the LA Dodgers. He ‘s a professor at UCLA in the film and theater department. Simply put, Guber is one of the world’s best storytellers. In this book Guber quite succinctly points out that “If you can’t tell it, you can’t sell it!” And Guber promises to show you how to do both in his book. He focuses on what he calls “purposeful storytelling” to win over, shape, motivate, and sell. This guy knows what he is talking about. Plus the cover testimonial is from President Bill Clinton. Say what?
Why do I want to read this?: You want to learn insights from one of the greatest storytellers of our time while at the same time relating it to movies and being entertained. You want your book to cover some theory, but not too much.
If I were only going to recommend one book to anyone this would probably be it? Why is it buried at number 7? Because I don’t want everyone catching on and finding out the source of some of my best secrets! I think this might be the most underrated book because of its visual nature and simplicity of presenting complex ideas – but I assure you – it’s pure gold. I actually discounted it when I first ordered it because it looked so pretty! But Duarte doesn’t waste any type – everything in the book is useable and applicable to your business. Resonate is the prequel to her other book, Slide-ology and is a brilliant primer on business storytelling. Duarte’s expertise is in presentations and talks so predictably this book does focus on that. However, these teaches can be extrapolated into all areas of your business storytelling.
Why do I want to read this?: You are ready to step into learning all about story AND applying to real life business examples. Or if you have a big upcoming presentation this is a perfect read for you.
Thanks and shout out to my buddy Russel L for turning me on to this book. I know what you’re saying, “stories are great Marc but what are they WORTH to my business?” Significant Objects will answer that question for you in a fun, page turning way. This is a fun book on how narrative can greatly increase the value of anything (in this case it was insignificant objects). The premise is simple. Two researchers wanted to understand the value (in actual dollars) that stories have on buyers. So they set out to recruit a highly impressive crew of creative writers to invent stories about an unimpressive menagerie of items rescued from thrift stores and yard sales. The results? An incredible 2700% increase in value!
Why do I want to read this?: You love creative writing and stories and want to see what stories created the most value for these objects. The data basically contained in my synopsis above. The rest of the book are the actual stories and the starting value and ending sale price of each object. Love this book but for most people you probably don’t need to read.
This book starts with the famous idea of “I think, therefore I am” and delves into the scientific study of how memory and emotion work — which it turns out is key in understanding why a story should be used (to tag memories with an emotional charge). Damasio, “one of the world’s leading neurologists” (The New York Times) challenges traditional ideas about the connection between emotions and rationality. In this surprisingly engaging book, Damasio takes us on a journey of scientific discovery through a series of case studies, demonstrating what many of us have long suspected: emotions are not a luxury, they are essential to rational thinking and to normal social behavior.
Why do I want to read this?: You want to understand the connecting between emotion, memories, and storytelling. This book is an engaging read that gets into the psychology of how emtion and memory work. If you like going deep into the workings of the brain without it being too academic this is a good read.
Vogler is another one of those story “gurus” that has dedicated his life to teaching story. He takes Joseph Campbell’s work to the next level and translates it into current day understanding. Vogler cleanly breaks down the Hero’s Journey and maps it to Star Wars which makes it very easy to understand how the Hero’s Journey applies to a modern movie story. If you’re a professional screenwriter, novelist, or writer you most likely havea . copy of this book in your library.
Why do I want to read this?: You are getting serious about story and story structure. This is a book the “pros” like to reference. Not becasue it’s so complicated or for “pros” only, but it is very complete and thorough as it relates to the Hero’s Journey and structure. If you’ve wanted to up your game on those topics, this is a good one. I also keep this one by the desk for ongoing reference.
A lot of people I talk to become overwhelmed at the idea of writing a story. Booker identifies the most common basic plots (7 of them) that just about every story falls into. Once you understand these seven basic plots it’s easy to reconfigure them for your own needs. Using a wealth of examples, from ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today, it shows that there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling. Booker then takes these findings and goes deeper on the psychology of stories, why many stories have become watered down because they have lost the connection to their archetypal roots, and how stories have affected our psychological development over the past 5000 years.
Why do I want to read this?: You are looking to breakdown your stortelling into more bite size chunks and are looking to understand plots and plot structure. Once mastered, knowing these plots can be applied to your own storytelling thus shortening your time from concept to finished story.
Why do I want to read this?: You are a marketer or interested in getting a jump on the future of marketing. You are a progressive thinker and embrace the new in your business strategies. If you’re a futurist and always want to be on the leading edge of new ideas and philosophies this book is for you.
Saved the best for last. After having both read this book and listened to it on tape I literally laugh out loud when I read the title where it says “A Brief History of Mankind”. There is nothing “brief” about this book. However, as it covers the complete evolution of homo sapiens it’s understandable that there are some things to cover. Biggest story takeaway from this book is that stories are essentially what separates homosapiens from every other animal in the kingdom. It’s our ability to manufacture fiction and create things that don’t exist that has resulted in our evolution and progress. When you get into it it’s a real mind blower and one of my favorites. Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.
Why do I want to read this?: You are fascinated by human evolution and the concepts of human choice and consiousness blow your mind. You want to know more about who you are, who we are, and where we may be headed. If you like challenging previously accepted beliefs and theories on history check this one out.
Looking for a fun page turner that is like a fly on the wall in old Hollywood? Here you go. The funny thing is, even though this takes place in the 50s (?) it might as well be today. Nothing has changed. This book came out to great reviews and was a huge success and continues to be a must read of story lovers and movie afficiandos. The story is all about the inner workings of screenwriters in Hollywood and the main character, Sammy Glick, is a composite of the archetypal movie producer hustling his way to the top. Schulberg who wrote the screenplay for On the Waterfront delivers a character study that we just can’t turn away from.
This is THE movie on how the movie industry works. I must have seen this movie 50 times. Tim Robbins portrayal of the ultimate Hollywood climber is spot on. This is from the great director, Robert Altman. Another bonus, a ton of cool Hollywood cameos throughout this one.
It’s a story within a story and just an awesome movie. It’s the movie that keeps giving and is a true classic. Not sure why it’s on this list other than it’s fantastic. If you haven’t seen it go stream it immediately. Better yet buy it and add it to your collection. You won’t be sorry.
Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes, by Margaret Mark & Carol S. Pearson
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, by Kendall Haven
Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, by Nancy Duarte
The Dream Society, by Rolf Jensen
Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, by Anthony Damasio
Significant Objects, by Jason Grote
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
What Makes Sammy Run, by Budd Schulberg