Finding the Story Part 1: The Appeal of Stories

Storytelling in business is fashionable and popular, including in financial services.

There is a large body of academic literature on the topic, specialist consultancies, training courses, websites and blogs all drawing our attention to the power of narrative.

Business storytelling has great appeal to experts, service providers and customers alike. Using stories helps make business more interesting. It helps us engage with subject matter that otherwise might be technical and dull.

Stories are a refreshing alternative to the jargonized consulting-speak that is widespread in business writing, especially financial services.

Stories are compelling. People love them. This blog explains why, without going into detail about the psychology, science or typology of storytelling, which is a whole topic on its own.


Two kinds of story

At Prism-Clarity we use the word story in two different ways.

Not just story as a structured narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end – a tale – but also in the journalistic sense of the word – a hard-nosed, punchy, shorthand, news item which conveys something that has happened or should happen.

In this usage story is simply a useful alternative to other words that are commonly used in business communications. Words such as summary, message and pitch.

Story conveys these ideas, the essential core of a piece of writing, in a word that has universal magic and appeal.

That’s the difference between this blog and other content on storytelling in business. If we use the word story in this generic way, to convey something compelling but short, we can apply it to any piece of business writing, in any format or length.

A tweet has a story (or is a story). An email has a story. So does a CV, an investment research report, an audit, a project plan or a blog. Even policies and detailed technical manuals can be reduced to their essential core element – a story – in a way that captures the reader’s attention and engages them.

The story tells you about the underlying piece in a few short but interesting words. And it will increase the impact of your writing if you keep your story in mind throughout your writing process, regardless of the length or format of your content.

Stone and Mantel

Why people like stories

To help understand the power and value of stories, it’s useful to understand the meaning of the word: the story of story.

The dictionary definition tells us something: the OED entry is wide-ranging, with five different elements:

1. tales told for entertainment
2. past events and experiences
3. facts and news
4. lies
5. corporate commercial prospects.

This variety suggests that story is a versatile word; this is why it’s such a good substitute for other words commonly used in business and financial services.

Now let’s focus mainly on the first element of the definition – tales told for entertainment – story as a narrative structure with characters and plot, some descriptive colour, a beginning, middle and end.

The seven story plots

Studies on the typology of narrative stories say that, when it is all boiled down, there are only a few underlying types of story, or plots.

The number varies – some say seven, some say two, nine or ten – how many is not all that important. On the grounds that seven is a nice prime number, we can go with that.

Here are journalist Christopher Booker’s seven, from his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories:

1. overcoming the monster
2. rags to riches
3. quest
4. voyage and return
5. comedy
6. tragedy
7. rebirth.

He also talks about two more:

8. rebellion against ‘the one’
9. mystery.

Other writers list seven completely different story types. There is no right answer on this one: it is subjective.

I don’t want to put much too emphasis on typology in this blog, but here is a list of seven universal stories that summarize most of what goes on in business writing:

1. buy or sell
2. winning
3. what you need to know
4. the meaning of the numbers
5. how to do it
6. for the general good
7. lessons from elsewhere.

You might disagree and have two, nine or more of your own versions of this typology, and this is fine. Simply going through the thought process is a good idea. Ask yourself: what kind of a communication is this? What kind of story am I writing?

Primal and universal

The point is that stories are universal. Let’s think about the seven plots. All the stories ever written can be reduced to one of seven (or nine, or however many) fundamental plots. This is a powerful idea. It suggests that stories have a kind of primal or elemental resonance that anyone can recognize. They are imprinted in our human brain pattern. We all have access to them, simply by being human. This is why stories are so meaningful to us.

Then there are the reminders of childhood – bedtime stories – with intimations of comfort and psychological reward, exercising our childhood imaginations and the precursor to sleep.

Stories are primal and historic; a pathway to our ancestors, myths, legends and archetypes. They connect us to our past, and to each other in the present. Like the fundamental rules of language, which are innate to us from childhood, they are tools that help us exchange and connect, share and experience deep thoughts and real feelings, all in the safety of the printed page, screen or voice.

They give us common ground to help us engage with our own emotions, as well as with our ancestors, families and peers. Stories are very real experiences for us in the way we understand and interpret them. They are ours, and yet at the same time recognizable and available to other people too.

Put another way, think of the story in its most simple structural elements: a beginning, middle and end. This alone is a useful touchstone, which anyone can use to help improve the clarity of their business writing.

In the next blog in this series we will look at applying these ideas more directly to business and financial services writing.

Contact Prism-Clarity for further information, including where to get the best advice.