Joseph Campbell and Storytelling

Our greatest inspirations often come from people who see things in the most simple terms. Joseph Campbell, the great storyteller, is one of these. He once said that, in reality, there is only one kind of story: a hero’s story. Everything else, to him, was sub-genre.

If we strip away emotion and context and focus only on the pure storyline drivers, though, we find there’s a lot of truth to Campbell’s assertion. Almost every story has the following elements in structural form:

Once Upon a Time: One half of every story consists of “the way things were”. We’re usually introduced to the hero at this point, and usually to their less-heroic side. If you think about it, this makes sense: there’s really no point to telling a story if the story never goes anywhere, and a story can’t go anywhere until it establishes a sort of baseline. Most savvy presenters know this is a central fixture of a solid presentation: no one wants to hear about your solution until you’ve built up a rock solid sense of the past and present, and the pain associated with current reality.

Transition: Suddenly, something happens. The hero, perhaps wandering before, now suddenly has direction and drive. The challenge is clear. In a presentation, this is the moment, sometimes around the statement of purpose or objectives or of framing the problem in clear and simple terms, when the audience suddenly realizes that there is but one way to view the world, and that is the way the presenter is telling them to see the world. (That is, when a great presenter is doing the telling!)

Resolution: Of course, in a hero’s story, the hero usually wins. But that’s incidental, not structural. The structural aspect here is simply resolution. At this point, during a presentation, the audience understands current reality and the problems thereof, as well as the central crux that will define the difference between good and evil, life and death, success and failure. Resolution is the point at which they understand the path to victory, and the steps to take that path.

Whatever the story, whatever the purpose, whatever the situational flair that makes it funny or tragic or strange, there is only one kind of story, structurally speaking: the hero’s story.

When you set out to outline your next humdinger, keep these elements in mind. It’s simple, really: tell ‘em how it is, tell ‘em what defines the issue, and tell ‘em how to win the day. No matter how you go about it, you’re already circling a resonant pitch if you nail these three parts.

Question: If, as Campbell stated, there is only one kind of story, how do you keep your stories fresh each and every time?

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