A common mistake is to assume everything is a story.  A story is a series of episodic, influential, connected events that changes a person’s life.  More simply put, a story is a journey.  And a journey has conflict and energy and obstacles and stakes and things that create a struggle between the dynamic positive and negative changes of life! We will break down this definition in a later post but let’s assume for the sake of our discussion here this definition is in deed accurate. The key point to understand here is that a story revolves around change. Positive change and negative change. If there’s no change, there’s no story. If you’re not telling or hearing a story then you are most likely experiencing a narrative. All stories have narratives but all narratives are not a story.

If you’re not telling or hearing a story then you are most likely experiencing a narrative. All stories have narratives but all narratives are not a story.

A story follows a very specific form and structure and so a lot of times when someone says, “tell me the story of your company” the other person begin to immediately throw-up and rattle off a lot of different things. Reciting your org chart to someone who asks that question is a narrative. “Well, we have a CEO. He oversees the CMO, the CTO, the CIO, the CFO.” Describing how your assembly line process and works is a narrative. Story is not a list of things in you life. Here’s another example. Imagine someone asked me to tell them the story of the United States of America.  I start off by telling them about our Presidents. “We started the country with our first President George Washington then there was John Adams, then Thomas Jefferson, moved into JFK, then we there was George Bush, moved into Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and then we finished with Donald Trump”.   That is not a story.   That is a list. That’s not the story of America. That’s a narrative. It’s very common to mistake chronology as a story but instead is a narrative. A good way to spot a “chronology narrative” is when someone is consistently saying, “and then”, in their story. So for example today I got up, and then I had coffee, and then I went to yoga and then I came home and then I wrote this blog post and then I took the kids out to the Boulder Creek Fest. That is not a story. That is a narrative. Your resume is also a narrative and not a story. “Hey, I worked at this tech company. Then I worked for Oliver Stone. Then I worked for 20th Century Fox. Then I worked over at WILDSTORY. Then I started WILDSTORY. “ Again, that’s a narrative and not a story.

Remember, a story is a journey. And a journey has conflict and energy and obstacles and stakes and things that create a struggle between the dynamic positive and negative changes in life.

Do any of these narrative examples fit that description? No they do not. One of the problems with story is we all think we can tell great stories. And here’s the conundrum. We can. We have the ability. Most of us were amazing storytellers as children but have lost the skill of storytelling as we move into business communications and marketing jargon. We all have the ability to tell electric, life changing stories but it is also important to understand the craft and form of storytelling to maximize its effect in our businesses. When I was working for Oliver Stone, as a story editor we used to get hundreds of scripts a week submitted for consideration. Turns out  everyone who has seen a movie in their life assumes that they can write a movie. 99% of these scripts and stories were no good. And the simple reason is not the story they chose to tell, but how they told it.  First rule in storytelling is to tell something personal, something you know — and they all did this. Usually some sort of life story. But…these aspiring storytellers never studied the craft and the skill and the structure of a great story. So ultimately their script would fall flat and be rejected. I’ve had the experience of reading thousands of bad stories as well as hundreds of great ones. I hope that now you’ll notice the differentiation between story and narrative in your business storytelling. Some tips to make sure your business story isn’t turning into a narrative:

  1. Story has a beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Make sure there’s a protagonist or hero.  And often it’s you when it should be your customer.
  3. Create empathy by developing a human connection.  Empathy means “like me”.
  4. There’s no drama.  Everything is connected in a causal sequence.
  5. Create suspense by not summarizing everything. Let it unfold naturally.
  6. Create clear stakes. What happens if this plan doesn’t work out? What happens if it does?
  7. Create emotion by understanding your audience and what matters to them.
  8. Create a “move to action”, what do you want your audience to do after hearing your story? What is your story about?

Have questions about narrative vs story? Let’s start the conversation by leaving your comments below.

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About Marc Gutman

I'm Marc Gutman the founder and do-whatever-needs-to-be-done guy at WILDSTORY. I'm a storyteller, entrepreneur, husband, father, adventure seeker, coffee lover, notebook snob, and closet sketchnoter. I believe that telling your story is the ultimate competitive advantage in business -- probably the only one left these days. As a result I am obsessive about branding, story structure, design and tend to appreciate anyone who is too. I love living in the great state of Colorado and try to play outdoors as much as possible. When I'm not in the office you can usually find me doing one of the following: snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking, camping, cycling, kiteboarding, or fishing with a cold craft beer in hand.

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